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Great Basin Advisory Committee Mtg

Great Basin Advisory Committee (BAC) Meeting 10/16/14, Elko, NV.

Be aware that this BAC advises Nevada BLM only, but the content was pertinent to every state with wild horses. I attended because a personal hero, Dr. Kirkpatrick was scheduled to speak and I very much wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth. Pun intended.


The meeting of the Great Basin Advisory Committee (BAC) meeting began at 9am, Thursday 10/16/14 in Elko, NV and was brilliantly chaired by Jeff White. From 9:30-10:30 Ken Visser, Rangeland Specialist from (I believe) Washington (state) spoke on the History and Development of BLM Standards and Guidelines, Use and Implementation in Public Lands and Historical Context. Those Standards and Guidelines are Section 43 CFR 4130.3-1(c) (2005), a number you may hear referred to and something that is specific to grazing permits and leases. No other department has such completely described standards and guidelines (which is a little frightening). These standards apply to watershed function, ecological processes (hydrologic cycle, nutrient cycle, energy flow) water quality, special status habitat and all other native species habitat, and were approved in 1997. It also called for NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) Analysis. (Personally I think it’s time to incorporate new science.)

For me, the take away of this presentation was to see how hamstrung are our friends at BLM ground level. In addition to conforming to the standards, Ely District Manager Rosie Thomas, an intelligent and articulate asset to the BLM, sadly soon to retire, explained to me that range analysis requires a year of research, generally followed by a year of analysis and generation of an Environmental Impact Study, followed by a year of litigation before implementation, and that this three year process is supposed to happen every two years. This is the general modus operandi I heard repeatedly. Add to that, range management really must look at trends over ten years or more, not just current conditions (climate change anyone?) and of course all interested parties asking for more and more site-specific analysis.

Just a small snapshot of a (yawn) hour-long power point explaining the food chain of the bureaucracy. A real snooze, but helpful in understanding what the people on the ground, the people most of us know and generally like, have to deal with. In addition, there is the hierarchy of funding, which I will get into later. It’s not all one pot. There’s the district, state and federal levels and they don’t always play well with others.

From 11:15-12pm Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, Science & Conservation Center, Billings, MT presented Fertility Control for Wild Horse Populations. Most of you know who Dr. Kirkpatrick is, but for those who don’t, he has been a pioneer in wildlife contraception for 42 years, principally though the use of PZP.

All of Dr. Kirkpatrick’s research can easily be found online. His philosophy regarding his research, as well as PZP is that it was developed with public money and therefore no profit should be made from it. (On that note a distinction should be made between “Native PZP” and PZP-22, which is somewhat more costly. Since Native PZP can’t be synthesized, each batch has to be individually created so there’s no financial incentive for it to be corporatized.)

To sum up his presentation, when properly administered, whether by CTR (Capture, Treat & Release) or through darting, populations can reach near zero growth in just a few years. PZP is an immune-interrupter, meaning that the vaccine targets the receptor, or “lock” mechanism of the mare’s egg, changing it so that the stud’s sperm is no longer recognized as the correct “key.” The main difference between PZP and other immune mediated contraceptives is that PZP does not interfere with any other systems of the mare’s body. Other immune mediated contraceptives may affect other organ systems. GonaCon for example negatively impacts the heart, sometimes fatally. The initial inoculation is given, hopefully followed 2 weeks later by a booster. However even if the booster is not given, missed, or whatever, the efficacy rate is still high.

Of particular note in the often-cited Assateague Island program is that the ponies were never captured or handled in any way. Dr. Kirkpatrick and one associate administered PZP in the field. In response to the common “It won’t work here,” response, he told me that the terrain there was horrendous with saw grass, marsh and thorny brambles.

Dr. Kirkpatrick repeatedly emphasized that what made the Assateague ponies, African elephants and Catalina bison programs so successful was public education and the LONG TERM COMMITMENT of the agencies involved. Often BLM is looking for a one shot, quick fix. Ain’t gonna happen. To my knowledge, the only one time fixes are field spaying and gelding which have terrible side effects in multiple dimensions and are prohibitively expensive. The cost for PZP is $106 per application. (I should also point out that Neda DeMayo has been successfully managing her sanctuary population with PZP for about fifteen years and Dr. K had a laundry list of herds being successfully managed over decades. Happily some of those included reservation herds.)

I asked Dr. K. how many people it would take to implement a program and to my surprise he said, “Two. Any more than that is disruptive to the herd.” BLM is concerned about the costs of a Catch Treat and Release program, Dr. K. does not feel that the horses necessarily need to be captured, and many of you and I have gotten well within the 60 yards necessary to dart. BLM members on the board expressed doubt about whether this is possible, believing that the horses will become wary of the shooter. This may or may not be true. I don’t believe the horses in the Pryors or McCullough herds are being captured but are being darted.

I also asked him to address many of the commonly held negative opinions about using PZP and zero population growth. First a couple of things about the population growth. By preventing mares from becoming impregnated until they are well-conditioned adults, the miscarriage and foal mortality rates go way down, as does mortality in poorly conditioned and/or immature mares. Since mares will only be allowed to foal once so that they may contribute to the gene pool (which is much healthier for the gene pool than continually subtracting young, viable horses who will never get to contribute) mares, who generally don’t live past 9 years old, begin to live as long as the studs, well into their twenties and beyond. Let’s hear it for equal opportunity! General condition of the herd improves.

I asked about changes in herd behavior. This has been studied and found to be a non-issue. I asked about the down side of mares being continually bred. He pointed out that being continually in foal or nursing was more of a challenge. Another item is that the sex ratio become more normalized, and since animals are not being removed, birthrate decreases. Increased birthrate is a common, cross species response to sudden population decrease, which is what we have now with gathers.

Does it effect time of year that mares foal? No.
Does it effect lactation in wet mares? No.
Is there any immune compromise to mares? No.
Is there sterility of mares post treatment? Yes, some small percentage of mares will not conceive after treatment. On the other hand, there are also a small percentage of non-responders to the vaccine. Most mares will conceive with withdrawal of treatment.
All of the above questions have been studied.

The bottom line, that had to be emphasized to BLM several times, is that we can’t wait for a PERFECT solution. This is a very good solution, available right now and much, much less expensive than the $50,000 lifetime cost to keep a horse in long term holding. And BLM is of course concerned about the cost. I emphasized whenever I had the chance that there are volunteers ready and willing to do the groundwork. I will get to the cost structure problems at the end.

At 12:15 the next thing on the agenda was Battle Mountain Wild Horse & Burro Specialist, Shawna Richardson along with Laura Leigh and Neda DeMayo from Return to Freedom. The main subjects were Trap Site Adoptions and more pleas to implement the PZP program immediately. I hadn’t heard of this in Wyoming, but Shawna has been successfully conducting them in her Battle Mountain district. Shawna correct me if I am wrong. What they do, if I remember correctly, is Shawna pitches the Trap Site Adoption event locally. A separate short term holding pen is set up, people come with their trailers and choose their horse right at the pen, a local vet does the Coggins, vaccines, etc. and those people take their horse home that day. They’ve had a good response, adopting ten to thirteen horses each time and to local people who could not, or would not drive to Reno to get a wild horse. So these are ten or so families that would not have adopted a horse otherwise, saving the BLM an average of $500K per event in long term holding.

Here in lies the rub alluded to earlier. PZP programs, Trap Site Adoptions, anything the saves a horse from going to long term holding are saving the Federal BLM budget tens of thousands of dollars, but the money to fund those programs comes from the State BLM budget, doing nothing for their bottom line. So there is no motivation on the State level, from a budgetary standpoint.

My sense at the meeting is that all the way up until the state level, BLM people are desperate to find a way to reduce populations. At the upcoming gather at the Triple B HMA they plan on removing 70 horses that are damaging private property, harassing and breeding domestic stock, resulting in landowner complaints that they cannot ignore. The AML for Triple B is 215-250 and current population is 1,311. At Silver King south of Ely horses are being hit and causing safety concern on Hwy 93 and damaging private property. AML is 60-128 and current population is 452. Do the math. All AMLs are way over limit. Although I believe there may be an issue of shrinking land, it is a separate issue and because they are so prolific, the horses will expand to and beyond land allotted to them.

It was generally agreed that the issue has gained a lot of momentum and public awareness, largely through the efforts of wild horse advocates. The public is mostly in favor of contraceptive measures and the education for that needs to continue on the part of wild horse advocates and especially within the BLM. The resistance is at the top. This is the time for a huge letter writing campaign to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and individual State Directors to establish and FUND PZP programs in all the HMAs. I think it would be interesting to include projections of how many horses will be in long term holding in the next 1, 5, 10 years without it.

Last to passionately present her program was Jeanne Nations of Wild Horse and Burro, for a pilot PZP program with the herd in her area. She has volunteers ready to go and wants to implement in 2014, BUT, it was pointed out, first an environmental impact report must be done which will take about a year. And in that year, how many more foals will be born, that if they survive, will then have to be removed and at what cost? Everyone at the BAC was strongly in support of “the Jeannie Program” and Jeannie was understandably frustrated by the roadblocks that some foresaw. More reason in my mind, to take advantage of the current momentum and mobilize the public NOW, to put big pressure on legislators at the state and federal level, including Sally Jewell. With the time it takes to do the EI, get funding, get people trained, it will be a minimum of 12-18 months before a program can even begin, and then another 3-5 years to see populations reflect the program. At that time even more support will be needed to ensure that BLM does not drop the ball as it has sometimes done in the past.

If anyone has any other ideas of how to pressure legislators and state level BLMers into moving on this I would be glad to hear it.

On the other hand, there was not one suggestion of what to do with the horses in long term holding. It’s the elephant in the living room. Although I have my own opinion about the ethics of humane slaughter, my view was shifted in talking with Laura and Neda. It would let BLM and our legislators off the hook. If the long term holding facilities are emptied, all that does is make more space for more horses, requiring more gathers, and it will be business as usual and will be ignored because it will become another legislator’s problem ten years down the road.

I’ll close by saying I had a delightful, educational and very entertaining dinner with Jay Kirkpatrick and Neda and will probably be doing the dart training with him next spring when I return to the Great Basin and lands north. Thank you for letting me be of service.

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