August 26, 2021
Controversial roundups of wild horses and burros are underway in parts of the United States. In 1971, Congress sought to protect these sentient creatures through the passage of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, stating they “are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” These roundups are carried out by the United States Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (FS). The depletion of environmental resources in management areas and the concern for herd health fuel these government entities to take this action.
The BLM and the FS work together to monitor herd populations. Due to the vast acreage of public land, they can only “guesstimate” the populations of these herds from the air. (The BLM is responsible for overseeing wild horses and burros in the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana-Dakotas, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon-Washington, Utah, and Wyoming, which encompasses 26.9 million acres of public land. The FS is responsible for 2.5 million acres in Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah.) When the horse and burro populations are estimated to be above the appropriate management levels, these roundups occur.
A few of the controversies advocates have with these roundups lie in 1) the methods used to implement them, 2) the lack of resources used to find alternative ways to control herd populations, and 3) the amount of acreage given to livestock for grazing purposes.
According to the BLM, herd populations can double in size every 4-5 years. In March 2021, the BLM estimated 86,189 wild horses and burros were present throughout 177 herds even after removing 10,824 of them. A majority of gatherings are conducted using helicopters hovering over the ground pushing the herds towards temporary enclosures. Once in the enclosures, they are inspected for age, sex, and any underlying health conditions or injuries. Sadly, this method of roundup has resulted in horses being injured requiring euthanasia.
A preferable method to helicopter roundup is the bait or water trapping one. This method reduces the risk of injury to the horses or burros by using food or water to entice them into temporary pens. Once inside, the gate is manually or remotely shut. No matter what method is used, when a wild animal is trapped, injury or death can occur in their urgency to escape.
So what can be done to keep these wild herds in their natural habitat? Fertility control vaccines have proven to be effective if they can be readministered at the appropriate time. The Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) vaccine is commonly used but needs a booster after 12 months. Since 2012, the BLM has given 5,748 mares a fertility-controlled vaccine out of the 55,911 horses gathered. Long-term studies detailing the effectiveness of PZP in large wild herds have not been documented. The need for them is apparent by the number of horses and burros that the BLM and FS continually remove.
Two studies have shown the effectiveness of fertility control within small herds on Assateague Island and McCullough Peaks in Cody, Wyoming. First, the fertility control study of the iconic herd of Assateague Island began in 1988 by the National Park Service to help manage the wild horses on the island. This study would later become invaluable to others in revealing that fertility control vaccines can humanely manage herd populations. Second, the herd in McCullough Peaks is another testament to the effectiveness of fertility control and the importance of working together to reach a common goal. The BLM partnered with the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of a Legacy. This joint effort is what the BLM attributes to the success of their program. Amazingly, they have reached “zero population growth.”
According to several news articles, animal advocates are voicing their concerns as wild horses from the Sand Wash Basin in Colorado and the Onaqui Herd in Utah are removed. They are urging the BLM to end these mass roundups, use more resources to implement fertility control vaccines, and re-evaluate the amount of land given to livestock for grazing purposes. (Currently, 155 million acres are allotted to ranchers for their cattle, sheep, or goats. In 2020, 18,000 grazing permits were issued by the BLM and over 6,000 by the FS.) Some of these permits last for ten years.
What is the best workable solution to help keep these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat? Wouldn’t it be prudent to increase funds to implement fertility control programs if they work? If you agree, please contact your representative today to show your support for this form of humane population management.