Fertility Control and Roundups: A look at two wild horse herds

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Mary Koncel, AWHC

September 30, 2019

One recent September morning, I met up with Deb Walker, my colleague and AWHC’s Nevada Field Representative, for an outing on the Virginia Range where AWHC is funding and implementing the largest PZP fertility control program for wild horses in the world.  

I’ll repeat that – the largest PZP fertility control program for wild horses in the world.  It’s a huge accomplishment for AWHC as well as our many partners, and I was thrilled to have the chance to see first-hand our work on behalf of this beloved herd.

Equally important, my time on the Virginia Range was a much-needed respite after spending days observing the roundup and removal of the Devil’s Garden wild horses on the Modoc National Forest,  almost two hundred miles away in northeast California.

Nestled between Reno and Carson City in northern Nevada, the Virginia Range is home to slightly more than 3,000 wild horses whose ancestors inspired Velma Johnston, also known as Wild Horse Annie, to launch her national campaign that led to passage of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. 

Although it encompasses 300,000 acres, the Virginia Range wild horse habitat is challenged by residential and industrial development, spurred ironically by the attraction to wild horses that’s translating into a growing collaborative effort to preserve and protect them.  From local volunteers who are part of the PZP program to the homeowners who allow the volunteers access to the horses on their property and the high tech businesses in the Tahoe/Reno Industrial Center, such as Blockchains, that have provided water sources and become vocal advocates for the horses, there’s something special happening on the Virginia Range. 

After a short, bumpy drive up a dirt road off Highway 50, Deb introduced me to 2 of the 14 volunteer darters, Cathy Cottril  and Wayne Woolway, the team that is tasked with vaccinating the horses on an expansive area in and around Stagecoach.  They had just finished reviewing a binder of photographs used to identify “their horses” as well as a detailed list that included a description of each horse, which ones belonged to which bands, and each mares’ vaccination history.

According to their records, it was time to deliver a booster of PZP to a young mare who was grazing with her band that was intermingled with horses from two other bands.  In all, there were about 25 horses, mostly bays and sorrels of all genders and ages.  As Deb and I talked, a pair of stallions faced off with one another, exchanging a few squeals, before moving off. 

“They’re drawing a line in the sand,” she explained.

Watching Wayne and Cathy work was like witnessing a finely choreographed ballet.  They were truly a team, walking in unison, then slowing separating and exchanging hand signals so as not to disturb the horses, Cathy responsible for keeping tabs on the mare for Wayne, and Wayne responsible for deciding when he had the best shot to deliver the dart filled with PZP in the thick muscles of her hindquarters.

Volunteers Cathy and Wayne on the Virginia Range.

But the shot never came that morning.  After 30 minutes of the other horses meandering between Wayne and the mare and another young one following him, he and Cathy decided to hold off. Instead, they turned their attention to a second mare whom they identified as also needing a booster. This time the shot came quickly: the mare flinched slightly then continued grazing.  When she moved off, it took longer for Cathy and Wayne to retrieve the dart, an essential part of the PZP protocol, than to deliver it.

Since April of this year when AWHC signed a new Cooperative Agreement with the Nevada Department of Agriculture to manage the Virginia Range horses, about 20 Virginia Range volunteers have committed approximately 4,800 hours of their time.

Their work has produced results that have exceeded everyone’s, including AWHC’s, expectations. As of mid-September, the darting teams have delivered 925 applications of PZP to the mares, and that number grows daily.  In addition, other volunteers have identified and entered 3,200 Virginia Range horses into the Wild Horse Identification System, an online database that keeps track of vaccination records, death and births, band affiliations, and so such more for each wild horse habitat area.

All this adds up to big wins for this historic wild horse herd.  Given that PZP is 90%-95% effective, and that our team is well on the way to fully vaccinating the 1,200 breeding mares on the Virginia Range, we’re certain we’ll achieve major reductions in population growth rates, thereby decreasing the number of horses who will be subject to inhumane roundups/removals and possible slaughter; improving the health of the horses, especially the mares; reducing public safety concerns, such as horse-vehicle collision; and relieving grazing pressures on their habitat and improving its ecology.  Whew!

A Lost Opportunity for California's Historic Herd

Unfortunately, it’s a whole different scenario on the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory.  For the third time in four years, the U.S. Forest Service has commissioned a helicopter roundup that is targeting California’s largest and most historic wild horse herd and costing taxpayers $636,142.  In 2016, 175 horses were removed, 932 in 2018, and 500 additional horses are slated for this fall.  Stallions, mares, weanlings and yearlings – all are fair game.  Next year, the Forest Service is most likely planning another roundup even though this “management strategy” is brutal for the horses, expensive and unsustainable for American taxpayers, and heavily criticized by the National Academy of Sciences. 

