Friends of Animals blocks contraceptive project in the Pine Nut Mountains of Nevada.
Part III of a three-part series examining winter, wildlife, & livestock. See also If “your ass is grass,” ranchers lost their butts in 2015-2016, and Winter policy favors feeding elk but starving bison.
RENO, Nevada––Even a quick glance at satellite photos suggests that the Pine Nut Mountains of Nevada might be the ideal place to test the contraceptive vaccine ZonaStat-H in wild horses.
Stretching for 40 miles southeast of Carson City toward the California border, the Pine Nut Mountains offer highly varied habitat, easy road access to keep the wild horse herd under observation, and one of the best-documented wild horse populations anywhere.
PZP trial was started
A Pine Nut Mountains trial of ZonaStat-H did get started. The first 22 mares were treated in November 2010.
Encouraged by the results from that preliminary test, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management initiated the Fish Springs Wild Horses PZP Pilot Project in December 2014, working in partnership with American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, representing a coalition of more than 60 wild horse advocacy organizations, and Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates, of Gardnerville, Nevada.
ZonaStat-H is contraceptive vaccine based on porcine zona pellucida, extracted from the ovaries of slaughtered pigs. Called PZP for short, ZonaStat-H has been used with wild horses under National Park Service jurisdiction at Assateague Island, Maryland since 1994.
But was stopped on May 3, 2016
But, wrote Bureau of Land Management Sierra Front field manager Bryant D. Smith in a May 3, 2016 memo to staff, “Administration of PZP to [the Pine Nut Mountains] wild horses is hereby suspended, pending further review.”
“The Bureau of Land Management maintains the Pine Nut herd is seriously overpopulated. It intended to round up more than 300 horses last year before U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks sided with wild horse advocates and blocked the effort,” summarized Scott Sonner of Associated Press. “Hicks ruled that the BLM failed to conduct the necessary analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act, and soon after the agency voluntarily withdrew its roundup plan.
FoA threatened to sue
The Bureau of Land Management suspended the ZonaStat-H project, Sonner explained, “after Friends of Animals threatened to sue, based on claims the drug PZP harms horses and violates the judge’s order.”
Friends of Animals and another group, Protect Mustangs, previously delayed the Pine Nut Mountains trial of ZonaStat-H with a lawsuit filed in January 2015.
Gloated Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral, “We are extremely happy to have killed the pilot project and to put a stop to the forced drugging of Pine Nut mares with the fertility control pesticide PZP for a second time.”
Feral has headed the Connecticut-based advocacy organization Friends of Animals, founded in 1957, since 1986.
Called darting mares “harassment”
Friends of Animals’ wildlife law program director Michael Harris told Sonner that allowing private landowners with rifles to dart mares, as was part of the Fish Springs Wild Horses PZP Pilot Project “appears to violate the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which prohibits landowners from intentionally harassing wild horses,” Sonner paraphrased.
But whether the Friends of Animals position is consonant with the original intent of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act is distinctly questionable––especially in application to the wild horses of the Pine Nut Mountains.
“Wild Horse Annie” & Marilyn Monroe
The passage of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act is largely credited to Velma Johnston. Nicknamed “Wild Horse Annie,” Johnston spent more than 20 years lobbying the act and earlier state legislation protecting wild horses into existence, beginning in 1950.
Also well-remembered are the roles of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, who reinforced Johnston’s efforts in their last film, The Misfits (1961).
The Misfits was filmed in the Pine Nut Mountains and featured the Pine Nut wild horse herd, then subjected to frequent roundups of horses to be sold for slaughter by dog food makers.
The winter of ’69
But the draft Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act also won a timely publicity boost from the plight of 40 to 50 horses who in late February 1969 became stranded in deep snow along a 28-mile ridge in the Pine Nut Mountains.
The episode demonstrated the deceptively limited carrying capacity of the habitat. About 200 wild horses roamed the Pine Nut Mountains at the time, less than two-thirds of the present population. But that was still too many for the late winter conditions.
“Winds have swept the ridge almost bare,” reported Associated Press. “A series of storms scared the horses to high ground, piling up shoulder-deep snow which eventually trapped them on the rocky ridge with only a few tufts of grass to eat.”
“Down to skin & bones”
“They’re up to their necks in snow. They haven’t got any feed and they’re down to skin and bones,” confirmed helicopter owner Ed Counts.
Hired by an ad hoc committee of local ranchers, hunters, and sheriff’s deputies to attempt a rescue, Counts and pilot Byron Clark flew as much hay as they could to the stranded horses, buying time until a mounted posse could clear a trail along which to lead them out.
“We fed everything we could, about 35 mustangs,” Clark said.
Captured the public fancy
Stranded wild horses have died in harsh winters since circa 1600, when runaway Spanish horses repopulated the western range, eight to ten thousand years after horses last lived in North America, their evolutionary home.
