Wild Horses: Nowhere To Run, Part 3

Editor's Note: This is the third part of a three-part story on the West's wild horse wars. Management of 37,000 wild mustangs is one of the West's most expensive and vexing natural resource problems. Click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

Just outside Cañon City, Colo., dozens of large pens stretch for half a mile along the Arkansas River's banks. The air churns with the dust of more than 2,000 captive wild horses milling around listlessly, browsing at the dirt like inmates killing time. Fittingly, the corrals are housed at a state prison. Usually, the only significant activity here is the BLM tractor delivering the daily ration of hay, which stirs the skittish horses against the far fences and around again to devour the long rows of freshly dropped feed.

The corral is one of about a dozen short-term holding facilities where horses land after roundups. They stay until they are sorted and vaccinated. Then, most are trucked to contract ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma for long-term holding. The BLM started storing horses in 1988, as a temporary measure. By 2002, though, there were over 12,000 horses in both short- and long-term holding. Today, there are 47,000.

These are the horses that nobody wants. When the agency rounds them up, it tries to find them homes. Anyone with the right facilities can get one for $125. Horses older than 10 cost just $10. But even at those prices, it's a struggle. In the 1980s and 1990s, adoptions kept pace with removals until a number of scandals revealed that many of the horses were quickly sent to slaughter. The BLM put rules in place to stop the practice, but the restrictions drastically cut adoptions. Rising hay prices and the recession pushed numbers even lower. Now only one in three horses finds a home. The rest go into holding-system limbo.

Internal audits have long warned that this could cause trouble. In 1990, the Government Accountability Office cautioned that the practice was unsustainable and urged the BLM to find alternatives, including fertility control. In 2008, another GAO report chided the agency for failing to explore those alternatives, warning that, "If not controlled, off-the-range holding costs will continue to overwhelm the program." Still, the BLM has made no significant changes. A new effort, launched last year, to find "ecosanctuaries" for unwanted horses differs little from long-term holding, and is unlikely to make a dent in the number of horses held in those pastures.

The holding-system program, which now consumes roughly half of the wild horse program's budget, may face tough choices if federal budget balancers target it as part of the automatic 2013 budget cuts known as the "fiscal cliff." "Every year, more money, more horses," says a BLM corral manager who did not want his name used for fear of retaliation. "Something has got to give. The pot is about to boil over."

There is, perhaps, one way to turn down the heat—something the BLM itself began back when it was first tasked with protecting wild horses and burros.

On a hot summer afternoon in 1971, a young reproductive biologist named Jay Kirkpatrick was working in his office at Montana State University when, as he recalls, "two BLM cowboys with sweaty hatbands and shit on their boots walked in."

"They said, 'Can you make horses not reproduce?' " Kirkpatrick, now 72, remembers. "Even back then, they knew it was going to be a problem."

Kirkpatrick said he thought he could. First, he looked into spaying or neutering in the field, but quickly learned that ornery horses and rugged terrain made it nearly impossible. Next he tested hormonal steroid drugs similar to human birth control pills, but discovered the large doses required could not be delivered through a dart. Plus, they changed horse behavior and lingered in the food chain.

In the late 1980s, he finally settled on Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP, a sticky protein that coats domestic pig eggs, allowing sperm to bind to their surface. All mammals have similar egg coatings. When PZP is injected into any mammal, its immune system flags the intruder and responds by making antibodies shaped to bind to the chemical. But the antibodies also bind to the animals' own eggs, blocking sperm for about a year.

The drug is simple to apply with a dart and easily reversible, so managers can change course if there's an epidemic or a big winter die-off. It also breaks down and doesn't linger in the food chain. Just as important, Kirkpatrick says, "It's cheap," about $25 per dose.

To make the stuff, Kirkpatrick's lab at Zoo Montana in Billings gets cast-off pig ovaries from a Midwestern butcher, grinds them to isolate the coating, then parses tiny doses into vials to be loaded into darts in the field. A few other researchers also make PZP. Kirkpatrick says the process could easily be ramped up if there was more demand.

On Maryland's Assateague Island, Kirkpatrick has successfully used the drug over 20 years to trim the local wild horse population from 175 down nearly to the goal of about 100. He has also used PZP effectively on elephants in enclosed game reserves in Africa, water buffalo in Guam, urban deer on the East Coast and scores of zoo animals—sending the drug to wildlife managers around the world. "Anything with a hoof, it seems to work," he says.

Paradoxically, the agency that inspired his research has been hesitant to adopt the drug. The BLM has been "studying" the use of PZP in wild horses for over 20 years, according to agency documents, but has never treated much more than 1,000 of the estimated 19,000 free-roaming mares under its management in a given year, so the drug has had little big-picture impact. "It's a cultural thing," says Kirkpatrick. The BLM still has "a cowboy mentality and it will take a generational change to get over that."

But BLM spokesman Gorey counters that the obstacles to wide use of PZP are more practical than cultural. Though PZP shows promise in small studies, it's hard to apply to huge herds in wide-open spaces. "We want to pursue the PZP avenue as far as it can go. The challenge is that our horses roam over essentially 30 million acres. This is not Assateague Island."

