Wild Horse Education

A Reality Check Before Everyone Loses (fertility control, NAS, AML and away we go)


Stone Cabin roundup 2012. In 1975 the first removal of wild horse took place at Stone Cabin. Click here to read some interesting facts.

This is one of those articles that has one picture at the top only, designed to be read.

Fertility control takes many forms in any discussion aimed at controlling reproduction in wild species. This is a conversation that is not limited to wild horses and burros in the U.S., but a conversation that spans multiple species worldwide for decades. Often that fact gets lost as microcosms of the human population “discover” the concept. An example of this phenomenon is that differing government agencies are unaware of work done by other agencies and believe they are actually “trail blazing,” when in fact something they reference as experimental has actually been used on US soil by other government entities. Add that to a public component that depends on information coming to them from these government entities and confusion abounds and conversations end up being disputed by those with very few actual facts, not too productive.

Fertility control takes many forms. As a human being many people are familiar with birth control methods used for humans. These methods range from hormonal (birth control pills, Norplant, “day after pill,” etc) to vasectomy or hysterectomy. But there are multiple barrier methods like condoms and spermicides. As we have a discussion on fertility control in a wild species it is always good to keep that information in mind. Yet also keep in mind that discussions about human birth control carry a huge controversy based in personal belief systems, the same is true with the discussion in wild populations.

When we look simply at the facts of rangeland health and what is called “carrying capacity” it is a discussion akin to “what is in your fridge, what you can afford to buy tomorrow and how many people can you feed at a party.”

Open range is a myth. We have a series of fenced pastureland criss crossed by highways and a growing use of public resource through extraction to meet mineral and energy needs. No matter how you feel about it, it is an existing fact.

Wild horses and burros are to be managed as “integral to the landscape” as a “wild” component under Congressional mandate within federal jurisdictions of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service (USFS). This mandate was created with a primary purpose of stopping “mustanging,” or harvesting wild horses and burros and sending them to slaughter. No matter how you feel about it, it is an existing fact.

Decades of a failure to simply address facts leads to adversarial engagement.

Sometimes adversarial engagement to push through a failure to recognize basic facts, leads to the creation of an appropriate chain of events. We saw this clearly in our fight to gain a humane handling policy. For decades government agencies failed to recognize another basic premise in the WFRH&B Act, a mandate to manage humanely, a provision mentioned no less than seven times under law. For decades people screamed at each other and an entrenchment of belief systems (the government that refuses they can do better and an outraged public) held practices at a standstill. That is until a litigious position was taken by WHE. After multiple court rulings, we now have a working version of the first humane handling policy for wild horses and burros. There are unfortunate consequences to taking a litigious stand, a “reputation” for being “ready for a fight,” but sometimes it is necessary.

However sometimes taking an adversarial approach leads to disaster. We can see that very clearly in attempts to gain integrated management of wild horses and burros on the physical landscape of our western rangeland.

Certain facts must be faced by all involved. The first fact that must be faced is that our public land is to be managed in a “sustainable, multiple use fashion, for all interests.” When a meeting or conversation begins with a failure to recognize that most basic fact, what we witness is identical to boxers moving into opposing corners, only one outcome when the “bell rings” to begin the event, a fight.

Certain truths must be faced, by all involved.

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 mandates a balanced multiple use of public land managed by the BLM. The Act is not an open invitation to destroy public land for profit. It expressly states that all  interests, even if they place no money into an economy, are to be represented fairly. It states that the Act does not derogate any existing provision of law such as the WFRH&B Act that predates it.

That means in order to have any conversation about integrated use of public land, all interests must be fairly and equitable addressed with a notion of actual rangeland health present in the room. In other words if you can not sit at a table and recognize a livestock interest as a valid concern or if you can not recognize that one of the main reasons the WFRH&B Act was passed was to stop inhumane treatment and slaughter of wild horses, you invalidate your seat. The more you disrespect the law, the more the next guy will ignore it. We then end up with fictions perpetuated by invalid positions at the table, those will entrench others into more extreme viewpoints. If this does not stop soon, the range dies and everybody and everything, loses.

Another simple truth is that our public rangelands have never been managed according to any truthful concept of healthy rangeland. Compromises have been made, but never to the extent of actual preservation of habitat, only a preservation of enough resource to “play the game” one more year. In some areas compromise only exists on paper as certain ranching interests ignore legal parameters of use and essentially steal life itself from the range. This has lead to a spiral of degradation, even if it has slowed in some areas, the spiral continues downward.

As the practice of ignoring simple truth goes unheeded, the equation diminishes. The “pie” of public land gets smaller and smaller with each passing year. The ability of the land to heal diminishes year after year. If you have 100 cookies in the cookie jar and the kids are fighting over them and smashing them in temper tantrums, at the end of the day you have fewer cookies to divi out.

Before we have this discussion on management and fertility control please check all agendas at the door except a recognition of all the parameters of existing law, that “healthy open range” is a myth and management practices across the board for domestic livestock and wild horses have been primarily based on historic use, not science, for decades. (The proof of those statements is outlined in countless government reports and science journals).

During this discussion to save time, we will use the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review as our primary scientific resource. The report combines multiple resources that we will not cite separately and the NAS is considered one of the most credible scientific bodies in the world.

Out of the gate any belief that broad scale roundups are an answer must be suspended. Broad scale roundups increase reproductive rates, a fact asserted for years by advocacy and held up under NAS scrutiny. This has been a primary tool for any “management” by the BLM and has literally run the broken train off the tracks. The program is fiscally upside down with more horses are in holding than on the range, destroying any solvency. It keeps funds in facility management, not range management.