The Yakima Nation of western Washington state introduced the use of helicopters to round up wild horses for slaughter in 1953.
But the use of a helicopter to save horses from deep snow was something new, and captured the public fancy. Documented by television cameras, the Quixotic rescue of February 1969 made headlines nationwide, briefly shouldering aside even the Vietnam War––and helped to make wild horses a high profile issue in Congress.
PZP introduction delayed
Developed by wildlife biologist Jay Kirkpatrick, who died at age 75 in December 2015, ZonaStat-H and other PZP-based contraceptive vaccines have been used in more than 80 species of captive hooved wildlife since 1987.
The first large-scale application of ZonaStat-H to equines covered by the federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, however, meaning horses living under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, was delayed until 2011 by opposition from Friends of Animals and other wild horse advocacy groups who argue that wild horse populations should be regulated only by nature, and that wild horses should be allowed to re-occupy all of the range they occupied before they became a regulated species.
Pryor Mountains test
In 2011 ZonaStat-H was at last injected into about 1,600 free-ranging mares at test sites across the U.S., chiefly in the Pryor Mountains of Montana and the McCullough Peaks region of Wyoming.
The Bureau of Land Management found that the introduction of ZonaStat-H reduced the rate of growth of the Pryor Mountains wild horse herd, a particularly politically and ecologically controversial population, by more than half.
The Pine Nut Mountains wild horse herd had meanwhile been growing since 2003, when the Bureau of Land Management rounded up and removed 320 horses of an estimated 438 horses in the 98,600-acre herd management area. This is about 25% of the total of 400,000 acres in the Pine Nut Mountains that are under BLM control.
Conflict with livestock
The Bureau of Land Management believes the herd management area habitat can sustain from from 118 to 179 wild horses, who seasonally share the range with livestock.
Wrote Wild Horse Conspiracy author Craig C. Downer in 2013, “1,511 cow-calf pairs and 12,707 sheep graze its several allotments at various seasons. This is the equivalent of over 1,000 cow-calf pairs grazing all year long,” with “a preponderance of grazing early in the season when forage is highest in nutritional value.”
In November 2005 an amended Pine Nut Mountains resource management plan threatened to cut the horse herd area by 21%. Dan Jacquet, assistant manager of renewable resources for the Bureau of Land Management’s Carson City field office, confirmed to Tim Anderson of the Reno Gazette-Journal that this “could lead to a corresponding reduction in the number of wild horses.”
“In 2010, the BLM found that the Pine Nut herd had grown to about 215 horses and proposed a roundup and PZP treatment,” recounted the Environmental News Service in February 2014. “The BLM did an Environmental Assessment at that time, and the roundup and birth control treatments were carried out” on 22 mares.
Meanwhile, a more immediate threat to the Pine Nut Mountains wild horse herd came from a series of wildfires associated with reduced winter snowfall and dryer summers. Both are probable effects of global warming, likely to continue as longterm trends throughout the foreseeable future.
Most damaging were the Bald Mountain fire of 2012 and the Bison Fire of early July 2013, which burned 37 square miles on the east-facing slopes of Galena Peak and Mount Siegel.
While wildfires are more-or-less routine in wild horse habitat throughout the west, they temporarily reduce the grass available to horses. When the habitat is receiving less precipitation between fires, the fires can be symptomatic of reduced longterm carrying capacity for all grazing and browsing species, as well as for the predators who help to keep the grazing and browsing species’ numbers in check.
Mule deer, pumas, & sage grouse
These trends are evident throughout Nevada, where the mule deer population fell from 240,000 in 1988 to 99,000 in 2015. The Nevada puma population over the same years appears to have fallen from a high of about 2,400 to as few as 1,500, with many pumas apparently migrating to more favorable hunting habitat in California.
Political pressure to cut the Pine Nut Mountains wild horse herd increased with the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, which apportioned $32 million over ten years, explained Jeff DeLong of the Reno Gazette-Journal, “to fund conservation efforts affecting habitat for a type of sage grouse found only along the Nevada-California border, a bird now proposed for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.”
The Pine Nut Mountains are considered essential habitat for the sage grouse, whose total population throughout their range is believed to be about 5,000.
“Over the high end”
While the ground-nesting sage grouse have long co-existed with wild horses, cattle, and mule deer, grazing animals are seen as a potential threat to their cover.
But as of August 2014, a Bureau of Land Management wild horse population inventory found 332 horses in the Pine Nut Mountains, approximately twice the officially recognized “appropriate management level.”
Wrote DeLong, “An overpopulation of horses in the area has damaged the range, including valuable sage grouse habitat, and reduced availability of native forage grasses needed to support a healthy horse population.”
Elaborated Bureau of Land Management official John Neill, who was to oversee the January 2015 roundup of all 332 horses, “They are considerably over the high end (in population) and have been for two or three years. Once animals grow over that upper end, those animals are excess animals and BLM is responsible to remove them.”
