“Currently there is no evidence of overpopulation but the runaway train for fertility control and sterilization bashes down the tracks,” explains Anne Novak, Executive Director of Protect Mustangs. “We request a ten-year moratorium on roundups for scientific studies on population, migration and holistic land management. Science must come first.”
Please sign and share the petition for a moratorium on roundups: http://www.change.org/petitions/sally-jewell-urgent-grant-a-10-year-moratorium-on-wild-horse-roundups-for-scientific-research
Cross-posted from the Sacramento Bee for educational purposes.
Panel: Sterilize wild horses to cut population
By Sean Cockerham
McClatchy Washington Bureau
Published: Thursday, Jun. 6, 2013
WASHINGTON – The federal government should do large-scale drug injections of wild horses to make them infertile, according to a highly anticipated recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences.
The report released Wednesday said the Interior Department’s strategy for wild horses is making a bad situation worse. The government has rounded up nearly 50,000 wild horses and put them in corrals and pastures.
More of America’s wild horses are now in holding facilities than estimated to be roaming the wild, in what the National Academy of Sciences called a failure to limit the animals’ fast-growing numbers.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management requested the report amid frustration and skyrocketing costs of the wild horse and burro program. The annual cost to taxpayers of the program has nearly doubled in four years to $75 million, with more than half going to costs of holding facilities.
The BLM says roundups and holding facilities are needed because swelling horse populations are too much for the wild range to sustain. Wild horse advocates say the issue is really about favoring the interests of ranchers whose cattle and sheep graze upon the public lands.
The National Academy of Sciences said a big problem is that the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t really know how many wild horses and burros there are in America, or their true impact on the rangelands. The report concluded that BLM is likely underestimating the number of wild horses in America and that their populations are growing by as much as 20 percent a year.
The independent panel of scientists that wrote the report said the agency needs a more defensible scientific backup for its decisions on wild horses, including consideration of the impact of livestock on the range.
“The science can be markedly improved,” said Guy Palmer, a Washington State University professor who led the panel.
The government’s roundups of wild horses are just making the population problem worse, according to the report. Shutting tens of thousands of horses in holding facilities means less competition for food and water on the range and more population growth, it concluded.
Leaving the horses alone to roam the range would lead to a competition among them for food and water that would meet the goal of cutting their numbers, according to the report. But “having many horses in poor condition, and having horses die of starvation on the range are not acceptable to a sizable proportion of the public,” the authors concluded.
The best alternative is a widespread use of fertility control measures, the independent scientific panel decided. They recommended chemical vasectomies for stallions and the injection of the contraceptive vaccines GonaCon and porcine zona pellucida for mares.
In contrast, Karen Sussman of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros has been studying herds in her care for 13 years. The results show healthy social structures of wild horses control population.
ISPMB herds show that functional social structures contribute to low herd growth compared to BLM managed herds
As we complete our thirteenth year in studying the White Sands and Gila herds, two isolated herds, which live in similar habitat but represent two different horse cultures, have demonstrated much lower reproductive rates than BLM managed herds. Maintaining the “herd integrity” with a hands off management strategy (“minimal feasible management”) and no removals in 13 years has shown us that functional herds demonstrating strong social bonds and leadership of elder animals is key to the behavioral management of population growth.
ISPMB’s president, Karen Sussman, who has monitored and studied ISPMB’s four wild herds all these years explains, “We would ascertain from our data that due to BLM’s constant roundups causing the continual disruption of the very intricate social structures of the harem bands has allowed younger stallions to take over losing the mentorship of the older wiser stallions.
In simplistic terms Sussman makes the analogy that over time Harvard professors (elder wiser stallions) have been replaced by errant teenagers (younger bachelor stallions). We know that generally teenagers do not make good parents because they are children themselves.
Sussman’s observations of her two stable herds show that there is tremendous respect commanded amongst the harems. Bachelor stallions learn that respect from their natal harems. Bachelors usually don’t take their own harems until they are ten years of age. Sussman has observed that stallions mature emotionally at much slower rates than mares and at age ten they appear ready to assume the awesome responsibility of becoming a harem stallion.
