Guest Opinion by Allen T. Rutberg & John W. Turner, Jr.
To The Desert Independent
June 3, 2016
The Bureau of Land Management has a tough job managing wild horses. If they propose a gather, or don’t gather enough, they get sued. If through drought or agency inaction forage and water on the range are exhausted and horses die, the public explodes with rage.
Meanwhile, wild horses keep reproducing and filling holding facilities at costs to the taxpayer that are breathtaking to contemplate. Even in the best facilities, the lives of the newly captive horses do not remotely resemble their lives on the range.
Reducing wild horse population growth using contraception is an obvious solution. This is hardly news to the BLM, which has been funding such research, including ours, for 40 years. We’re grateful for it.
But at some point, studying must yield to doing. And here, BLM lags.
The National Park Service has been managing the wild horses of Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland with the PZP (porcine zona pellucida) contraceptive vaccine since 1994. Now, nearly all the Atlantic Coast barrier island wild horses are being managed with PZP, with barely a ripple of concern from the public.
But that’s different, says the BLM. Those horses are much more approachable, and can be darted and re-darted with the vaccine as needed. We can’t do that out West.
In large measure, this is true.
But, in our view, it’s NOT why NPS is succeeding where BLM is failing.
The crucial difference is that the NPS has developed careful, detailed management plans, whereas BLM has not even tried. For each site, NPS prescribes management goals, how many horses should be treated and which ones. They adapt their management plans as conditions change, and goals are met, or not.
By contrast, half a dozen scattered BLM Herd Management Areas manage herds with PZP. Other HMA’s have used PZP haphazardly, without strategic goals or evaluation of success. BLM-sponsored research pursues the quick fix that will solve its billion-dollar horse problem. But no technical solutions will work without a system-wide implementation plan.
In the latest twist, BLM has backed off a volunteer-driven PZP project at Pine Nut Mountain HMA because of legal threats from a Connecticut animal rights group. This group must shroud its advocacy in legalese and pseudo-science because it believes the best solution to capping wild horse populations is mass starvation.
PZP works. Its major side effect is that, spared the energy drain of pregnancy and nursing, PZP-treated mares display better physical condition than mares with foals.
To reduce herd population growth, and keep wild horses in their bands at home and out of holding facilities, PZP must be applied systematically, and thoughtfully. We understand that most HMA’s don’t have Nps’s capacity to track and treat individual mares. But there’s a lot of middle ground between that approach and “treat all mares released back to the HMA.” BLM must explore that ground, and plan, or continue to fail.
We’re scientists. We’re all for research. But for goodness sake, when it works, use it.
The opinions expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Desert Independent, LLC.