I-Team: Examining methods to control wild horse population

I-Team

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Wild horses are a symbol of the West, but many agree the population needs to be controlled for the well-being of both the animals and the land. 

One program to help control the population has marked its first anniversary. Some hope it can replace a controversial method used by the federal government. 

Volunteers dart the animals with PZP or immunocontraception, a birth control for horses. Advocates say it’s the more humane and cheaper alternative to roundups by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

“Probably the biggest challenge that we have for the management of wild horses today is the ability to embrace change,” said Greg Hendricks, director of field operations for the American Wild Horse Campaign. 

Hendricks oversees the fertility control program, a partnership with the Nevada Department of Agriculture on an area called the Virginia Range. 

The herd in this region is one of the few in the Silver State controlled by Nevada, not the federal government. 

Hendricks divulged more about the program, “It is the biggest fertility control program in the world, and that has to do with horses. And so, we have darted over 980 horses in a year. That’s unprecedented. Nobody’s ever done that.” 

A BLM spokeswoman would not comment on the program to the I-Team, saying, “the BLM does not comment on projects outside of the agencies.”

Here’s how it works: volunteers are at it every day, observing the horses, darting them and keeping track of each one in a database. 

Hendricks said the dart is similar to getting a shot in your arm, and it falls out. 

The plan is to dart a horse once a year, and Hendricks said after the fifth year, they likely don’t need it again.

So, does the method sterilize horses? The BLM spokeswoman said there isn’t proven scientific record that would point to that.

But most of the wild horses in Nevada are controlled by the federal government, and the BLM continues with roundups, hiring contractors and keeping many horses in corrals unless they’re adopted. 

At a roundup in Nevada this past February, more than 1,700 horses were captured, and 24 died. 

Hendricks said he worked for the BLM in 1979 and that the roundups were happening back then. 

“It’s still a violent thing,” explained Hendricks. “You’re running horses at a high speed into a trap with a helicopter, and so, there’s usually some injuries and potential fatalities. And, it’s expensive. It costs a lot of money to round up horses with helicopters.” 

Hendricks said the cost of PZP is $35 per horse. If you do it for five years, that’s $175 per animal. 

The budget for the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Management Program, meaning the roundups, was $80 million in 2019. The agency ended up being $5 million over budget. 

BLM spending has been going up for years. In 2009, the budget was $40.6 million in taxpayer money. 

This overview of costs from the Congressional Research Service points to $50,000 alone to keep an animal in a facility if it’s not adopted, and most aren’t. 

In 2013, a study by the National Academy of Sciences, which had the BLM’s support, pointed out horse populations are going up by 15 to 20% on land BLM manages. This means the horses are reproducing faster, and the roundups aren’t working. 

“My thoughts on it are the BLM is taking the route that’s most comfortable for them,” said Hendricks. “It gives them instantaneous results. So, they get horses off, but it’s not a long term fix.” 

The study also pointed out PZP is one of the most effective methods, and while the BLM had the tools for better management, it’s just “business as usual.”

The BLM spokeswoman said PZP has been effective for some herds, but she brought up challenges in Nevada. She said most of the animals are in rugged and remote areas with limited human contact, which requires more cost, time and effort. Due to this, the BLM sticks with those roundups. 

To learn more and for a list of the BLM’s wild horse and burro roundups, click here.

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