Two weeks ago I visited the Sand Wash Basin Herd in Colorado. I have been photographing the wild horses there since the disastrous roundup in 2008 when 11 wild horses died and I watched a wild mare being trampled underneath other horses who were being pushed into a horse trailer.
But now I am learning that the worst thing that can happen to the wild horses in Sand Wash is NOT a helicopter roundup. It is the BLM using bad science and making the herd a victim of a new and wholly unnecessary research study.
In April the BLM announced that it would be making up to 10 million dollars available in grants of up to 1 million dollars each for wild horse and burro contraception and sterilization:
In Sand Wash Basin, the AML or Appropriate Management Level of wild horses is 155-355 and Wendy Reynolds, the BLM Little Snake Office Field Director claims that there are currently 460 wild horses in Sand Wash plus 40 foals, and this was on May 29 at the Northwest Resource Advisory Council Meeting on May 29, 2014.
As most of us know who follow these issues, nothing makes the BLM more frantic than hearing that a wild horse herd is over AML. It is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Despite the fact that the range is in fair shape given all the moisture this year and the extremely healthy condition of the horses, that is unacceptable to them.
Sand Wash Basin has leases for sheep grazing and the destruction that these huge groups of hundreds of sheep have caused over decades leaves the range in poor condition in many areas. But it is the overgrazing of sheep and not the wild horses that has caused and perpetuates this damage.
I met Jerome Fox at a popular wild horse waterhole called ironically, “Sheepherder” and asked him about his plans for this year for the herd. Jerome is the Wild Horse and Burro Specialist for the area and he is darting wild mares with PZP-22 birth control. I ask him isn’t this late to be doing this? What I have heard and read is that PZP-22 needs to be administered before breeding season, in January and in February as it is done on the wild horses in the Pryor Mountains and in McCullough Peaks in order for it to be most effective. He mentions that it is difficulty to access the range in winter. Honestly, compared to using the poor excuses for roads to get into the Pryors in the winter, accessing Sand Wash is a piece of cake.
According to Jerome, this year they have darted 105 mares, he and volunteers from the Sand Wash Advocates Team.
This an increase over the number of mares that were treated during the Humane Society of the United States study that took place in Sand Wash Basin from 2008-2011, then continued in 2012 and 2013. In 2008 during the roundup, they treated and released 63 mares, but 123 horses were not gathered or treated. Also the foals of these mares that arrived the following spring were not treated. Instead they concentrated on reapplying PZP-22 to the already treated mares. The foaling rate decreased for individuals, but there was no population effect on the herd simply because not enough mares were treated. The BLM labeled the use of PZP-22 a failure. This information came from Allen Rutberg, PhD of Tufts University at the 2014 American Equine Summit in his aptly named talk called “Embracing Failure: Why the BLM will not use Fertility Control” http://www.equineadvocates.org/video.php?recordID=45
Jerome Fox also told me that he wanted to capture horses this August using bait trapping and then offer the young one and two year old horses at an adoption in Steamboat Springs in September, but that he has not yet received any money – he is waiting on Washington DC and there is nowhere to put any more horses in holding facilities. I found it interesting that he was considering using bait trapping – two years ago I had emailed him and asked if they could use bait trapping in Sand Wash and he told me that it was 2x more expensive than doing a helicopter roundup. He also said that he planned to skew the sex ratio of the herd to 60% stallions and 40% mares because that was the only way to make using the PZP-22 effective. The normal percentage in a wild horse herd is about 50% stallions to 50% mares.
However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Sand Wash wild horses have much bigger problems than a roundup facing them. At the Northwest Resource Advisory Council Meeting on May 29, 2014 in Craig, Colorado, Wendy Reynolds, Filed Director the the Little Snake BLM office called for a resolution supporting the Sand Wash Herd for a pilot project to use chemical sterilization of stallions. This would involve shooting a stallion with a tranquilizer dart then treat him with a shot. Wendy says she has been in touch with Dr. Kirk Shiner of Windsor, Colorado who has developed a “chemical vasectomy” and that it would not change the stallion’s behavior but would render him sterile. I am not sure at this point if they would be doing chemical vasectomies or chemical sterilization. The “one shot” procedure she describes would be chemical sterilization not chemical vasectomies. The effects are different, and the administration is different – the chemical vasectomy requires the use of anesthesia, which could be very dangerous to wild horses done in the field. It may not affect behavior like chemical sterilization does but it has NOT been studied in horses, just in cats and dogs.
