Wild and Free
By Andrea Stuart
Wild horses and burros are American icons, revered for their historical role in this country. They have a mutually beneficial relationship with the land (terrestrial ecological mutualism)—dispersing seeds, pruning with their teeth and thus assisting in fire management, and depositing nutrient-dense manure into the soil. For many people, especially in the American West, they also represent freedom.
Since the creation of the federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, wild horse populations have grown to healthier numbers. However, the federal government is currently pushing a $1 billion-plus program to reduce wild horse populations to the number that existed in 1971, when Congress protected them because they were “fast disappearing."
One organization is working to prevent the wild horse and burro from disappearing. American Wild Horse Campaign’s (AWHC) mission is to protect “America’s wild horses and burros by stopping the federal government’s systematic elimination of these national icons from our public lands.”
AWHC Executive Director Suzanne Roy—who became a horse advocate after reading her daughter Misty of Chincoteague—conducts legal advocacy and develops seat-on-the-ground programs. She also wears numerous other hats in the organization. “We work to ensure that Congress continues to prohibit slaughter and directs the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to move away from cruel in-the-wild management and replace it with birth control,” says Roy.
AWHC Development Director Terri Ducay, a lifetime animal lover and advocate, spends her time fundraising and informing constituents and donors. “Our focus in Washington is to educate lawmakers about the overall issue,” she says. One way AWHC is doing this is by promoting and implementing fertility management. “Urban encroachment on wild horse lands reduces herd access to water, food, and safety. It endangers the horses in numerous ways,” says Roy. “If we can work with the BLM, developers, and other interests to manage the populations, we can eliminate roundups.”
BLM’s preferred method of herd management is through helicopter roundups. Helicopters fly low to the ground, forcing herds to stampede over rugged terrain until they are captured. Horses and burros are then either adopted, auctioned off, or warehoused in long-term holding facilities. Many are slaughtered. These insufficient methods cost taxpayers over $100 million a year. By removing large numbers of animals, roundups free up resources and cause horses left on the range to breed at higher-than-normal rates. The roundup process is then repeated, perpetuating the very problem—high population growth rates—that the BLM complains about. But AWHC has a solution that just might satisfy all parties.
Since April 2019, AWHC has been conducting a fertility control program in the Virginia Range of Nevada by administering porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccine to approximately 3,000 mares. The vaccine produces an immune response that prevents fertilization without affecting hormones, making it a safe, effective, and reversible birth control method. It’s administered remotely with a dart fired by a rifle.
In addition to being a highly effective form of population management, preventing more than 90 percent of pregnancies in wild mares, it’s significantly more costeffective than roundups. In the first year of the fertility control program, AWHC darted 958 wild mares at $190 per horse, preventing approximately 862 births. The BLM would have spent $1,000 per horse rounding them up and would have spent $50,000 per horse for lifetime holding. This new fertility management effort saved around $35.5 million.
Wildlife preservation is a challenge because there are numerous factors to consider. Environmental groups, rescuers, and wildlife experts aim to keep wildlife wild. Meanwhile, other groups would like to use the wildlife habitat land for other purposes. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that responsible population management of wildlife is necessary. “If we can keep the animals on their land, they will remain wild and free,” concludes Roy.
Wild and free. Isn’t that the American ideal?
To learn more about American Wild Horse Campaign, visit AmericanWildHorseCampaign.org.