Also observed in these herds is the length of time that fillies remain with their natal bands. The fillies leave when they are bred by an outside stallion at the age of four or five years. Often as first time mothers, they do quite well with their foals but foal mortality is higher than with seasoned mothers.
Sussman has also observed in her Gila herd where the harems work together for the good of the entire herd. “Seeing this cooperative effort is quite exciting,” states Sussman.
ISPMB’s third herd, the Catnips, coming from the Sheldon Wildlife Range where efforts are underway to eliminate all horses on the refuge, demonstrate exactly the reverse of the organization’s two stable herds.
The first year of their arrival (2004) their fertility rates were 30% the following first and second years. They have loose band formations and some mares are without any harem stallions. Stallions are observed breeding fillies as young as one year of age. Foal mortality is very high in this herd. Generally there is a lack of leadership and wisdom noted in the stallions as most of them were not older than ten years of age when they arrived. In 2007, a decision to use PZP on this herd, a contraceptive, was employed by ISPMB. This herd remains a very interesting herd to study over time according to Sussman. “The question is, can a dysfunctional herd become functional,” says Sussman who speculates that the Catnips emulate many of the public lands herds.
In 1992 when Sussman and her colleague, Mary Ann Simonds, served on the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, they believed that BLM’s management should change and recommended that selective removals should begin by turning back all the older and wiser animals to retain the herd wisdom. Sussman realizes that the missing ingredient was to stop the destruction of the harem bands caused by helicopter roundups where stallions are separated from their mares. “Instead, bait and water trapping, band by band, needed to be instituted immediately,” says Sussman. Had this been done for the past twenty years, we would have functionally healthy horses who have stable reproductive rates and we wouldn’t have had 52,000 wild horses in holding pastures today. BLM’s selective removal policy was to return all horses over the age of five. When the stallions and mares were released back to their herd management areas by the BLM, younger stallions under the age of ten fought for the mares and took mares from the older wiser stallions. This occurs when there is chaos happening in a herd such as roundups cause.
Sussman also believes that when roundups happen often the younger stallions aged 6-9 are ones that evade capture. This again contributes to younger stallions taking the place of older wiser stallions that remain with their mares and do not evade capture. She is advocating that the BLM carry out two studies: determining the age of fillies who are pregnant and determining age structures of stallions after removals.
Currently Sussman is developing criteria to determine whether bands are behaviorally healthy or not. This could be instituted easily in observation of public lands horses.
Taken from BLM’s website: “Because of federal protection and a lack of natural predators, wild horse and burro herds can double in size about every four years.”
White Sands Herd Growth: 1999-2013 – 165 animals.
BLM’s assertion herds double every four years means there should be 980 horses or more than five times the growth of ISPMB’s White Sands herd.
Gila Herd Growth:1999-2013- 100 animals.
BLM’s assertion herds double every four years means there should be 434 horses or nearly four times the growth of ISPMB’s Gila herd.
Sussman says that BLM’s assertion as to why horse herds double every four years is incorrect. The two reasons given are federal protection of wild horse herds and lack of natural predators. ISPMB herds are also protected and also have no natural predators, but they do not reproduce exponentially. She adds that exponential wild horse population growth on BLM lands must have another cause, and the most likely cause is lack of management and understanding of wild horses as wildlife species. Instead BLM manages horses like livestock. “According to the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, all management of wild horse populations was to be at the ‘minimal feasible level’,” Sussman says. “When the BLM’s heavy-handed disruption and destruction of wild horse social structures is the chief contributing factor in creating population growth five times greater than normal, than the BLM interference can hardly be at a ‘minimal feasible level.’”
Sussman concludes that ISPMB herds are given the greatest opportunity for survival, compared to the BLM’s herds which are not monitored throughout the year. “One would assume,” Sussman says, “herds that are well taken care of and monitored closely would have a greater survival rate. Yet, even under the optimum conditions of ISPMB herds, they still did not increase nearly 500% like BLM herds.”