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Wild horse advocates see better way to control herd populations on the range

Elena Sullivan inhaled to steady the dart gun as the herd of wild horses cavorting in the Virginia Range near Carson City, Nevada, maneuvered themselves in a way that finally afforded a clean shot at her target — a chestnut mare named Pinto. 

Sullivan is a volunteer darter with the American Wild Horse Connection and part of a sprawling volunteer effort to prove that wild horse advocates can use fertility control to restrain the growing population of wild horses in northern Nevada.

In April 2019, the Wild Horse Connection signed a cooperative agreement with the Nevada Department of Agriculture that allows the nonprofit to implement and manage a fertility control program that involves shooting darts full of porcine zona pellucida, a vaccine delivered with CO2 rifled that are intended to stop mares from procreating. 

“Birth control works,” said Sullivan. “There is attrition in the range and the foal numbers are down, and so we see a reduction in population.”

With an issue so highly contentious as wild horses in the American West, there is, of course, significant disagreement about whether the plan works and whether it can reliably be exported to other management areas, but Sullivan and Deb Walker, the executive director of the program, believe they have found a humane alternative to policies that mandate helicopter-involved roundup and an adoption program rife with abuse.

“The agency that is charged with the management and care of wild horses is instead facilitating their slaughter,” said Walker, as she looked toward the Coal Band of horses grazing in the sagebrush. 

Walker is talking about the Bureau of Land Management, which manages most of the wild horses throughout 10 states in the American West and in Nevada, where much of the state is managed by the federal government. 

Interestingly, the BLM does not manage the horses in the Virginia Range outside that wander in the public lands outside of Carson City and Reno. That is under the purview of the Nevada Department of Agriculture, which has agreed to contract with the Wild Horse Connection to perform the fertility control program on the 3,000 or so horses that wander over a triangle-sized piece of desolate land that extends from Reno to Fernley in the east and to Carson City in the south. 

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However, Walker and Sullivan are convinced that if they succeed in managing the horses outside of Virginia City, they will provide a valuable template that can be reliably exported to other management areas throughout the American West. 

They will have to overcome the skepticism of people like Doug Busselman, executive vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau. 

“I salute the commitment of what they are doing, but I don’t think it’s going to work,” Busselman said.

Sullivan took Courthouse News and Walker out to what is colloquially referred to as Creepy Canyon in the unincorporated area of Mound House, Nevada. The landscape is characterized by a lack of trees apart from the cottonwoods huddled in the creek beds. The volcanic rock that crops up in places along the shoulders of the rolling hills is brown to black and differs starkly from the bright gray of the granite that characterizes the Sierra Nevada only a stone’s throw to the west. 

Wild rye, rabbitbrush and sagebrush fan out on the flanks of the hills while silver willows gather with the cottonwoods near the drainage rivulets where the water flows. 

The mustangs that graze among the sparse grassland are perhaps the most iconic aspect of the landscape, aside from the neon signs of the numerous legal brothels that flourish outside of Virginia City. 

But the area is also the birthplace of Velma Bronn Johnston, known as Wild Horse Annie.

In 1950, Johnston was on her way to work at a local insurance company when ahead of her a horse trailer was leaking copious amounts of blood on the road. She followed the truck and trailer to a local slaughterhouse and learned the horses were gathered from public and private lands in the Virginia Range and would be soon killed and used as an ingredient in dog food.

Thus was born a zealous activist and Johnston proved a formidable advocate for wild horses, calling for new laws that enshrined humane treatment for the animals that many see as an iconic symbol of the freedom offered by the wide-open spaces of the American West. 

Johnston’s fierce unflagging advocacy culminated in the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which perhaps evinces the most succinct utterance regarding the importance of feral horses as a symbol of the American West:

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“Congress finds and declares 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.”

The 1971 law led to a new era where federal agencies managed the population of wild horses on the range and effectively ended some of the more heinous practices related to the slaughter of wild horses, but it presented new challenges as well. 

Ranchers who use the range for their livestock contend that the population of wild horses has expanded beyond what the landscape can handle. 

JJ Goicoechea, a rancher from Eureka, a remote town out in the middle of Nevada, said recently that the combination of drought and hungry horses have reduced the forage available for his cattle by an order of magnitude. 

“The forage is as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” he said recently. 

Goicoechea said he doesn’t take issue with wild horses but says they are not being managed appropriately by the federal government, which should be striving to keep their population numbers more in line. 

“We are talking about 10 to 15 years of not gathering enough horses, not close to enough,” he said. 

The Bureau of Land Management essentially agrees. The agency divides up Nevada, for instance, into 83 separate herd management areas (HMA). It establishes a carrying capacity for each area called an appropriate management level (AML).

“Of the 83 HMAs in Nevada, there are 66 that are currently over AML,” the agency said in a recent email. “As of March 2020, the current projected population on the range in Nevada alone is nearly 52,000 animals. The statewide AML is 12,811.”

The numbers are consistent with horse overpopulation throughout the American West, where horses number approximately 95,000 — more than triple the number stipulated by the agency’s AML regulations. 

“The damage to public rangelands through chronic wild horse and burro overpopulation is very readily evident in Nevada,” the agency said. “The overgrazing of native forage and overuse of critical water sources has increased the risk of animals dying of thirst and hunger.”

But Walker and Sullivan say there is no scientific justification for the AML numbers imposed upon each management area, something they say is supported by a 2013 report by the U.S. Academy of Sciences. 

“How appropriate management levels (AMLs) are established, monitored, and adjusted is not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change,” the academy wrote in the report

The horse advocates also note that too much of the range is dedicated to cattle, which has a greater detrimental impact on riparian aspects of the landscape and on the range in general, and that basic unfairness is what governs how the agency approaches the population control of wild horses. 

“The AML is designed by the livestock industry and the American public gets sold a bill of goods,” Walker said. 

These incorrect premises lead the BLM to conduct large roundups of horses using helicopters which endanger, harm and sometimes kill the horses and come at an enormous cost to the taxpayers. 

“It’s just more of the same,” Walker said. 

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If the horses survive the roundup, they are usually housed in large pens managed by the BLM where the cost to the American taxpayer is once again outsized. 

BLM said it is attempting to cut into that cost by increasing the number of horses they hold in pastures that are less expensive to maintain and less harmful to the rangeland. 

“Recently the agency announced the awarding of contracts of seven new off-range pastures with a combined capacity of 5,000 head to support this goal,” the agency said. The BLM also points to its adoption program, whereby wild horses are broken, or tamed, and then adopted out to individuals or families looking to use them for recreational or agricultural purposes. 

However, recently the adoption program has been dogged by scandal, as reports have emerged that individuals have taken advantage of the $1,000 adoption incentive program by pocketing the money and then profiting again by selling the horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. 

“The evidence we’ve uncovered clearly shows that the adoption incentive program is resulting in the rampant abuse, neglect, and slaughter of America’s cherished wild horses and burros,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign.

The BLM has recently acknowledged the scandal and pledged to update its protocols to try and assuage the potential for abuse. ‘

“While the vast majority of adopters already adhere to our requirements to provide a good and caring home, the BLM is now taking additional steps to secure the health and safety of adopted animals,” said BLM Deputy Director for Programs Nada Wolff Culver. “We will begin to make additional compliance visits post-adoption, bring more scrutiny to potential adopters, and increase warnings to sale barns about the risks of illegally selling wild horses and burros, among other steps.”

But for Walker and Sullivan, such promises amount to more of the same blandishments they have been hearing for several years. 

“They’ve turned it into a racket,” Walker said.

The solution, the advocates say, is to turn to and pursue the type of fertility control program the advocates are currently administering in the Virginia City foothills outside of Carson City and Reno. 

“The program works,” Sullivan said. 

Even critics concede that the program, begun with the imprimatur of the Nevada Department of Agriculture, has its merits. 

“They have a network of volunteers working at darting programs and perhaps the best thing they do is to continue to document the horses out on the range,” concedes Busselman. “But even if the fertility program operates at its very best, the most you could hope for is keeping the population where it is. But the population needs to be brought under control.”

The BLM said it is considering fertility control programs akin to the one being administered in the Virginia Range and has begun to explore alternative fertility control drugs to PZP, which must be updated annually to remain effective. 

“The BLM intends to increase the use of Gonacon, a longer-term vaccine that can prevent pregnancy for 4-5 years, in animals that receive two doses,” the agency said. “As part of a sustained fertility control program, the BLM supports humane methods of sterilizing some wild horses and burros as a method of slowing population growth and reducing the need for gathers.”

Busselman said the other hurdle is how remote several of the bands of horses in Nevada and elsewhere truly are. 

“Lots of places in Nevada are really remote and meaningful management of horses in those places would prove really difficult,” he said. “The Virginia foothills … it’s basically a suburban situation.”

But Sullivan thinks those are just excuses for inertia and maintenance of the status quo. 

“I started volunteering in 2015 and I had never been around horses before — I didn’t even have pets,” Sullivan said. “I never shot a gun and I didn’t know if I could do this.”

Now, she goes darting at least once a week, maintains a comprehensive knowledge of the horses and their respective bands and shows an uncanny ability to identify just about any horse by name on sight. 

Walker says that while Sullivan is one of the best volunteers she has at least 20 other darters rotating throughout the range, which complements a roster of at least 35 other volunteers, some of whom help provide rescue services. 

And more are in the pipeline, Walker said, who was heading out to help teach a darting class the day after we cavorted around the wildlands in and around Mound House. 

Walker and Sullivan believe volunteer-powered programs with a view toward a more humane treatment of horses will win the day, largely because the wild horse means so much to so many. 

“I love the wildness in them,” Sullivan said. “But at the same time they are not very wild, so you can get close to them. You can walk next to them, listen to them and see them. They are so majestic and strong. I would recommend everybody head to the desert to feel what it feels like to be out here with them and no one else.”

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USDA Photo by Lance Cheung

Horses graze on the grass where a fire scar helped promote its regrowth at the base of Ponderosa pine trees in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, where the Heber Wild Horse Territory is home to many feral horses in the high central Arizona area.