Back in the early 1800s, when the vast herds of buffalo roamed across what was to become the western United States, there were also millions of wild horses in the same area. They were the direct descendants of escaped horses from the Spanish explorers of Central America. The evolutionary line of the horse goes back over 50 million years, but in North and South America, horses went extinct around 10,000 years ago.
As the American population grew and there was an increased migration westward, the wild horse appeared to be doomed to follow the buffalo into virtual extinction. By 1970, the estimated population of wild horses had dwindled from millions to only 17,000, but there were those that saw the wild horse as a symbol of the American character and therefore worthy of preservation.
Velma Johnston, better known as Wild Horse Annie, became the spokesperson for their cause and in 1971 Congress unanimously passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The law prohibited the hunting and round up of wild horses by private individuals, and tasked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with the protection of wild horses. The Act was controversial from the outset as it put the ideals of city dwellers up against the practicalities of the rural life of farmers and ranchers.
Over time, it has become apparent that the politicians in Washington who framed the Act did not foresee the logistical problems that would be created. Because the horses are technically a “feral, non-native species,” the government is charged with keeping their numbers down so they do not adversely compete with livestock and native species. In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act which gave the BLM a new mandate to manage the wild horse population while being consistent with the multiple uses of public land.
The wild horse population doubles every four years and even after years of BLM gathers, the current estimated population of wild horses on government managed public land is 37,000 — which is 10,000 more than the land can support. So, under the current Acts and mandates from Congress, the BLM has no choice but to continue the gathers to remove excess wild horses from the vast open spaces that it is responsible for.
These areas are divided into Herd Management Areas (HMA) which are grouped into a Complex. The North Lander Complex in Wyoming is located in southeast Fremont County and is made up of four HMAs and covers 375,000 acres. Population surveys indicate there are approximately 750 horses within the North Lander Complex and the Appropriate Management Level (AML) for the complex is 320-535 horses. To reduce the population to the AML, a gather was held in early November 2012.
As you can image, finding 750 horses in 375,000 acres can be a daunting task. To make it even harder, there are few roads in the area and the horses are scattered in small bands. The BLM contracts the job of gathering to a company based in Utah, Cattoor Livestock Roundup Company. “We have been contracting wild horse roundups for the Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, and private individuals since 1975. We have humanely captured over 150,000 wild horses, wild burros and wild cattle during these 35 years. Over the years, we have purchased and built equipment, developed techniques and learned the best methods to assure the safety of the animals. We employ experienced helicopter pilots and wranglers that really care about the animals. All of this minimizes the stress on the animals during wild horse roundups,” said Cattoor Livestock Company.
If you have the opportunity to watch the helicopters during a Cattoor gather, you will immediately see the similarities between the working helicopter and the pressure and release method that is used in the training of and working with horses. Information provided by Sue Cattoor states, “Helicopter roundups are the most efficient way to gather wild horses. But more importantly, they are the most humane way to gather. We can say this because we have gathered wild horses using both methods. When you gather wild horses on horseback, you locate the animals and run them and hope to maybe get to them to a trap. With the helicopter, you can let the animals travel at their own speed. You cannot do this on horseback, because you have to stay close to be able to handle or turn them. Anyone who would say or even think that horseback gather of wild horses is more humane than a helicopter gather with a qualified animal herding pilot, has obviously never watched or been involved in either one.”
The helicopters do not work very close to the horses. The pressure and release method of herding them allows the pilot to stay back about a half a mile. The only time that the helicopter drops down behind the horses is at opening of the trap. Through experience, the pilot “knows when to drop down and put more pressure on the wild horses and how close he must get to assure that they will follow the domestic pilot horse into the trap and will not turn around in the wings of the trap. It is also much more stressful for the animals if they do turn back or go through the wings and the pilot asked to bring them back around and into the trap at second time. When the pilot determines that everyone is safe and that the animals are going into the trap, he lifts the helicopter up,” according to information provided by Sue Cattoor.
The BLM is currently administering a population control vaccine to captured mares called Porcine Zona Pellucida or PZP-22. It is not a sterility drug. Rather it is more like birth control. There is no chance that there will be zero foals born to a wild horse herd because PZP is not 100 percent effective, not all mares are captured, and, if it is administered to a pregnant mare, she will give birth to a healthy foal. PZP slows reproduction but does not stop it. PZP wears off and the horses have to be gathered every two years to get booster shots.
In addition, PZP is reversible. If environmental conditions exist, such as drought or a severe winter, that will affect the wild horse population, administration of the drug can be temporarily stopped. Currently, PZP-22 is administered using a combination of barbless darts and implants. “It is not a silver bullet, but it is a start and it is having an impact,” said Sara Beckwith, Public Affairs for BLM Wyoming.
The BLM and its dedicated employees and contractors are, unfortunately, in the middle between the extreme opinions on either end of the wild horse population problem. To fulfill the mandate that Congress has given them, they have to continue to gather the horses on a regular basis. Fortunately, advances in technology have given them additional techniques to control the wild horse population. ❖