There are very few places the BLM can get close enough to use a dart gun, he says, so the agency rounds up horses by helicopter, then injects mares by hand. For PZP to work, the agency then has to recapture each mare every year to treat them. "That is just not a functional solution." Researchers are working on a form of PZP that could last four or five years, which could make catch-and-release practical, Gorey says, but results so far have been mixed.

And because wild horses are above the target populations set by the BLM in most of the West, Gorey adds, in many cases the agency can't treat and release them without risking lawsuits or damage to the land. It must remove horses until it reaches its target. "It is a wonderful goal to treat and release and not keep adding to holding, but we are not there yet and it is a tough road ahead."

Dissatisfied with such answers, Kirkpatrick searched for another way to get the drug out to the herds. He needed people who were able to recognize individual mares in a vast landscape and get within 50 meters to dart them. Only one group fit this description: Wild horse lovers.

All across the West, people like T.J. Holmes have fallen under the spell of these animals. They visit specific horse herds, photograph and blog about their favorites. They ride with them and camp with them. After roundups, they often adopt them.

In 2001, Kirkpatrick began inviting such enthusiasts to his lab for a three-day PZP training. One of his first graduates was a retired Colorado schoolteacher named Marty Felix. After she learned how to mix the drug and shoot a dart gun in 2002, she convinced her local BLM office to let her dart the 150 wild horses of the Little Book Cliffs herd near Grand Junction. Within a few years, PZP cut the herd's offspring by nearly half, she says. "Because of what we've done, they've postponed roundups again and again. They just don't need them."

News of her success inspired other groups in Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Colorado. More people trained with Kirkpatrick and cajoled their local BLM offices into trying PZP. Looking for a better solution than roundups, Holmes trained with Kirkpatrick in 2010.

These volunteers now account for about 16 percent of PZP applications. Yet even with their help, the BLM has sometimes failed to meet its goals. In 2012, for example, it aimed to inject 2,000 mares, but treated only about 1,015. Next year, it plans to treat only 900, claiming that it must redirect limited resources to gathering horses threatened by the effects of this year's serious droughts and wildfires.

Altogether, volunteer horse groups are now treating five herds in four states. The herds are small—none larger than 150 animals—but advocates say they are seeing results. And despite the currently limited reach of their efforts, many feel lessons learned in the field could inform larger attempts to use fertility drugs in the future.

"We pushed for it because there has to be a better solution than roundups," says Karen Herman, who began treating horses in northern New Mexico in 2009. "And it has made a real difference."

Most of the year, nobody visits Disappointment Valley. It is on a turn-off on a turn-off from a lonely highway. But on a warm September day in 2011, a small crowd, mostly from the resort town of Telluride, appeared. Inspired by a recently shown film called Wild Horses and Renegades in which actors such as Viggo Mortensen and Daryl Hannah warn that wild horses are on the brink of extinction thanks to big business and government conspiracy, some of the activists had unsuccessfully sued to stop a BLM roundup of roughly half of the 85 horses in the valley, due to take place that very day. Now, they hoped to halt it another way, gathering in their designated pink-ribbon viewing rectangle to chant slogans and hoist placards.

"Suddenly, we had all kinds of people coming out of the woodwork," Holmes recalls. "People protesting. People waving signs saying '9/11 was an inside job.' It was a circus."

A small plane buzzed overhead repeatedly, swooping so close to the roundup helicopter that it had to land and the BLM canceled activities for the day. "It was truly a danger to the pilot, the horses and the public. It was completely inappropriate behavior," BLM employee Wayne Werkmeister told the Cortez Journal at the time.

The protesters were, in a way, blind to the horses' true predicament. Holmes says most of them didn't know that the local BLM had agreed to start using PZP after the roundup. They were still fighting the same battle, with the same entrenched, uncompromising positions that have gotten wild horses into the current mess.

Holmes shakes her head as she remembers it. "All that, and the roundup went on anyway," she says. "It was worse, because with all the protesting going on we were not able to select the horses we wanted to remove as carefully as we would have." If they could have gathered more, managers would have had a chance to select horses based on age, genetic diversity and adoptability, then release others. She sighs. "Stuff like that got me interested in looking for a real solution."

A few months after the roundup, the new BLM wild horse and burro manager in the valley, Kiley Whited, started to help Holmes dart the herd with PZP. They treated the last mare in April and will begin again next spring. Once fewer horses need to be gathered each year, the BLM can use humane traps—basically a corral with a salt lick or other bait that automatically shuts when a horse enters—instead of helicopters. With fewer captive horses, it would also have an easier time finding homes so that more can avoid the holding system.

"A helicopter gather is expensive, plus we get sued every time we try to do it," Whited says. "If we can limit the herd this way, it will be better for the horses, better for the range, better for everyone."

Even if it succeeds, though, Holmes says, she understands that the idea of controlling wild horses with birth control darts makes many people uncomfortable. Can animals truly stay wild when they're managed that intensively? But sometimes, she says, no matter how much you love the myth of the mustang—the dream of a free and untamed American West—you have to set it aside and deal with the reality. Otherwise, the horses will continue to lose.

"It would be nice if we could just let wild horses run wild, but the truth is these horses have a finite piece of land. They have finite resources. They don't really run free anymore, and we need to take care of them."

This story first appeared in High Country News.