Coalition of U.S. House members pen letter to DOI Secretary Bernhardt opposing sterilization of wild horses
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is striking back at the Bureau of Land Management's latest attempt to test a permanent sterilization technique on wild horses.
The group of 30 congressional leaders, including four Republicans, sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt late Friday urging him to "drop" BLM research into a controversial sterilization procedure — called ovariectomy via colpotomy — that involves removing the ovaries from mares. The latest proposal, which could begin as early as August, would involve about 100 mares already rounded up from a federal herd management area in central Oregon.
The lawmakers, led by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), also asked Bernhardt to "shed light" on why BLM is working "to push forward" with the proposed project after a federal judge last year issued an injunction halting the research. The bureau quickly abandoned the project and committed in February to adopt or sell most of the 845 wild horses it gathered up for the project.
But last month, BLM released a new environmental assessment (EA) analyzing the proposals to test the sterilization technique on mares at the Warm Springs Herd Management Area in Oregon. It marks at least the third time BLM has proposed such research, which has been challenged each time by litigation from advocacy groups.
"The BLM is charged with protecting wild horses under the landmark 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. From a welfare perspective, the 'spay' experiment raises serious concerns," the letter said. Among them are the "risks of infection, trauma, hemorrhage, evisceration, and even death," they wrote. BLM did not respond to a request for comment on this story before publication.
But according to the EA, the bureau wants to test the procedure "on at least 100 ungentled, wild horse mares" already rounded up last October as part of the previous attempt to research the sterilization technique. BLM would "contract with an experienced veterinary team" to conduct the "surgical procedure," it said.BLM would return about 28 to 34 of the sterilized mares to the range as part of the project. The U.S. Geological Survey would "evaluate the impacts of spaying" on these animals and on "herd behavior once returned to the range as compared with an untreated herd." Roughly 70 other mares would also be spayed and observed for seven days, then put up for adoption or sale and not returned to the range.
It's the latest effort by the bureau to find safe and effective ways to permanently sterilize mares as herd sizes grow rapidly across the West. But a federal judge blocked a similar proposal last year, and two years earlier BLM dropped a separate research proposal into several sterilization methods shortly after an advocacy group sued.
The congressional leaders led by Blumenauer wrote in the letter that they aren't convinced BLM will take proper precautions to care for the animals.
"It seems that the agency understands the risky nature of the procedure but is nevertheless aiming to quantify precisely how dangerous it is using federally-protected animals," they wrote. "This is especially disconcerting given the BLM's pronouncement that no post-operative antibiotics will be administered and that no veterinary interventions will be undertaken for any recovering horses returned to the range."
At the "absolute minimum," the letter said, if BLM conducts the tests it should include "veterinary and welfare oversight" similar to two previous proposals for sterilization research that included partnering with Oregon State University in 2016, and last year with Colorado State University.
Both universities dropped out before the research could begin, and the lawmakers noted with concern that such partnerships "are no longer a component of the project the BLM is attempting to yet again undertake."
coalition urges congress to reject the "path forward" 10 years to aml plan for wild horses and burros
Today, a broad coalition of stakeholders, organizations, and businesses sent a letter to the U.S. Congress in strong opposition to a dangerous and unworkable proposal that threatens our iconic American wild horses. The "Path Forward" 10 Years to AML proposal, a brainchild of The HSUS, ASPCA and Return to Freedom, working in concert with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and American Farm Bureau Federation, calls for the removal of at least 45,000 to 60,000 and potentially as many as 200,000 wild horses and burros from our federal lands over the next ten years, putting the horses at significant risk of slaughter and placing a burden on taxpayers for an outcome that is widely opposed by the public.
“This is terrible deal for wild horses. The unfunded 'plan' will put tens of thousands more wild horses in government holding, with their fate left to the whims of future appropriators,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director at the American Wild Horse Campaign. “Make no mistake: this could result in the eventual slaughter of tens of thousands of wild horses. The cattlemen’s lobby is the only winner, achieving the near extinction-level population of wild horses they have long sought."
