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Wild horse activists focus on fertility control as BLM pulls horses from Western rangelands

This image is a panoramic view of a low-flying helicopter flying above wild horses that are stampeding through the desert.
Shelby Herbert
KUNR Public Radio
The Bureau of Land Management used a helicopter to drive wild horses into holding pens during a roundup in the Twin Peaks Herd Management Area, located along the Nevada-California border, on July 23, 2022.

There are tens of thousands of horses running wild in the Mountain West. The U.S. government mainly uses roundups to keep them from overgrazing public lands. But advocacy groups want more of a focus on fertility control.

In a sun-baked desert east of Reno, Nev., Tracy Wilson and Rae Hanna stood 70 yards from a band of wild horses quietly munching on sagebrush.

Hanna held an air rifle loaded with a dart containing a fertility-control vaccine booster called Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP)

While Hanna crept closer to the horses, Wilson split off to the right and slowly walked in a semi-circle around them.

“There are times when I’ll just pick at the bushes like I’m another animal grazing," Wilson said. "If you’re just staring them down and going right for them, they’re going to leave.”

Hanna raised her air rifle and aimed at a female horse they call “Bangs.” She pulled the trigger, and the dart struck the black mare in the rump.

Bangs was only briefly startled. She and the five others clopped farther up the hill, and then calmly went back to grazing.

These are just six of the 3,100 wild horses that roam across the mountainous Virginia Range. Wilson and Rae were stalking them on this July morning on behalf of the American Wild Horse Campaign. Wilson is the group's Nevada state director, Hanna is a volunteer. Their work is part of an effort to show that fertility control is a more effective – and more humane – way to address wild horse overpopulation than government tactics they view as mistreatment.

The image is of four wild horses roaming a desert land covered in sagebrush.
Deborah Sutherland
The Virginia Range east of Reno, Nev., has about 3,100 wild horses roaming the area. The black female horse, center, in this band was given a fertility-control vaccine booster on July 19, 2022.

The American Wild Horse Campaign objects to the federal government’s roundups and removals intended to rein in wild horse numbers on public lands. Criticisms leveled by it and other wild horse activists have only grown louder recently. Last month, the group Friends of Animals sued the government over a planned holding facility in Nevada. And activists' fury was stoked by the 145 horses that died of an equine flu at a federal holding pen in Cañon City, Colo., in the spring. A review of the deaths found the government failed to vaccinate horses in a timely manner.

“What we're trying to prove here in the Virginia Range is that there is a better way, and we were trying to show that we can do it,” Wilson said.

Wilson says the birth rate of foals on the Virginia Range has dropped more than 61% since 2020. And she says keeping the local population is check is increasingly necessary as the edges of the range get encroached on by greater Reno's sprawl.

“As you start reducing the amount of available space and forage, then you need to manage the numbers to fit what's available for the horses. So, we want a healthy range, we want a healthy horse population,” Wilson said.

Most wild horses fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. The Virginia Range, however, is mostly private land. That allows groups like the American Wild Horse Campaign to take management measures into their own hands.

Nevada is home to nearly 42,000 wild horses – the most of any state. The BLM says that's many more than the land can sustain. The agency, which manages vast rangelands around the West, is at the center of the emotionally charged debate over wild horse management, with groups like the American Wild Horse Campaign on one side and those that view them as an invasive species on the other.

Chris Pritsos, a researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, says their trampling is destroying rangelands, and they’re dominating habitats that other wildlife depend on.

“They will huddle around a water hole and they will not allow the other animals to reach that water,” Pritsos said. “In the drought, as our streams are drying up, and there’s less and less of these water holes, it does become a huge issue.”

Further west, the BLM recently conducted a roundup in the 800,000-acre Twin Peaks Herd Management Area, located along the Nevada-California border. The agency used low-flying helicopters to drive wild horses into holding pens.

Over a few weeks, more than 2,100 horses were captured, including 110 mares that were temporarily held and injected with fertility-control vaccines.

A woman is sitting on a rock in the desert. She is raising binoculars to her eyes.
Shelby Herbert
KUNR Public Radio
BLM spokesperson Amy Dumas surveyed the wild horses during a roundup at the Twin Peaks Herd Management Area on July 23, 2022.

BLM spokesperson Amy Dumas says remote darting is only feasible in smaller herd management areas, or HMAs, near communities.

“That works really, really well in those HMAs where the horses are used to people. And those people follow the horses,” Dumas said.

Across the West, there are close to 57,000 wild horses in federal facilities. The BLM’s schedule for fiscal 2022 aims to remove more than 20,000.

Sarah King, a researcher at Colorado State University, says slowing down birth rates is only a partial solution.

“Fertility control is great as a long-term solution to stop the population increasing, but the only way to actually reduce the population size is to remove animals from the range,” King said.

In the meantime, new forms of fertility control are being tested. King’s part of a group monitoring several mares in Utah that received intrauterine devices, or IUDs, specifically designed for horses.

She says it's too early to gauge its effectiveness on a larger scale. But even testing IUDs – like just about everything related to wild horses in the West – is controversial.

Editor’s note: KUNR reporter Shelby Herbert contributed to this report. She is a member of the Hitchcock Project for Visualizing Science, which is part of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist who joined KUNR as a reporter in November 2021.
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