“Just round them all up,” said a rancher.

“How’s that been been working for ya the last few decades? Not so much?” WHE.

Another fiction we need to dispel immediately is the concept of accurate boundaries and Appropriate Management Level, or AML. The NAS report fails BLM on sufficient data to create any accurate assessments to create decisions. We have underlying laws that have these boundaries and AML built in. So we are left with trying to solve an impossible equation. It is really that simple.

As an example there are several Herd Management Areas (HMA) where wild horses use less than 70% of the actual land in the pencil outline someone made in 1974-6 without substantive data. However they actually use several hundred acres that have been deemed Herd Area (HA), or not managed for horse use, by the same individual with that pencil. Rectifying those pencil lines allows the areas horses do not use to be appropriately opened to other uses and horses actually managed in a land base equation that matches actual use as the HA land is reopened to managed occupation. This has been an area of serious contention and exploited during the claiming period that created both a fictional perspective of the number of horses actually on the land at the time the Act was passed and negating any validity of “the land they now occupy.” This is long overdue and will help keep a volatile equation in a space it can be more appropriately dealt with, legally.

The number of horses on the range is simply not based on any equation of sustainability of a defined variable. What do I mean by that? The number of horses on the range was set in a land use plan based on an anecdotal number, based on an anecdotal left over amount of forage after domestic livestock use was allocated. This is another truth no one likes to face. Livestock stocking capacity began as a use equation based simply on what was run on the land at the time the grazing program began. Cuts to use were done to historic use, not a scientific use equation. AML of wild horses must be adjusted to reflect exactly what the herd represents in a genetic equation and then set at a number that allows the replication of the same. This is actually a very simple mathematical concept, not opinion.

We also need to remember that self regulation of an equine populations reproductive rate only happens when the range is severely degraded. In some instances we already have severely degraded range due to man made impediments that involve roads, fences, mining and overgrazing by other species. But that does not make it a “right”to push for no management, that makes it insanity.

At the same time we must remember existing law, policy and the actual condition of the landscape. We can not hold an ideal vision of what the land can produce and base use on that vision, it must be based on all of the parameters of todays reality. That is the only way to achieve an integrated use that is sustainable for all.

We have repeatedly said “A dead range supports nothing.” That is exactly what we will have if truths can not be faced, everybody and everything will lose.

How does fertility control fit in as a tool to create a solution?

Temporary fertility control (ZonaStat or PZP) can stabilize or reduce population growth rates. It has been safely used worldwide for decades in multiple species. One example is the use in equines at Assateague since 1988. Population was first stabilized and then reduced, safely. Herd and foal health actually increased because mares existing on the scrub grasses were not gravid each year. Age at time of death rose from early teens to over 30 years old. It increased the health of the habitat and the health of the herd. Each mare was allowed to reproduce in her lifetime protecting the “baseline” of the genetics and an Assateague horse is genetically the same as it has always been, but healthier.

In order to treat the mares the herd must be understood. Individuals need to be catalogued and treatments, and any births, logged and tracked. Seasonal movement must be understood because of the initial treatment requirements. Utilization of forage and water will also become “knowns.” This data would then be vital in creating an appropriate use equation to sustain the herd in harmony with the existing environment.

In many areas there are horses of a similar color and pattern. Placing wildlife tracking numbers on horses during a bait trap operation (or other capture method) makes implementation that much faster. It is not necessary, but makes things run smoother with less margin for error.

Currently the state of NV has joined a particular drama storm around the plan at Fish Creek. As a result the ability to place these marks on wild horses has been interfered with. We do not know if the state is intentionally trying to sabotage treatment efforts as we know many in the state prefer that wild horses have no option but the “sale barn,” or slaughter. We do not know if it is just that they have not been appropriately educated as to what the mark is and why it is needed.

We do not know why certain counties in NV are fighting fertility control. We can only make an assumption that they simply want all other interests pushed off the “table” or are pushing another agenda.

This is another truth, only about 400 wild horses were treated with fertility control in fiscal 2015 by the BLM. The largest fertility control program in the nation, a quarter of the horses treated last year, were at Fish Creek. The last two treatment windows were missed. This investment is almost completely down the drain because of entrenchment in old belief systems.

There are multiple forms of fertility control. PZP is non hormonal and does not interfere with behavior (any woman that has taken birth control pills, hormones, can attest that it does change you). GonaCon is a gnRh inhibitor, hormonal (one application for yearly fertility control, more than one application in a year has been shown to create sterility or kinda like a premature menopause that would be a disturbing behavior change in a younger mare. It is used at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the single dose format). And of course things like surgical sterilization that have devastating effects on behavior and health risk.

On one side we have people that want all the horses gone and only cows. The other side wants all the cows gone and only horses. We have extremists on both sides pushing slanderous propaganda and some even breaking the law and defending themselves through attacking, not responsible action. These views are extreme and unlikely to ever have their agendas fulfilled. The only way to integrate management is to actually integrate based on reality. We can create fair and equitable management, but that will not make anyone that does not have that as a goal happy.

We can create on the range management that protects wild herds and the habitat they require to survive. We can do it in a way that meets all legal mandates and respects other uses. But we can only do if if that is truly the goal of all involved.

We were told getting a humane handling policy was impossible. People just kept screaming about it. We got it done. There are still people acting as if it does not exist. It won’t be perfect, but it can be further defined.

The same is true about on the range management. It is not impossible. It will actually happen faster if people recognize that as a fact.

~~~~~~ More on how the NAS, if we read the whole thing, can lead to sanity and the new land use planning process  coming soon.

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