“This ill-considered plan would remove tens of thousands of our iconic American wild horses from the range at a billion-dollar price-tag to the taxpayer over a decade,” said Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action. “The biggest beneficiary of this plan would not be horses, but the livestock industry, which will see the federal government remove wild horses so that more cattle can graze on our public lands.”
"In its current form, this plan would be disastrous for our wild herds,” said Ginger Kathrens, founder and executive director of The Cloud Foundation. “It provides for no meaningful accountability on the part of BLM to implement humane and reversible fertility control measures. This plan gives BLM the mandate it has always wanted to round up more than 50,000 of our wild horses, doubling the number in off-range holding at enormous cost to the American taxpayer. We fear that unless funds are allocated to support those horses in holding for the rest of their natural lives, we will eventually see them sold killed in slaughterhouses. Meanwhile, our wild herds will be even more decimated, suffering deterioration in health due to poor genetic variability. Bottom line, wild horses and burros will eventually disappear from the West altogether. We suspect this is exactly what some of the stakeholders presenting this plan want."
Rounding up horses and burros is a highly stressful and dangerous experience for these animals. Injuries and deaths are not uncommon, and many horses will be separated from their families. The plan places wild horses and burros at significant risk of slaughter. The proposal significantly increases the number of captive horses at federally run and financed facilities and will create a future fiscal crisis. If history repeats itself, this increase will provoke pro-slaughter lawmakers to call for mass slaughter and euthanasia as a matter of fiscal responsibility.
As a humane and responsible alternative, stakeholders are instead calling for a step up in BLM-conducted fertility control programs, which allows horses to be managed humanely on the range. Proposed by U.S. Reps. Dina Titus (D-NV) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), fertility control will eliminate the need for mass roundups and removals and spare taxpayers the need to finance long-term care, feeding, and leasing of land.
Nearly 50 signors, including wild horse advocacy organizations, horse rescues, animal protection organizations, and horse-related businesses across the nation have banded together to defeat this egregious measure, urging legislators to reject the dangerous proposal:
President Trump is once again asking Congress to remove restrictions forbidding the Bureau of Land Management from using “the full suite of tools” to manage growing wild horse and burro herds.
That presumably includes the use of euthanasia in specific instances when horses are too old or sick or cannot be adopted or sold, according to BLM’s recently released budget justification document detailing BLM’s $1.2 billion fiscal 2020 budget request.
The budget justification does not specifically state that BLM wants to use euthanasia. Nor does it directly mention unrestricted sale of wild horses and burros.
But the stipulation in the document directly asks “that appropriations language restricting BLM from using all of the management options authorized in the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 be eliminated so that the full suite of tools originally authorized by Congress will be available to [BLM] to manage growing wild horse and burro herds.”
That section refers to specific language in appropriations bills covering the Interior Department that forbids BLM from using euthanasia on healthy horses and burros and limits its ability to sell animals without limitations on their future use. The provision on limiting sales of animals is designed to ensure horses are not sold to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.
President Trump has included similar requests in the last two fiscal budget cycles; Congress, even with Republicans controlling the House and Senate the first two years of the Trump administration, has ignored the requests.
Indeed, the Interior-EPA fiscal 2019 funding package approved in February includes language forbidding “the destruction of healthy, unadopted, wild horses and burros in the care of the Bureau or its contractors”.
The appropriations request comes as BLM struggles to manage more than 82,000 wild horses and burros across roughly 27 million acres of federal herd management areas — about 55,000 more animals than the appropriate management level, which is the maximum number of horses and burros that regulators believe the rangeland can handle without causing damage to vegetation, soil and other resources.
BLM, according to the budget justification, spends 61 percent of its Wild Horse and Burro Program budget paying to house and care for the nearly 50,000 animals it has rounded up from federal rangelands.
Meanwhile, the budget justification notes that Trump wants to cut BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program funding to $75.7 million, from $80.5 million in 2019 enacted levels.
BLM is making a concerted effort to increase adoptions.
The fiscal 2020 budget justification includes a $40,000 increase for BLM adoption programs. That includes a new adoption incentive program in which the bureau is offering $1,000 to anyone who will adopt one of the thousands of wild horses and burros rounded up from federal rangelands.
