Fact and Innovation: Hope for Wild Horses

By Laura Harper

June 2015

Imagine, fact-based research working hand-in-glove with the innovative heart to find solutions to wild horse overpopulation.

That kind of innovation takes patience, an attribute a wild horse needs, and what surely must be imprinted in Jay F. Kirkpatrick’s DNA.  Kirkpatrick founded The Science and Conservation Center at Zoo Montana and is its director.

Kirkpatrick obtained his Ph.D. at Cornell University in reproductive biology. His reproductive research began at a time when abundant wildlife and drought conditions compromised finite grazing regions of the West.  As a result, the wild horse became a primary target for removal.  Documented reports of abusive treatment used in getting rid of the horses and burros led to passing the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

Forty-one years earlier, June 28, 1934, cattlemen had likewise passed the Taylor Grazing Act (surrendering the grazing fields of the west to the governance of officials) to rid the lands of the wild horses and those taking advantage of free grazing land.  After its passing, officials immediately set about developing a system of regulating grazing for cattlemen and for contracting mustangers. The Taylor Grazing Act created fertile ground for later official bureaucracies like U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service to eventually spring up and grow along with the problem.

By the time, the Adopt-a-Horse campaign began in 1973, BLM and Forest Service officials were already behind in their management and protection initiatives, and 81 years since the first aircraft round up, there is no resolution to the disputed point.

Then, along came reproductive biologist Jay F. Kirkpatrick, whose first attempts at fertility control on wild horses were misunderstood, and he was expelled from interacting with the very horses (of the Pryor Mountains) he was trying to help; hurt, he continued his research anyway.

In 1992, after years of research and development including successful administration efforts to help the elephant  herds of South Africa, Kirkpatrick joined with two of his research buddies (veterinarian, Dr. Irwin Liu and physiologist, Dr. John Turner) to try out the use of a wildlife fertility contraceptive called Porcine Zona Pellucida  (PZP) on  the  horses  roaming the Assateague Island National Seashore off the coast of Maryland (the procedure for the production of PZP was   initially developed by UC Davis researcher, Dr. Jerry  Hedrick,  http://www.pzpinfor.org in 1987).

Dr. Jay F. Kirkpatrick allowed us an interview to provide detailed insight into the issue we hope will help the public understand that the wild horse dilemma is relevant to every American because it involves the use of their land, their dollars and the preservation of their American icon, the wild horse.

What theory or case are opponents to PZP using to stop its administration?

They are using some data from studies on Cape Lookout National Seashore, which in themselves are not bad.  But these studies then “suggest” and use the word “may” over and over to create scenarios that are negative. But, none of these “mays” have ever materialized in the 35 different wild horse projects we are currently treating over the course of 29 years.

Why has the current roundup and remove paradigm for wild horse management failed?

First, it is hard on the horses’ stress, mortality and injury.  It [roundups] has not been able to keep up with the number of horses; it is economically unsustainable ($75 million annually).  The deficiencies of round up and removal lead to public dissatisfaction and legal action that cost more money. The genetic effects of round up and removal are serious.

I’ll use data from the Pryor Mountains to make my point. In 2009, 58 horses were re- moved and almost 70% of them had never bred nor ever will, removing a large genetic component from the herds. This data is similar for other herds. But the final reason this paradigm has failed is ‘compensatory reproduction.’ This data is published, but also common knowledge for any zoologist. As you remove animals from the populations and density decreases, the animals remaining behind simply have more reproductive success. Data, from a paper that is now being written for publication show that herd growth rates jump from an average 15% to 50% in some cases.

Round up and removal actually exacerbates the problem. This law placed stewardship for these animals into the hands of an agency with a meager history of wildlife management. What is at once interesting and dispiriting about the history of the wild horse issue is that in 1971, two Pryor Mountain wild horse specialists voiced concern we and the horses would face a dilemma that would soon prove logistically and economically unsustainable.

Their prediction, 44 years ago, proved to be prophetic. The whole concept of 35,000+ horses with no effective sustain- able population control mechanism on multiple use public lands used by agriculture, the mining industry, hunters, recreationalists of every conceivable type along with an absence of predators and immense economic interests working in competition with the horses was, and is, and will continue to be untenable. It is a popular pastime to castigate the BLM for everything that has gone wrong, but in defense of the agency (and I am not known for defending the BLM often!) they have been forced to operate on the deck of the Titanic and that is not their fault.

Why might fertility control be considerd to be a more effective tool for managing wild horses?

Because it attacks the problem (unchecked reproduction) rather than the symptoms (range damage, competition with livestock, and other wildlife, etc.).

What are the animal welfare benefits of fertility control for the horses?

No [helicopter] or fewer round ups; improved health, decreased adult and foal mortality; significant increase in longevity; and, improved genetics.

Are there some hidden or less obvious issues with wild horses?

Yes, and they include:  Public lands — who gets to use them, how and who benefits the most; a change in culture — we have always done it this way or we have never done it this way; politics — if you are a governor in a western state, are you going to go along with wild horse advocates or the ranching community?  [As recently quoted in his article published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Kirkpatrick’s vented a big part of the frustration, “Rather than being friends, these groups are helping to perpetrate the current unworkable and inhumane system of wild horse round up.”]

Why hasn’t the public or agencies embraced fertility control to a greater degree?

Because the scientific community has failed miserably in getting information out there and, the public or agencies have proven consistently behind the curve when it comes to understanding new and scientific advances.

Are you aware of a push against PZP from the Cattlemen Association?

No, not really. Many (though not all) would rather just see the horses go away, but they have not been the primary hurdle to PZP use.

What events brought us to this failed state?

We and the horse face the dilemma largely because of the wild Horse and Burro Act., well intentioned, but poorly conceived legislation. This legislation placed and amazingly adaptable, robust and fecund species, with virtually no economic value, on millions of acres of multiple-use public lands and imparted almost complete protection without any forethought or rational, let alone humane, population control.

After research and proven data, there is still a small group of horse advocates who are against fertility control. Based on your experience what are their objections, and what are the merits of their arguments.

The fantasy that predators will control wild horse populations is not realistic.  Cattle and sheep should be removed from public lands is not realistic.   Furthermore, at some point, the reproduction of horses would overcome the land they live on. They cannot migrate several hundred miles to meet natural environmental challenges, like winter and drought. PZP is not natural. Round ups are not natural nor is slaughter, relocating predators or providing man-made water holes. Horses will self-regulate is similar to placing a bunch of dogs in a kennel (remember, the horses are fenced), and giving them finite food and water and walking away.

What has been accomplished so far with fertility control?

Currently, there are 36 ongoing wild horse fertility control projects: two National Park Service (NPS), two United States Forest Service (USFS), eight BLM, 10 sanctuaries, five tribal projects, and four private land provisions as well as two in Europe and three in Canada. Additionally, PZP is being used in 2 different bison herds, and more than 20 African elephant populations in South Africa.

Can the BLM or Forest Service set up a process for PZP administration and why haven’t they?

Local BLM herd management areas (HMAs) can and do go ahead with PZP treatment of their horses. These would include the Pryors in Montana and Wyoming; McCullough Peaks, Wyoming; Little Brook Cliffs, Sand Wash, Colorado; Cedar Mountain, Utah; Spring Creek Basin, Colorado (at present); Challis, Idaho; and Pine Nut, Nevada.  These HMA’s have to take costs out of their own pockets.

Originally published June 2015 in New Flash: The Newsletter of the Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance.