Friends of Animals blocked use of contraception while wild horse herd multiplied
GARDNERVILLE, Nevada––One of the largest planned gathers of wild horses in recent memory, scheduled for Pine Nut Mountains Herd Management Area of western Nevada in fall 2018, results directly from Friends of Animals’ May 2016 claimed success in causing the Bureau of Land Management to retreat from deploying contraceptives to stop herd growth.
The Bureau of Land Management reinstated the use of contraceptive horse herd population control as a component of a 10-year management plan introduced on November 28, 2017, but by then the estimated Pine Nut Mountains horse herd had increased to nearly four times the estimated optimal population for the range.
Range population four times optimum
The Bureau of Land Management now intends to remove 575 wild horses from the Pine Nut Mountains, leaving about 80, including 26 horses and not more than 8 colts near Fish Springs, human population 650, the largest community within the herd management area.
“There is one certainty,” ANIMALS 24-7 concluded on May 16, 2016, in reporting about Friends of Animals’ claimed victory. “Pressure will continue to build for the Bureau of Land Management to remove Pine Nut Mountains wild horses from the range, hard hit by drought and other probable effects of global warming.
Most dramatic 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.
The Bureau of Land Management planned gather made a prophet out of ANIMALS 24-7, but that it would be coming was never hard to predict.
15 years of almost unrestrained herd growth
The Pine Nut Mountains wild horse herd has grown with little restraint other than range conditions since 2003, when the Bureau of Land Management rounded up and removed 320 horses of the then-estimated 438 horses in the 98,600-acre wild horse herd management area.
The herd management area is about 25% of the total of 400,000 acres in the Pine Nut Mountains that are under BLM control.
Based on historical experience, the Bureau of Land Management believes the Pine Nut Mountains herd management area can sustain from 118 to 179 wild horses, who seasonally share the range with cattle and sheep.
After the 2003 gather reduced the Pine Nut Mountains wild horse herd to barely 100, the herd doubled to circa 215 by 2010, increased to about 332 by 2014, and is now around 775, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Herd reduction pending since 2013
The Bureau of Land Management proposed to gather and remove wild horses from the Pine Nut Mountains Herd Management Area in 2013.
Objected Wild Horse Conspiracy author Craig C. Downer, “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.”
But the Bureau of Land Management has been mandated by law to lease grasslands for grazing ever since the ancestral agency was created by Congress in 1812. Though the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act added wild horse conservation and management to the BLM responsibilities, the BLM is required to balance the needs of horses with cattle and sheep grazing, and does not have the option to simply evict cattle and sheep to favor horses.
The 2013 planned gather was stopped when U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks “ruled that the BLM failed to conduct the necessary analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act,” summarized Scott Sonner of Associated Press.
Meanwhile, stretching for 40 miles southeast of Carson City toward the California border, the Pine Nut Mountains appeared to be the ideal place to test the contraceptive vaccine ZonaStat-H in wild horses, offering highly varied habitat, easy road access to keep the wild horse herd under observation, and one of the best-documented wild horse populations anywhere.
Based on porcine zona pellucida, extracted from the ovaries of slaughtered pigs, ZonaStat-H was developed by the late Jay Kirkpatrick at the Science & Conservation Center, on the premises of ZooMontana in Billings, Montana.
Called PZP for short, ZonaStat-H had been used successfully in zoos and with wild horses under National Park Service jurisdiction at Assateague Island, Maryland since 1994.
Kirkpatrick died at age 75 in December 2015, but the Science & Conservation Center continues to produce ZonaStat-H and other species-specific PZP variants for use in hoofed animal population control by zoos and wildlife management agencies around the world.
Contraceptive trial began in 2010
A Pine Nut Mountains trial of ZonaStat-H was begun in November 2010. Encouraged by the results from a preliminary test of ZonaStat-H on 24 mares, the Bureau of Land Management initiated what it called the Fish Springs Wild Horses PZP Pilot Project in December 2014.
Project partners included the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a coalition of more than 60 wild horse advocacy organizations, and Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates, of Gardnerville, Nevada, a city of about 5,250 people just west of the Pine Nut Mountains Wild Horse Herd Management Area.
FoA & Protect Mustangs blocked PZP use
Friends of Animals and another group, Protect Mustangs, delayed the Pine Nut Mountains trial of ZonaStat-H with a lawsuit filed in January 2015, alleging that PZP harms horses and that using it would violate Judge Hicks’ 2013 order.
