The importance of our being critical of ‘official’, often government, estimates of wildlife population size and growth got illustrated this month in the worst way possible…
… with the National Academy of Sciences release of Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward (2013).
Was doing it badly in New Zealand unusual?
Accurate estimates of population size and growth are the foundation of scientifically-based management for the welfare of animals, health of ecosystems, and their wise use. During work with free-roaming horses of the Kaimanawa Mountains, New Zealand, I observed practices generating and using information about population size and growth [1, 2] that I thought dubious.
My intuitions were correct. Colleagues and I subsequently showed that the techniques used were flawed . Methods to estimate population size were inconsistent and estimates not accurate . The sequence of counts dramatically over-estimated population growth .
But I did not think my experience in New Zealand during the late-1990s would be typical internationally. I thought New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC) probably unusually careless in their responsibility for feral horses and stakeholders.
DoC’s important and magnificent work with New Zealand’s native species makes feral horses a peripheral, probably even inappropriate, responsibility. And no one comes to New Zealand to see or hunt horses like they do introduced trout or Himalayan Thar – introduced species with economic value.
They do it better in the USA – right?
Big mammals are a native and economically important wildlife in North America, where whole university departments, government agencies, and scientific journals are devoted to the biology of big wildlife. Certainly, the quantity and quality of scientific publications on wild horse populations’ size and growth was, although not without flaws, is better than anywhere else.
When a DoC field officer, in response to my criticism of his estimates of Kaimanawa horse population size and growth, told me that the techniques used were OK because they were like those used in the rangelands of the North American West I ‘pulled my punch’. If DoC were following US protocols then who am I to dispute their quality? The DoC field officer would prove this month to be correct but, unfortunately, not in the way expected.
Writ large in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report is the naked acknowledgement that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), responsible since 1971 for the monitoring and management of around 170 populations of feral horses or asses across 27 million acres in 10 states, has stuffed up. It hasn’t stuffed up once. The BLM has stuffed up consistently on a grand scale.
BLM practice in estimating population size and growth was so bad as to be even worse than those found flawed in New Zealand. BLMs methods have been inconsistent, failed to consider that their populations are not closed, failed to be accurate, provide no measure of estimate reliability or precision, and have not reported or even kept records of their techniques and outcomes so that they can be evaluated.
The truth, detailed in the report, is that after four decades and billions of dollars of investment – BLM’s 2012 budget for the wild horse and burro program was $75 million – accurate estimates of population size and growth for all but a handful of the many-many horse populations DO NOT EXIST.
The report tries to be helpful by offering the guidance that population growth is probably commonly between 15 and 20% per year but this is just a best-guess from poor data without statistical confidence.
It is clear that efforts are being made to estimate population size and growth better. It is commendable that the BLM commissioned the work of the committee, and welcomed its report. Clearly there is, at last, some new and progressive thinking in the BLM.
For many involved on both sides of this debate, however, and wildlife scientists who have advocated over several decades for improvements in wildlife practice, this will be too little, too late.
What sort of groupthink must have existed in the BLM for it to ignore decades of ‘textbook’ wildlife science and practice from the nation’s, indeed world’s, brightest and most experienced?
What level of self-deception, ignorance, and incompetence must have existed for the BLM to believe for so long it was doing a good job?
What sort of unprofessional ethic must exist for a tax-payer funded government agency to knowingly use dubious data to meet public interest and defend its policy in the face of public concerns?
The BLM and Department of the Interior have only themselves to blame for the extremely poor confidence and heightened scepticism from yesterday’s and today’s public.
In Africa where resources are less and the challenges are greater, wildlife agencies do a better job of large wildlife science than the BLM. I have been doing wildlife science for 20 years. I have never seen a case of such egregious, sustained incompetence in spite of remarkable opportunities to do better.
The only way forward is to wipe the slate clean…
… but only, I think, after a very public apology. But from who? Where does the ‘buck stop’? A lack of accountability in the Department of the Interior appears to be a part of the problem.
Be vigilant, be critical
The NAS report comes as a confirmatory warning to the many of us that care about wildlife and their environment. Be vigilant to the waste and misuse of tax-payer funds to generate sub-standard estimates of population size and growth that are so bad as to be fraudulent because they are used with false-authority to misinform us.
I am disgusted with the history of expediency and lack of positive leadership amongst government agencies on the issue of horse population monitoring and management.
Amongst my dispassionate weblog posts about the science of appreciating, managing, and conserving odd-toed ungulates like horses, a more emotional response to the topic is occasionally warranted. This was one of those times.
This post serves as a preamble to further dispassionate critique of the information we are fed. I will continue to identify problems and solutions to population size and growth estimation because, as the NAS report demonstrates, it matters very much.
Post-script [3 July, 2013]
Recent re-reading of the scientific literature on feral horse populations in the western USA illustrated to me just how incompetent the BLM have been. The conclusions of the 2013 NAS report that identify deficiencies and plain wrongness of BLM feral horse and burro population size and growth estimates, and their recommendations to address those problems, sadly and remarkably similarly, echo the report published by Michael Wolfe in 1980  – 33 years ago and just nine years after the BLM took responsibility for the populations. It is clear that the BLM has had a wanton disregard for science, evidence and best-practice.
2 Department of Conservation (1995) Kaimanawa Wild Horses Plan. Department of Conservation, Wanganui Conservancy