America’s Wild Horse Advocates, or AWHA, was founded in the Las Vegas valley by horse enthusiasts who were disturbed by the increasing roundup and removal of wild horses and burros from their range on public lands.
Locally, members had enjoyed riding or hiking for decades amongst wild horse and burro herds in the magnificent Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip on Charleston Boulevard where it turns into State Route 159. One million visitors each year enjoy this spectacular red rock canyon section of the Mojave Desert.
The conservation area is managed by a federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under the umbrella agency, Department of the Interior (DOI). BLM and the U.S. Forest Service were designated to manage the wild horse & burro herds on federal land after Congress unanimously passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971 (for more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Horse_Protection_Act ).
This act was originally designed to “maintain a thriving natural ecological balance among wild horse populations, wildlife, livestock, and vegetation and to protect the range from the deterioration associated with overpopulation.” However, by the 1990’s, wild horse advocates argued that the two federal agencies were increasingly acting in a way that placed private grazing leases and corporate energy interests ahead of the needs of wild horses and burros.
Locally, by 2004, BLM had conducted several emergency helicopter roundups of almost all the Red Rock Canyon herds. They only released 17 horses back on that range after drought conditions ended – not anywhere near the genetically viable number of 100-150 horses. In 2007, BLM rounded up and removed the majority of wild horses across other herd management areas of the Spring Mountains. The natural composition of wild horse family bands was lost and with it, the self-regulating fertility mechanisms.
AWHA members in Las Vegas increasingly advocated for more accurate and transparent counting of horse and burro numbers, a return of more horses to their historic range and better birth control methods for mares. In October 2008, they hosted a Wild Horse And Burro Summit bringing together the diverse skills, knowledge, and resources of America’s wild horse groups with the leading experts in the world of equine behavior, genetics, range management and research. The goal was to co-vision future conservation and preservation strategies.
Unfortunately by 2008, federal agencies had 33,000 wild horses in holding pens off the range (more horses than were roaming free on federal public lands), the adoption demand was saturated as the U.S. economy was staggering, and those horses in holding were threatened with slaughter as agency budgets were over-taxed.
In 2010, AWHA launched a string of protests on the Las Vegas Strip to bring attention to the increasingly dysfunctional federal management program. By 2011, AWHA supporters decided they needed to concentrate on local solutions for local wild horses and burros in the Spring Mountain range. They formed a project called the Spring Mountain Alliance (SMA) to promote local alternatives to BLM roundup and removal of herds. The long-term goal was to increase public viewing opportunities of healthy family bands which would in turn, diversified the tourist draw in Las Vegas that was suffering deeply from the economic depression since 2008. In September 2012, they hosted the second annual Equine Welfare Alliance Conference. Many good solutions were discussed, but federal agency processes grind very slowly.
In June 2013, SMA proposed to BLM/USFS an alternative management plan with volunteers contraceptive darting almost all mares and assisting in improving range conditions in an Experimental Management Area in the northern part of the Spring Mountains where the remaining wild horses and burros were now concentrated. As of August 2014, the lead agency in the Environmental Assessment, US Forest Service, is still evaluating management alternatives in the slow-moving process designated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). No decision is expected until winter of 2014 or spring of 2015.
Meanwhile, two years of opportunity have been lost in which most mares could have been darted with the reversible contraceptive, PZP, and experimental darting of some burros could have been tested. The SMA alternative management plan could have brought wild herd numbers down to federal population goals by 2018. For more details on the AWHA/SMA plan, click here go to the new page on SMA SITE.