Guest opinion: Wild horses, urban deer, roaming bison and dead ideas

Billings, Mont., Dec. 28, 2015 --

More than 35,000 wild horses live on public lands, without rational or effective management, and cost the taxpayers $75 million annually.

In "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas," Matt Miller explained how difficult it was to abandon cultural paradigms that have been part of our lives forever, regardless of the fact that they no longer work. The author might have been well advised to write a chapter on the management of troublesome wildlife.

Beyond wild horses, there is intolerance for urban deer that promotes culling in heavily populated areas. There are park/preserve bison in the U.S. and elephants in South Africa that keep reproducing and causing havoc when they leave those preserves and compete with economic forces on adjoining lands. Even some zoo populations that have finite space in which to survive and no humane outlets for “surplus” animals. In short, management has traditionally focused on removal – mostly lethal - of animals, which, while providing temporary relief, simply exacerbates the problem by causing more successful reproduction in the animals left behind. This all leads to a strident clash of values and public discord, not to mention a bad deal for the animals.

The human race recognized the dangers of uncontrolled reproduction in a world of finite resources a century ago and one solution that emerged was fertility control. Fifty years ago, the emphasis for controlling dog and cat populations changed from euthanasia to fertility control (spay and neuter). So the question becomes, why is this concept so foreign to the management of certain wildlife populations? Is it because we are irrevocably tied to dead ideas?

Wildlife fertility control works:

- Thirty wild horse populations in the U.S., Canada and Europe, wild horse sanctuaries throughout the U.S. and five different Native American reservations are using fertility control to manage their horse populations.

- Urban deer populations in four different states have been managed with fertility control.

- African elephants in 17 game parks in South Africa are being successfully managed with fertility control.

- The managers of an entire bison herd in California achieved zero population growth in one year using fertility control.

- More than 200 zoos in North America and 12 countries around the world are managing more than 85 species successfully with fertility control.

- Feral sheep in England, and now urban kangaroos in Australia, are being managed with fertility control agents.

Animals, which we placed in these precarious situations in the first place, are not being killed or removed and most everyone wins.

The technology to accomplish all this, and the number of species managed in this manner has progressed rapidly, across five continents and most of the technologies are no longer considered “experimental.” In the U.S. three different wildlife contraceptives have been federally approved and a fourth is pending. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has a committee to promote the application of wildlife contraceptives and a sister group now exists in Europe. Seven different international conferences on the subject have been held on four continents.

Yet controversy and dead ideas persist. Paranoia about incursions into recreational hunting prevents some potential applications of fertility control. (What ethical sportsman would find pleasure in shooting a human-habituated deer in a city park?)

Why is the cultural paradigm of rounding up wild horses with helicopters, despite the stress to all, death of 2 percent to 8 percent of the animals and the enormous economic costs allowed to prevail? Why is the knee-jerk polarization between wildlife agencies, ethical hunters and animal welfare advocates allowed to prevent rational approaches? In many cases opinion seems to trump peer-reviewed scientific studies.

Wildlife fertility control is here to stay. It will progress faster in some situations and with some species than others, but it will no longer go away. As new and open-minded personnel step into management organizations, public or private, attitudes have been changing. As the human population grows, wildlife populations face greater constrictions and challenges. Our responsibility to effectively and humanely provide stewardship becomes an imperative for the civilized mind.

Jay F. Kirkpatrick is senior scientist at the Science and Conservation Center, in Billings, a nonprofit focusing on development and application of vaccine-based contraception.

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