200 to be “permanently removed”
Two hundred of the 332 wild horses were to have been permanently removed. “Of the 132 released back to the range, about 66 mares would receive a 22-month treatment” of ZonaStat-H, “to prevent future reproduction,” DeLong explained.
Friends of Animals’ opposition to ZonaStat-H use in the Pine Nut Mountains is consistent with the 25-year FoA history of opposition to animal contraceptives, and in particular to animal contraceptives developed with help from the Humane Society of the U.S.
In 1991, for example, a Friends of Animals campaign influenced the Humane Society of the U.S. to temporarily withdraw funding for the development of the chemosterilant for male dogs and cats which was eventually marketed as Neutersol and is now sold as Esterisol.
FoA asked EPA to cancel PZP registration
Friends of Animals on May 20, 2015 asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to “cancel the registration of porcine zona pellucida (PZP) for population control of America’s wild horses and burros, which was issued to the Humane Society of the United States in 2012.”
Alleged FoA Wildlife Law Program legal director Michael Harris, “PZP poses the risk of immediate physical damage to the dosed mares, can increase the mortality rate in foals born to treated mares after the PZP loses its effectiveness, can result in social disruptions among herds with treated mares that can damage long-term herd cohesion that is critical to the health of the animals, and places the wild horses at risk of a genetic bottleneck.”
But retired firefighter, horse rescuer, and longtime wild horse advocate Willis Lamm gave ANIMALS 24-7 a different perspective, from direct observation of horses in a herd management area just to the north of the Pine Nut Mountains.
“I have observed fertility-controlled herds in the Virginia Range of Nevada for many years,” Lamm told ANIMALS 24-7. “Several of us, as volunteers, kept photographic records of bands of horses in which some members had received PZP and others received other fertility control methods.
“Going in, we had no knowledge as to which horses had been given which form of fertility control. The mares whom we determined later were provided PZP showed no ill effects. In fact, the only observable side effects were short intervals in which they did not produce foals and developed improved body scores while they rested from gestating and nursing.
“The social structures of the PZP treated horses were more influenced by human interference––tourists and meddlers––than by any side effect that we could attribute to the vaccine,” Lamm said. “The horses who kept to remote areas stayed socially integrated, while the behaviors of horses, treated or not, tended to be disrupted where humans imposed themselves on the bands.”
Charged American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign program director Deniz Bolbol, to Associated Press, “This is a lawsuit filed by people sitting in an office in Connecticut against the folks in Nevada doing the hard work on the ground to keep wild horses free on the range. If this group wants to help wild horses, they need to focus on the BLM’s current effort to conduct barbaric spaying of wild mares [proposed in Oregon] and the castration of stallions on the range [practiced in Utah], rather than target this type of humane birth control.”
“Get review going ASAP”
Posted Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates to Facebook, “We are supporting our local BLM office to get the National Environmental Policy Act review going as soon as possible. With the science behind PZP, we fully expect our program will resume. The sooner the better to keep our wild horses with their families on the range.
“The fertility control program is completely safe,” Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates said. “We keep impeccable scientific data on darted mares and their offspring, as well as their band behaviors. There have been no disruptions and no birth defects. PZP was listed as a ‘pesticide’ simply because there was not a category for animal fertility control. It is safe and reversible. This is not an extinction program, it is merely slowing down the [herd] growth rate, and in fact, an aging mare who is darted lives longer because she is healthier.”
Pressure building for gathers
Meanwhile, there is one certainty: pressure will continue to build for the Bureau of Land Management to remove Pine Nut Mountains wild horses from the range.
Reported Scott Sonner of Associated Press on April 27, 2016, “Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval is considering legal action to force the Bureau of Land Management to pony up some money to pay for roundups of wild horses in the state that have been put on hold because of federal budgetary constraints.
“The federal agency currently plans no large-scale roundups in Nevada this year because of budget shortfalls driven largely by the cost of housing more than 45,000 mustangs now in government holding facilities across the country,” Sonner added.
Cuts of 25% to 100% in grazing
Ranchers in Elko County, northwest of the Pine Nut Mountains, are anticipating cuts of from 25% to 100% in their Bureau of Land Management grazing allotments.
Altogether, Nevada has about 28,000 of the estimated 45,000 wild horses left at large in the 10 westernmost states of the continental U.S.
With half the total numbers of wild-born horses now on Bureau of Land Management feedlots, no wild habitat open to which to return them, and little prospect of adoption for most of them, it is increasingly likely that either Congress will allow the captive horses to be sold for slaughter, or frustrated ranchers and/or BLM personnel will shoot horses on the range or find ways to covertly sell horses for slaughter.
Both random wild horse massacres and covert sales of wild horses to slaughter have been recurring problems throughout the 45 years that the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act has existed.