Editorial: Control wild horses with contraception

Bend, Ore., Jan. 16, 2015 -- The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign wants the federal Bureau of Land Management to take a different approach when it comes to dealing with feral horses on public lands. Rather than rounding them up and keeping them or neutering them, it wants the agency to expand the use of the equine version of depo provera. Depo, as it’s sometimes called, is an injectable birth control drug that lasts for months.

Almost no one questions the magnitude of the West’s wild horse problem. The animals are protected under federal law; relatively new to the intermountain West, they have no natural predators, and herds can double every four years or so.

Moreover, when horses graze they frequently focus on a single spot until they’ve killed the grasses within it. The damage they do to arid rangelands in Oregon and at least nine other states is real and long-lasting.

Thus, since wild horses gained federal protection in 1971, the BLM has removed some 100,000 of them from federal lands. It finds homes for those it can, but there are far too few homes and far too many horses for an even match. The result is that about 35,000 animals are now in pens such as the ones outside Burns. Another 38,000-plus remain in the wild.

As you might imagine, caring for that many animals is no small matter. In fact, of the $71 million the agency had available for wild horses last year, more than half, $46.2 million, went to the care and feeding of impounded animals.

Still, providing birth control is no simple matter, either. The drugs available must be administered through darts or other injections, and finding and treating the animals can be difficult. Neutering, meanwhile, is permanent but every bit as challenging.

The BLM does use the immunocontraceptive porcine zona pellucida, PZP, however, and the folks from the preservation campaign want the agency to expand the drug’s use. We hope it does. Even if penning were an effective way to control herd size, and it hasn’t proved to be, it is hugely expensive. An injection, while difficult to administer, does a better job in the long run.

Originally published Jan. 16, 2015, in the Bend Bulletin (Ore.)

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