The bureau will also continue research into a permanent fertilization control measure, including “sterilization methods and the use of contraceptives and the spaying and neutering of animals before returning them to the range,” according to the budget justification.
BLM has abandoned such efforts after legal challenges from wild horse and animal rights groups.
“The BLM will continue working with the scientific community to better refine its population growth suppression methods and overall herd management techniques, as well as pursuing adoptions and sales, including incentivizing adoptions, and seeking permanent authority to transfer animals to local, State, and other Federal agencies for use as work animals,” it says.
Source: E&E News
Nonprofit organizations are taking to the courts to try to stop an Interior Department project that would sterilize up to 100 wild female horses in Oregon through a procedure the groups deem "dangerous" and "inhumane."
Front Range Equine Rescue, a nonprofit organization that works to stop cruelty and abuse of horses, filed a federal lawsuit in Washington D.C. challenging the Interior Department Bureau of Land Management's project on September 24. The group claims that the project violates a number of laws, including the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
The American Wild Horse Campaign and the Cloud Foundation, along with two individuals, filed a separate federal lawsuit in Oregon on September 21 claiming the government project violates the First Amendment because it does not allow outside groups to adequately observe the proposed experiment. It also believes the project violates the same laws Front Range Equine Rescue argues in their suit.
The surgery that the Bureau of Land Management plans to use on the horses is called ovariectomy via colpotomy. In this procedure, veterinarians remove both of the mare's ovaries by making an incision and putting their hands in the mare's abdomen to "blindly feel around for the ovaries." They then use a tool to remove the ovaries through the vagina, according to court documents.
The Bureau of Land Management is conducting the research in an attempt to find ways to control overpopulation of wild horses across the country. About 27,000 wild horses and burros, or small donkeys, can sustainably live on public land designated for wildlife. Right now, about 82,000 wild horses and burros are living on that land, according to Tara Thissell, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management's Burns, Oregon office.
The project will be conducted using a group of 200 horses from the Warm Springs Herd Management Area in Oregon. One hundred of those horses will be a control group, and about 100 horses will receive the surgery, according to Thissell.
In its complaint, Front Range Equine Rescue states, "the surgical procedure is at best risky." Brieanah Schwartz, government relations and policy counsel of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said the procedure is "very rarely used on domesticated mares." In this experiment, it would be used on wild horses.
"There are levels of management of population, which is the concern here, that are much less invasive, much less disruptive, much less potentially cruel and harmful to the horses than pulling out their ovaries with a tool," Front Range Equine Rescue lawyer Bruce Wagman said.
Both Front Range Equine Rescue and the American Wild Horse Campaign believe that a birth control vaccine for horses called Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) is one of the more humane ways to help control the wild horse population.
Thissell said that both versions of PZP available have to be administered either every year or every one to two years, which is not sustainable. Every time the vaccine must be administered, the horses have to be captured and rounded up to do so. The Bureau of Land Management does use PZP on some wild horses, but Thissell did not have a specific number of how many wild horses have received the vaccine.
The Bureau of Land Management is working with the US Geological Survey for the research project. The federal agencies were partnering with Colorado State University on the project initially, but after the Bureau of Land Management's environmental assessment regarding the project was publicly released and received thousands of comments, the university withdrew from participation on August 8.
The Bureau of Land Management then released another updated environmental assessment on August 22, which received about 10,000 comments.
The agency has attempted to use this surgical procedure on mares before.
In 2016, it proposed a research project that would have used this procedure along with two other procedural options. Both Front Range Equine Rescue and the American Wild Horse Campaign legally challenged the agency's project in 2016, and it ended up not going through with it.
The Bureau of Land Management plans to begin rounding up horses for this research project in October. Procedures on mares could begin as early as November.
Republican Congressman Chris Stewart brought together ranchers, animal-protection advocates and others on Wednesday to brainstorm solutions for protecting wild horses.
Evocative symbols of the American West, wild horses have also become a thorny national political issue that's often left ranchers and animal-protection advocates at odds.