You can read more in the minutes of the May 29, 2014 meeting here: http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/BLM_Resources/racs/nwr/minutes.html
I have done some looking into chemical sterilization and ironically, in the BLM’s own 2012 document:
Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program – a Way Forward in the section on chemical sterilization of stallions, it says “some or total loss of sex drive would be likely in treated stallions and this is counter to the often-stated public intent in maintaining natural behaviors in free-ranging horses.” This document also mentions that treated stallions, when losing the sex drive and aggressive instincts could lose their families to untreated stallions. This treatment renders the stallions permanently sterile.
Wendy Reynolds wants to continue the PZP-22 darting program AND chemically sterilize the stallions. The assumption is that PZP-22 alone does not work. Therefore, let’s just turn the Sand Wash Basin Herd into a laboratory for random and dangerous research and do everything possible even if the treatment is untested. After all, the BLM is giving out grants for 1 million dollars.
The problem is not that PZP-22 does not work in Sand Wash Basin, it is that it has not been given to enough mares in the population at the right time of year. 105 mares is still not even half of the mares in the herd. Both the Pryor Mountain Herd and the McCullough Peaks Herds have had a very successful record in having their populations controlled because a much higher percentage of the mares are treated and they are treated in January and February, before breeding season. PZP-22 is proven, it works, there does not need to be any radical new testing of extreme measures on this herd, or any other wild horse herd.
What needs to happen to control the population of the Sand Wash Herd is very simple. Treat all the mares 1 year and over, and do it in January and February. Money should be allotted by the BLM to pay for PZP-22 and for people to be trained to give it and to administer it. They should not be relying only on volunteers, there are not enough of them to do the job. Put the money where it will do some good, rather than spend it on helicopter roundups or bait trapping removals, or new unproven ways to permanently sterilize stallions. PZP and PZP-22 are reversible, which is important if what you are aiming to do is to actually manage the population. You do not want to permanently sterilize the mares or the stallions – once you have your population goals achieved it is very important to keep in mind that you do not want to decrease the population so much that there is a lack of genetic diversity, and that the population goes into decline.
As Allen Rutberg put it, wild horses should be allowed to live on the range as freely as possible with as little meddling as possible.
Sterilizing herds is far beyond the scope of “management” that the BLM is mandated to provide for our wild horses. My concern is that once they sterilize one herd, the rest will follow.
And last, do not destroy the structure of the family bands by sterilizing the stallions. Many people, including myself, come to visit the wild horses of Sand Wash Basin because it is relatively easy to observe them and their behavior with their families and interacting with other wild horse families, which is a truly priceless opportunity. You can watch mares with their foals, the stallions protecting and defending their families, stallions fighting to win mares or to establish who is more dominant, the bachelor stallions playing, causing trouble and practicing their stallion behaviors, and the very best part of all is that these horses will allow you into their world. As I was sitting near Lookout Mountain two weeks ago with many wild horse families around me, napping, grazing, and gently interacting I realized that there can be no better place for me to be.
Nancy Roberts has been following, documenting, photographing and educating people about the Sand Wash Basin Herd since 2009. Go to her excellent Facebook page to learn more about the herd: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sand-Wash-Basin-Wild-Horses/101181969939406?
For more information on the Sand Wash Basin Advocate Team go to their website here: http://sandwashadvocate.org/
Some further notes about Chemical Sterilization, PZP, PZP-22 and Chemical Vasectomies:
There is no reason or justification to do chemical vasectomies in the Sand Wash herd because:
1. the effects of chemical vasectomy have not been studied in the horses.
2. chemical will require anesthesia – dangerous and difficult procedure in field setting.
3. effective contraceptive efforts must be female-directed because even if just one intact stallion is present in a population he can impregnate multiple, multiple mares.
4. the efficacy and safety of Native PZP has been definitively documented with a history of use spanning more than two decades.
5. The BLM has deliberately confused mixed results of PZP 22 trials with documented efficacy of Native PZP.
5. The Sand Wash herd is a perfect population for use of Native PZP – members of the population are well known and individually identified, accessible for darting, and as you say, if they dart enough of the mare population, there is absolutely no reason that PZP cannot be used successfully in this herd. For the BLM to suggest otherwise, is blatantly ignoring science and misrepresenting the facts. There is no need or justification to resort to draconian measures, such as vasectomizing stallions using a procedure that requires dangerous anesthesia and which has not been studied in horses.