STOREY COUNTY, Nev. (KLAS) — About half of the nation’s wild horse population is in the state of Nevada. 

The I-Team was recently given access to a fertility control program aimed at helping to control the wild horse population.  

Advocates for the American Wild Horse Campaign argue that fertility control is more humane than the current method mainly used by the Bureau of Land Management which involves capturing the wild horse, oftentimes, with help from equipment like helicopters.

Elena Sullivan is a volunteer with the American Wild Horse Campaign who showed the I-Team how fertility control works.  She uses Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP, which is injected through remote darting. 

A database is maintained to help keep track of the horses by appearance and band, or group.  Sullivan told the I-Team in many cases, the horses seem to barely notice that they have been darted. 

“I’ve darted some mares that have walked a couple of feet and then started grazing again,” Sullivan said.

Elena Sullivan, volunteer with American Wild Horse Campaign

Darting can be time-consuming and it is not foolproof. On the November day that the I-Team accompanied Sullivan, she darted a mare that had originally been identified as a male.  She quietly followed the mare as the band moved from location to location.  Her patience and persistence paid off, as she pulled the trigger and the dart reached the mare.  “That’s darting on the range!” Sullivan exclaimed.

According to the American Wild Horse Campaign, darting begins when a mare is as young as 10 months old, boosters continue every 8 to 12 months, and then after five to seven years, the mare can no longer reproduce. 

“When we go out and we do our population counts, we see that the population right now is pretty stable,” Greg Hendricks said.  He is the Director of Field Operations for the program.  He is also retired from the Bureau of Land Management. 

The federal agency has been resistant to darting the horses with birth control.

“The BLM, they’re not a bad organization.  They’re just an organization that’s slow to change,” Hendricks told the I-Team. 

During the BLM’s roundups, some horses get hurt and die.  Many of the captured horses are put in government-holding pens. Some are adopted, in some cases, to buyers who sell them for slaughter.

“We’ve had people go to the auction to try to buy them and the kill buyers will outbid them,” Sullivan said. 

In 2020, Congresswoman Dina Titus led the effort to designate $11 million for the BLMS to use for fertility control with PZP. 

When the I-Team reached out to the BLM, spokeswoman Jenny Lesieutre said PZP is not as effective as another vaccine, GonaCon-Equine.  She said for the fiscal year 2020, the BLM increased its use of GonaCon-Equine by 75.2%. 

According to the BLM website, only 735 birth control treatments were done during that time period compared to nearly 11,000 removals during roundups.  The BLM also reports expenditures at more than $91 million. 

Advocates for fertility control argue that it is more cost-effective because volunteers do the darting, the darts are estimated at five dollars, and holding pens and other equipment like helicopters are not needed.  

“Hopefully we’ll change the way the ship has run and be able to change the course,” Hendricks said.  He told the I-Team that since 2019, more than 2,000 horses have been darted in the Virginia Range program.

Statement from Jenny Lesieutre, Public Affairs Specialist,  Nevada Wild Horse, and Burro Program:

  • The BLM continues to prioritize research and development into effective fertility control methods that can safely limit herd growth over the long term, where one- to two-year vaccines like Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP ZonaStat) fall short. In fact, in FY2020 the BLM increased its use of GonaCon-Equine by 75.2%. GonaCon-Equine is a fertility control vaccine that can last nearly five times as long as darted Porcine Zona Pellucida. 
  • Every BLM management action for wild horses and burros living on public lands must consider fertility control in the range of alternatives. Where it is practical to do so, BLM is committed to implementing effective, humane fertility control measures to limit herd growth and put the Program on a fiscally and ecologically sustainable path. 

For more information on the Nevada Wild Horse and Burro program click HERE.

The American Wild Horse Campaign released the following statement below.

The BLM has a 50-year history of failure in managing wild horse populations. Science actually shows that PZP is a more effective agent than GonaCon. It has fewer side effects and better field application since it can be administered remotely by darting without rounding up horses with helicopters. The American Wild Horse Campaign has proved its success in the Virginia Range with a large-scale program that has achieved zero population growth in just two years. By claiming that this proven method does not work, the agency is further delaying effective management while keeping the tax dollars flowing for brutal wild horse roundups.

Fortunately, Congress has said enough is enough. For the first time ever, both the House and the Senate have passed legislative language to require the BLM to implement a comprehensive fertility control vaccine program as a step away from the cruel and costly removal of wild horses and burros from our public lands. Since the language is in both chambers’ versions of this bill, it is likely to be included in the final spending package.

A good example of the agency’s intransigence is the Fish Creek HMA in Nevada, where AWHC submitted a proposal in the summer of 2019 to  staff and implement a PZP fertility control program at no cost to taxpayers. We’ve gotten nothing but the run around from the agency for more than two year, resulting in foals being born that the taxpayers will eventually pay to round up, remove and stockpile.

American Wild Horse Campaign

Other wild horse advocates argue that the population doesn’t need to be managed at all. They believe the BLM is choosing ranchers’ interests to graze livestock.