Congress budgeted more than $80 million for the wild horse program last year, but the U.S. Bureau of Land Management overspent that by more than $2 million. Stewart has introduced an amendment to a recently passed House spending bill that gives the BLM more authority and a $15 million funding increase for managing horse populations. The U.S. Senate also included provisions in its version of the Interior Department spending bill that address wild horses.
But the opposing sides agree money alone is not the answer.
"Everyone agrees the problem is untenable the way it is," said Stewart after the closed-door meeting ended Wednesday. "There's wide agreement—I would say 90 percent agreement—on what it's going to take to fix it.
That includes capturing and removing from public land about 90,000 horses so they won't compete with livestock and wildlife for food and water.
Stewart said the solution also means settling on an effective sterilization program that would allow the BLM to remove the ovaries of wild mares. Sterilization would prevent herds remaining on the range from growing fast. The target is to hold herd numbers steady at roughly 27,000 horses.
U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, brought together groups that are typically at odds for a discussion of solutions for the nation’s wild horse program.
Among the groups that attended were:
They asked Stewart to continue the talks.
Nancy Perry, a lobbyist for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the national program for wild horses is at a crossroads.
"That's causing everyone to come together, put aside our differences and ask, 'What can we do together on this issue?'" Perry, who also attended the roundtable, said.
Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson, who is also a rancher, conceded that solving the wild horse problem will take collaboration and time.
"We've had years and years that we've been saying, and begging and pleading to get this done," said Pearson. "And the problems have been that BLM has been restricted in what they can do."
Stewart, who calls himself a horse lover, said no one wants to see the horses, the land and rural Utah communities suffering. In a previous version of his amendment, Stewart gave the BLM authority to euthanize healthy horses in government corrals. But that's no longer part of his proposal.
"This coalition will stay together because we truly love these animals," said Stewart, adding that some wild horses in southern Utah are starving to death. "Most people think that's not a great outcome for them."
Over 100 humane organizations dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation's wild horses and burros have united in support of a humane, sustainable management plan. This plan identifies alternatives to the approach of killing captive and free-roaming wild horses and burros. It includes:
Creating a ten-year plan to reduce and stabilize wild horse populations while maintaining current prohibitions against killing, destruction, and sale for slaughter.
Our Principles and Recommendations are consistent with the findings and recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences' 2013 report and other leading research organizations. We recognize there is not an 'easy fix' and our recommendations cannot be considered in isolation, but believe by bringing together nonprofit organizations, government officials and agencies, including the BLM, the USFS, and others, we can help implement a new way forward.
List of signatories:
The Bureau of Land Management spends about $50 million a year to house and feed more than 46,000 wild horses and burros in corrals. Another 73,000 of the animals roam freely across the western states, producing foals and grazing on public lands that conservationists and federal officials say are quickly deteriorating.
It’s an escalating equine-population problem, and the fiscal 2018 budget President Trump proposed this week suggests a solution: using “humane euthanasia and unrestricted sale of certain excess animals.”
The change could lead to sales of wild horses to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada, as well as to the culling of herds, to address what the bureau calls an “unsustainable” situation. But it has been condemned by horse and other animal advocacy groups, some of which have consistently resisted efforts to impose limits on an icon of the American West that has been federally protected since 1971.
The Trump proposal notes that the BLM’s wild horse and burro budget has quadrupled since 2000, from $20.4 million then to $80.4 million in 2017, and that most of the money goes to care for animals that reside in taxpayer-funded corrals. The proposed budget anticipates saving $10 million annually by selling some of those animals and by reducing roundups and horse and burro birth-control programs.
The use of euthanasia and sales to manage the population is not a new idea: The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act permits the interior secretary to remove older and unadoptable animals by those methods. But for much of the past three decades, Congress has used annual appropriations bill riders to prohibit the killing of healthy animals or “sale that results in their destruction for processing into commercial products.” While it is unclear whether lawmakers would now be willing to lift the prohibition, an aide on the House Appropriations Committee said the request would be considered.
Although the last U.S. horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007, meat processing plants in Mexico and Canada slaughter tens of thousands of domestic American horses each year for export to Europe and Asia. And despite the congressional ban, some wild horses sold to private buyers have been slaughtered anyway. In November 2015, federal investigators found that a Colorado rancher to whom the government had sold 1,794 mustangs turned around and sold them to slaughterhouses in Mexico.
As the wild horses and burros, which have no natural predators, have increased in numbers, officials and conservation groups say they have depleted the amount of forage food and water available to native species in the West. That, in turn, has increased the risk of widespread starvation and thirst among these herds and wild animals on public lands.
Wild horse advocates counter that the bureau is pandering to ranchers who view the horses as competition on public range land also used for cattle grazing.
Meanwhile, adoptions by the public — the bureau’s primary program for reducing the population in government corrals — have not increased with the population. Last year, 2,912 wild horses and burros were adopted, up from 2,583 in 2012, according to agency figures.
The budget proposal comes eight months after the bureau’s wild horse and burro advisory board, a volunteer body that makes no binding decisions, sparked an uproar among wild horse advocates by recommending euthanasia or sales for the animals. Subsequent false reports about a looming government plan to kill 45,000 wild horses prompted the BLM, then under the Obama administration, to say it “does not and will not euthanize healthy animals.”
Some board members said their recommendation was made, in part, to shock Congress into doing something about a problem they believe is spiraling out of control.
“All these horses in long-term holding are eating up 60 percent of the wild horse and burro budget. Other things can’t be done well or thoroughly because we’re feeding a lot of stockpiled horses that no one wants,” Julie Weikel, a large-animal veterinarian on the advisory committee, said in an interview this week. “I fully expect a full-court press from the advocates to put the rider back on. But I assure you that will not solve the problem.”
The question of how to address the problem appeared on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s radar not long after he was confirmed. According to his personal schedule, he held a video call on the topic on March 24 with the BLM’s acting director, Michael Nedd, and several other senior officials.
For more than 40 years, past administrations have tried but failed to control the animals’ numbers. In 2009, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposed that the U.S. government spend roughly $96 million to buy land in the Midwest and East to create two preserves that could each support 3,600 horses. He also suggested that federal officials partner with nonprofit organizations and other private groups to create five additional preserves, so that 25,000 animals would be living on preserves within five years. The government also would aggressively sterilize the horses and burros to keep them from reproducing.
At the time of Salazar’s proposal, about 37,000 horses and burros were roaming and another 32,000 were in holding pens. But the money did not materialize, and the number of animals on public range lands increased sharply. It now is about three times more than officials say is sustainable.
Some animal advocacy groups say the BLM has not proactively pursued horse and burro birth control, though other activist groups have sued the agency over the use of injectable contraception and the spaying of mares. In a statement this week, Matt Bershadker, president and chief executive of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the animals could be “humanely” managed with fertility control, but the BLM “would rather make these innocent animals pay for draconian budget cuts with their very lives.”
Weikel said she hopes Trump’s budget proposal prompts Congress to consider lifting its usual rider. Considering the proposal, along with the advisory board’s recommendation, “maybe thoughtful people…would realize we have a true problem out there. And we are not using all the tools.” In addition to euthanasia and sales, she said, permanent sterilization should be utilized more.
In a statement, the BLM said its goal “is always to find good homes for the thousands of wild horses and burros gathered from overpopulated herds on our country’s public lands.” It continued, “With an expanded suite of management tools, the BLM can strengthen its efforts to reverse the declining health of our nation’s wild horse and burro herds and manage the public lands on which they and so many other species depend.”
Source: The Washington Post
More than three dozen wild horse advocacy groups have voiced their desire for federal authorities to make greater use of the fertility control vaccine PZP to manage America’s wild horses.
The groups contend that the PZP vaccine is a cost-effective alternative to roundups and removals of wild horses from the range – a federal strategy which has been widely condemned as expensive and ineffective.
Today’s call for greater PZP use represents a major stand among groups advocating for better management of the mustangs that inhabit the vast western rangelands. They see it as a way to stave off the fiscal problems sparked by wild horse roundups, with an increasing share of the budget going toward the long-term care of the captive animals.
Neil Kornzse, the director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency charged with managing America’s wild horses, admitted recently that the current system of roundups was failing. He said the agency’s policy of mustering and keeping the horses in facilities could potentially cost $US1 billion over the life-span of the horses.