The Bureau of Land Management a year and a half later killed the ZonaStat-H trial rather than fight a second lawsuit threatened by the same organizations.
Friends of Animals then unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cancel the registration of PZP for use in wild horses, consistent with a 25-year FoA history of opposition to animal contraceptives while promoting surgical sterilization of dogs and cats. The latter was the original purpose of Friends of Animals, incorporated in 1957.
“We have had the rug pulled out from under our feet”
After the Bureau of Land Management reinstated the use of ZonaStat-H in the Pine Nut Mountains in November 2017, volunteers did much of the work involved in contracepting mares.
“Our community was working together with our local BLM to manage our world famous wild horses,” protested the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates page on Facebook. “Suddenly, after years of tireless work, keeping wild horses out of neighborhoods, holding community meetings, darting the mares in the field with fertility control, and attending meetings with BLM and state representatives, we have had the rug pulled out from under our feet and the BLM informs us they will be coming to remove all but 26 of our horses.
“These horses are a big tourist attraction for our area, with people coming from all over the world to see them on their holiday visits,” the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates statement continued. “Advocates are willing to remove bachelor stallions incrementally and continue to provide fertility control. The bands will over time decrease due to natural attrition. Our program can work if BLM cooperates with locals and is consistent.”
Instead of blaming Friends of Animals, however, for two years of delay that allowed the horse herd to increase, Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates blamed the Bureau of Land Management for allegedly “dragging their feet” in completing the environmental assessment required by Judge Hicks.
After word of the fall 2018 planned gather circulated, “Hundreds of people from as far away as Elko and Sacramento [on July 12, 2018] braved near triple-digit heat in Gardnerville,” wrote Benjamin Spillman of the Reno Gazette Journal, “where impassioned speakers condemned Bureau of Land Management plans to use bait traps and helicopters to pluck” the 575 targeted horses from the mountainous desert terrain.
“BLM officials say they haven’t done a major removal in the area for eight years,” Spillman continued, “and that overpopulation threatens the health of the land, other wildlife, and habitat that could potentially support sage grouse,” a threatened species.
“Not just horses out there”
“It is not just horses out there. Other wildlife that are in effect damaged because of this,” Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Jenny Lesieutre told the audience.
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 to fund habitat protection measures meant to keep a sage grouse subspecies found only along the Nevada/California border off the U.S. endangered species list.
The Pine Nut Mountains are considered essential habitat for the sage grouse, whose total population throughout their entire range is believed to be about 5,000.
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, especially in combination with the effects of drought and wildfire.
“Double down on alternatives”
Opponents of the fall 2018 gather “want the Bureau of Land Management to double down on alternatives to removal,” Spillman wrote, “a list they said includes continuing the existing practice of recruiting volunteers who dart mares with birth control drugs, and doing more reseeding of damaged areas with native rangeland vegetation, and fencing off sensitive areas to keep horses out.”
Some opponents of the Pine Nut Mountains horse gather hoped for Congressional support, but Logan Ramsey, spokesperson for Representative Mark Amodei, told Spillman by email that “The congressman is not going to stand in the way of the BLM’s attempt to properly manage a situation that is unsustainable and that it is legally authorized to manage.”
45,000 wild horses already in holding pens
The 575 wild horses scheduled for removal from the Pine Nut Mountains herd management area would join approximately 45,000 wild horses and burros already in Bureau of Land Management holding facilities. Another 82,000 wild horses roam BLM herd management areas in ten western states, the agency estimates––about three times more than the estimated optimal population for range health.
Maintaining the captive wild horse population and rounding up horses as believed necessary to maintain the carrying capacity of the herd management areas costs taxpayers about $50 million per year.
Wild horse activism began in the Pine Nut Mountains
The BLM wild horse management scheme was mandated by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, lobbied to passage by Congress largely through the efforts of Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston (1912-1977).
Johnston began her campaign in 1950, getting a significant boost from actors Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, who reinforced her 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.
1969 deep snow rescue
But––then stalled in Congress––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 demonstrating the deceptively limited carrying capacity of the habitat. About 200 wild horses roamed the Pine Nut Mountains at the time, barely more than a quarter 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.”
Helicopter owner Ed 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.