Is Wyoming waking up to the reality of our nation’s unworkable approach to managing wild horses? The horse issue is so heated and divisive, that I’m a natural skeptic.
However, the recent news that a group of Wyoming legislators is urging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to rethink its approach to horses makes me, at least, somewhat optimistic.
According to an Oct. 28 article in The Horse magazine, legislators also plan to work with Gov. Matt Mead’s office to educate Wyoming residents about horse management issues. Although this discussion is prompted more by land-use concerns than by wild horses, more dialogue is welcome.
Federally protected wild horses on public land have no intrinsic economic value, yet compete with the enormous economic interests of the livestock industry, mining, energy development, and recreational use.
According to financial data supplied by the BLM to the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, the agency spent 67 percent of its total annual $77 million wild horse budget, in 2014, rounding up, removing and stockpiling horses from federal lands. It spent a mere 0.3 percent on population growth suppression for 450 mares. Three of five wild horses now live in government holding pens and pasturages, costing taxpayers an estimated $120,000 per day. Worse, each removal merely speeds up the reproductive success of horses remaining in the field.
Although BLM field censusing is not scientific, the agency claims there are 40,000 wild horses on federal lands that can sustain less than 30,000. With few natural predators, however, populations will grow. The federal government’s Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program can place only a few thousand horses each year. There is no good outcome to the current situation until BLM starts to aggressively curb wild horse population increases.
One strategy that could help significantly is more widespread use of wildlife contraception, as advised by the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. The immunocontraceptive vaccine, native PZP, has a long track record of success in wild horses, dating back more than 25 years.
Today, native PZP vaccine is used in more than 20 Herd Management Areas (HMAs)—several in Wyoming. Model PZP programs at McCullough Peaks HMA, near Cody, and the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, traversing the Wyoming/Montana border, have sharply reduced population growth. Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range, near Grand Junction, Colorado, has also demonstrated the value of fertility control.
This vaccine blocks fertilization in mares and other animals, such as bison, elephants and urban deer. It can be administered by a rifle-fired dart and doesn’t harm existing pregnancies or an animal’s health. Unlike earlier, hormone-based wildlife contraceptives, PZP breaks down in the mare’s body and will not pass into the surrounding environment, or to other horses. The vaccine is also reversible.
BLM has been studying contraceptive agents for years and is said to be holding out for a longer-lasting vaccine. Mares that receive native PZP need boosters every year for the first two-to-three years and then every-other or every third year. This presents challenges in large HMAs. However, horses can be gathered expressly for treatment in temporary corrals through bait or water trapping. That presents a minor challenge compared to the expense and man-hours required for humanely accommodating growing numbers of once-wild horses. Had more HMAs started using immunocontraception 15-plus years ago, as advised by the scientific community, horse populations would be far lower.
In some HMAs and wild horse ranges, volunteer groups have been trained to dart mares with native PZP and to track those requiring boosters. This is far less costly than paying more and more to round up, feed and care for these animals off the range. Caring for a horse over a 30-year life span costs taxpayers around $45,000, compared to well under $1,000 to gather, treat, and release a wild mare with native PZP.
How long should we wait for the perfect solution? I hope our legislators and the BLM conclude that further delay in not using the best available tool we have—native PZP—makes no horse sense.