Already, 70 percent of the BLM’s $US80 million Wild Horse and Burro Program budget was spent on roundups and removals, while less than 1 percent of that amount was spent on long available, humane and effective fertility control.
Groups supportive of the use of the PZP vaccine for humane wild horse management include the:
The BLM has removed more than 40,000 wild horses from public lands in the last seven years alone.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended the use of PZP in its 2013 study, Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program, saying it was “a more affordable option than continuing to remove horses to long-term holding facilities”.
The NAS study also noted that roundups and removals of wild horses were actually responsible for “facilitating high rates of population growth on the range”.
The NAS added that “removals are likely to keep the population at a size that maximizes population growth rates, which in turn maximizes the number of animals that must be removed through holding facilities”.
PZP is an immunocontraceptive vaccine. It works with a mare’s immune system to produce antibodies that block sperm receptor sites on the zona pellucida, a thin membrane surrounding the ovum.
Because it is non-hormonal, PZP does not:
PZP has been used for more than 25 years in the wild horses on the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland. In that time, the herd has been brought to more sustainable numbers and the overall health of horses as a result has improved substantially.
In 1990, few horses on Assateague lived past 15 years. Now, many are living 30 years or more.
And, because PZP is not permanent, the National Park Service managers can closely control the herd’s population, allowing for increased births as appropriate.
Management programs with PZP have also helped curtail and even end roundups in wild horse management areas in the West, such as the Pryor Mountains on the Montana/Wyoming border, McCullough Peaks in Wyoming and Spring Creek Basin and Little Book Cliffs in Colorado.
In Colorado’s Spring Creek Basin, no mustangs have been removed since 2011, thanks to a BLM-facilitated public-private partnership using the PZP vaccine.
In addition, the BLM has committed to bait trapping if, in the future, the removal of some mustangs was necessary to maintain range health. Bait trapping is a far less traumatic capture method than helicopter roundups.
A PZP project on the McCullough Peaks range in Wyoming, meanwhile, helped the wild horse population there achieve zero population growth within three years.
Increased use of PZP and a reduction in roundups and removals would also be a boon to US taxpayers, helping to curtail the cost of the existing program.
The public now spends about $US49,000 for each mustang that is removed from the range and not adopted. PZP, meanwhile, costs about $US27 per darted horse per year.
One economic model published in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine showed that the BLM could save $US8 million over 12 years by using PZP in one herd management area alone. Multiply that by 179 HMAs and the cost-savings reach the hundreds of millions, according to the advocacy groups.
"It really at a fundamental level provides some stability for the grazing industry by assuring that our permits will be renewed in a timely fashion," said Jim Magagna, executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.The legislation allows agencies to approve permits in the face of environmental lawsuits against permit renewals.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials reported a permitting backlog of more than 5,600 permits nationwide in September. At the time, Congress was required to renew these permits annually.
"The agencies didn't have the resources to meet that requirement, (which) basically put people in a position where they couldn't get their permits renewed in a timely manner," Magagna said. "In some cases, they couldn't graze their livestock for extended periods of time."
Under current law, permitting is subject to environmental analysis prior to renewal of a permit. The new legislation allows federal agencies to approve permits without requiring environmental analysis. Agency range managers will still conduct environmental reviews at their discretion. Magagna said the new law focuses range management on the health of allotments.
"Environmental analysis has been tied to permit renewal, and really that analysis isn't about the permit. It's about the actual range condition," he said. Sen. John Barrasso, the author of the bill, said it will provide added protections for Wyoming ranchers seeking consistency in their operations.
"For too long, our ranching families have been the target of anti-grazing litigation that puts their grazing permits in jeopardy,” Barrasso said.
The legislation passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Source: Billings Gazette, by Trevor Graff
Wyoming public lands grazers could see shorter permitting times after Congress passed a bill seeking to streamline grazing permit renewals. The Grazing Improvement Act, approved last week, allows the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to speed the renewal of the agency's 10-year grazing permits.
