December marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, an important piece of legislation intended to protect and preserve these wild animals on the Western range, including in the Pryor Mountains of Montana.
The act, which passed by a unanimous vote in Congress, declared that: “Wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”
The Act promised that “wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”
But instead of feeling celebratory about this anniversary, many of us are worried. Right now, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is pursuing a mass roundup and removal plan to slash the number of mustangs on the range from an estimated 86,000 to less than 27,000 — about the same number that existed when Congress acted to protect these animals because they were “fast disappearing.”
The nation’s promise of protection from capture, harassment, and death is not being extended to the thousands of mustangs and burros being chased down by helicopters and removed from the range. Many of these animals are injured and killed in this process.
Worse yet, the roundups don’t work to control horse populations. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in a 2013 report noted that rounding up and removing horses from the range actually increases population growth rates, meaning that the BLM is caught in a vicious cycle of rounding up ever more horses each year at a higher and higher cost to Americans’ pocketbooks. The BLM’s current plan is on course to cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion over the next five years.
Fortunately, there is hope to avert this disaster, and it comes from Montana. PZP, a fertility control vaccine developed and manufactured in Billings is a humane way to manage horse populations on the range.
PZP is given to female horses in the wild through an injection via remote darting. The method is scientifically proven, with more than three decades of use, and is recommended by the NAS for use in federally protected wild horse herds. PZP is a humane alternative to roundups and removals and the most promising strategy for managing wild horses in their wild habitat.
The American Wild Horse Campaign and other wild horse advocacy groups working to develop humane and workable solutions to our nation’s wild horse management problems have successfully collaborated on fertility control efforts for years, bringing these programs to several areas across the West.
These programs include the world’s largest fertility control program on Nevada’s historic Virginia Range. Our volunteer-based, collaborative program is proof that this fertility control model is effective for humanely managing large wild horse populations in expansive habitat areas.
Encouragingly, members of Congress recently approved $11 million in the BLM’s wild horse budget for fertility control. Now we just need to make sure they use it, and expand its use to reduce the roundups.
Newly appointed BLM Director Tracy Stone Manning – also from Montana – has an important role to play in making this change through her leadership. Advocates stand ready to help via public-private partnerships and volunteer PZP darting programs that will help horses and save taxpayers money. Together, we can change how our nation cares for its wild horses and live up to the promise Congress made to the nation in 1971.
Emily Anderson of Bozeman is founder of Embodying Wild, an equine assisted empowerment program located at her family’s cattle ranch in Paradise Valley; Suzanne Roy is executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign.