RENO, Nev. (AP) — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is issuing new policy directives emphasizing "compassion and concern" for wild horses on federal lands in the West, in response to a growing public outcry over alleged abuse during roundups of thousands of mustangs in recent years.
Federal laws protecting wild horses since the 1970s require the government to treat them humanely when culling overpopulated herds to reduce harm to public rangeland.
But BLM officials said a series of new internal policy directives announced Friday will better protect free-roaming horses and burros by centralizing oversight and stepping up daily reports at each individual gather across 12 Western states.
"Press/media, congressional and public attention to recent gathers have compelled the BLM to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information," one of the new directives states.
The announcement drew, at best, a chilly response from most in the horse protection community skeptical of the agency's intentions and a harsh rebuke from the largest national coalitions, which called it a "step backward."
"It's an attempt by BLM to address criticism, but will do nothing to change the practices on the ground at the roundups," said Deniz Bolbo, spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign made up of more than 50 groups.
Among other things, helicopter contractors will have to take extra care not to separate slower young animals from their mothers during roundup stampedes.
The new orders also require the agency to make sure the public has reasonable access to observe the roundups, in compliance with federal law. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco recently granted a horse advocacy group's appeal and ordered the BLM to review its practices to ensure it didn't violate the First Amendment by keeping some critics away from a 2012 gather in Nevada.
"At all times, the care and treatment provided by the BLM and contractors will be characterized by compassion and concern for the animal's well-being and welfare needs," wrote Edwin Roberson, assistant director of the BLM for Renewable Resources and Planning.
Acting BLM Director Mike Pool said the changes represent "significant and substantial improvements" aimed at ensuring the "humane treatment of animals that are gathered on public rangelands."
"At the end of the day, we need to find better ways to manage for healthier animals and healthier rangelands so that we can keep these symbols of the American West on our nation's public lands," he said."