Dan Baker is not like an expectant dad waiting to find out if it’s a boy or a girl. He’s the opposite, hoping to hear that all the pregnancy tests come back negative. Baker, a research biologist at Colorado State University’s animal reproduction and biotechnology laboratory, is the man in charge of an experimental contraception program in the wild horse herd at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There is hope that Baker’s work is productive — not reproductive.
Waiting for results
Within a month, he’ll know if he’s onto something that will have implications far beyond this singular herd in this one park — or if he’s back to square one.
The samples are in, and tests will be run soon. He hesitates to even guess at the results. “It’s totally unknown. It could be anything between no effects all the way to permanent sterilization. This question has never been answered,” Baker said.
If his experiment works, it could be a new way to control the park’s constantly expanding wild horse herd and possibly the thousands of wild horses on Bureau of Land Management land. The method also could have uses in the control of unmanaged wild dog populations in Third World countries, or simply to suppress fertility in domestic horses, dogs and cats.
Baker’s work in what he calls a perfect — not to mention beautiful — outdoors laboratory dates back to 2009. “It’s such a great natural lab out there. The area the horses are confined in is large, but not too large. It’s great landscape, and we can find them most of the time,” he said.
In 2009, during the park’s scheduled wild horse roundup and herd reduction, Baker vaccinated 28 wild horses with GonaCon, a vaccine that has been used to suppress pregnancy in captive animals, not free-roaming wild ones such as those in the park. The results were poor. Half the vaccinated mares became pregnant and, within three years, they all did. What they’ve since learned is that, even though the park’s wild horses are in excellent physical condition, with good forage, they carry a big parasite load, which may have prevented the kind of antibody response needed to suppress pregnancy.
“Real world horses get injured, or have fence cuts, and their immune systems go toward those things rather than suppressing the hormones that control reproduction,” Baker said.
Last year, the park conducted another wild horse roundup and that’s when Baker’s research took a step further. The same 28 mares were revaccinated to learn whether a second booster of the same drug would achieve a higher antibody response and improve contraception.
Last month, volunteers collected fecal samples dropped on park ground by as many of the 28 vaccinated mares as could be located.
By measuring the feces for estradiol, a hormone excreted by a fetus, Baker’s lab team will soon know if the revaccination was successful.
“As the fetus matures, the concentration of estradiol gets higher and higher. If it’s 10 (nanograms per gram), they’re not pregnant. If it’s 100, they are. In a couple of weeks, after we’ve looked, if everything’s really high, the study’s over,” Baker said.
The proof will be in the lab, but the mares will also be observed in the spring to verify the actual foaling rate.
Park waiting, too
Blake McCann is the park’s wildlife biologist, a man who prizes science and wildlife equally. McCann’s hopeful the revaccination works, too, but for reasons that have more to do with the horses, than the science itself. He’d like to see the park bring to an end the longstanding practice of controlling the wild horse population with controversial helicopter-driven roundups and transport to public livestock sales barns. Instead, if the revaccination controls pregnancy by even 50 percent, McCann said becomes more feasible to also lure the wild horses into a makeshift corral in their own environment and remove small select numbers for sale right there.
That practice would be much less traumatic all around for humans and horses, he said. He plans to conduct a corral trap this year to start learning how and to manage the 142 wild horses currently in the park, a number well above the 40 to 90 population considered ideal.
Some doses of the second vaccine were delivered by dart, which was acceptable for the experiment. “For research, yes, but to use that as a management tool, we would have to go into an environmental impact statement. Darting animals is not part of our management plan,” McCann said.
Whether through contraception or smaller removals from the temporary corrals, McCann said he does not want to see wild horse numbers return to the all-time high of 200 that were there last year when 103 were culled and sold at Wishek Livestock. “I don’t want to get to 200 again and do another helicopter roundup. With the corral trapping, we can remove a dozen or so every year and get the young mares out before they become reproductively active,” he said.
That said, McCann said he’s hoping Baker’s work is productive, not reproductive, as it were. “I would like to see the vaccine be a viable tool. We always have to be adaptable as a situation unfolds. I’m hopeful it’s effective,” he said.
Source: Bismarck Tribune by Lauren Donovan