The Forest Service has its own partners – ranchers who pay a pittance to graze up to 6,000 cow/calf pairs and sheep for half a year on the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory, the Modoc County Farm Bureau, and the University of California Cooperative Extension.  All are committed to bringing down the wild horse population to a near extinction level – or what they define as an Appropriate Management Level (AML) – of no more than 402 in order to ensure the ongoing private exploitation of these public lands. 

For this roundup, 37 areas have been designated for potential trap sites on both public and private land.  I was at two of them, one of which was on an allotment where the Forest Service recently allowed the return of 300 privately owned cow/calf pairs.  Although the agency is required to provide an area for public observation, a combination of long distances to the trap sites and trees – lots of trees – made it nearly impossible to see any part of the operation, including how far and fast the helicopter was driving the horses across the jagged lava plateau or how the wranglers handled them after they entered the trap and were loaded onto trailers.

Devil's Garden wild horses entering the mouth of the trap.

Often the helicopter spent hours circling around an area, searching for horses, before going back to refuel.  Despite the Forest Service’s insistence that the horses are overpopulated and causing major ecological damage, rumor on the range was that the helicopter was having difficulty finding them, casting considerable doubt on the too-many-horses claim. 

Every once in a while, though, as the helicopter came closer to the trap site, I could hear and see it above the trees.  Then came the siren, used by the pilot as another “tool” to move the horses and signal that one or two or a group had been spotted and was being driven toward the trap.  Sometimes, it was a false alarm.  No horses appeared.  Other times, in a few chaotic and dusty seconds, I caught glimpses of horses as they charged into the trap, the helicopter hovering above and wranglers waving white and red flags behind them before slamming closed the panels of the trap, forever ending the lives they once knew.

Much to the annoyance of the Forest Service and Sun J Livestock, Inc., the contractor, some horses did manage to evade capture.  One stallion supposedly charged toward the helicopter, leading his band away from the trap site.  Another gray horse, mostly likely a stallion, took cover under a tree.  Despite multiple attempts by the helicopter to push him out into the open, he held his ground, a maneuver that eventually allowed him and the rest of his band to escape – at least for that day.

The grey stallion and his family band. 

Ask me what was most heartbreaking, and I’d say the trailers pulling away from the trap sites.  I could only imagine how terrifying it must be for a horse, any horse, to be chased by a helicopter and siren.  But as the horses passed by, I saw their eyes – wide and edged in white -- through the slants of the trailers, a sure sign of fear and stress.  The only sounds were the high-pitched whinnies of foals separated from their mares until they were reunited at the sorting facility. 

Ask me what was most frustrating, and I’d say the lost possibility of an alternative to this roundup and removal – and future ones.  Last summer, AWHC proposed a pilot PZP fertility control project for the Devil’s Garden horses.  We consulted with experts in bait-trapping, secured private funding, and talked, exchanged emails, and met with Modoc Forest Service officials over several months.  Then we heard nothing.  Much later, in a conversation with Modoc Forest Supervisor Amanda McAdams, she explained the Forest Service had “no capacity” for the project – one modeled after the successful Virginia Range PZP program and coming at no cost to American taxpayers.

So far, almost 350 Devil’s Garden horses have been removed, with one death.  I have no doubt the Forest Service will reach its goal of 500 even if it means extending its 30-day contract with Sun J. All the horses are sent to its Double Devil Corrals to be sorted and processed.  Two hundred younger ones will be shipped to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) corrals in Litchfield; 300 older ones will stay at Double Devil for adoption or sale. 

The Modoc Forest Service believes that it will find “happy” homes for all the horses, but the reality is it won’t.  Of the 653 younger horses sent to the BLM Litchfield corrals after the 2018  roundup, over 200 horses, including 75 or so mares/foal pairs, are still there. Those horses, plus the 500 horses and at least 150 yet-to-be-born foals from this year, raise serious concerns about their fate, especially because private rescues and sanctuaries that took so many of the older Devil’s Garden horses from last year are full. 

Devil's Garden Mare and foal at the BLM Litchfield Corrals.

And let’s not forget the Forest Service’s unprecedent plan to sell without limitations older horses and younger “three strike” horses – those who are unsuccessfully offered for adoption three times – at its corral, opening up a wide and unobstructed road to slaughter.  AWHC and other groups are fighting it in the courtroom. We’re still waiting for a decision.  (Horses at the BLM Litchfield corral are exempt from the Forest Service’s plan.)

The truth is that the Devil’s Garden horses already have “happy” homes – on their federally-designed habitat in the Modoc National Forest with their family bands where they belong, where they can’t be sold for slaughter or abused/neglected if they’re sold to or adopted by the wrong individual or family, something that has already occurred.

The Forest Service says it will start using PZP fertility control once it reaches AML.  But here’s another reality – that’s not going to happen.  Without comprehensive fertility control now, more and more foals will be born, and, as the National Academy of Sciences warns, the roundups only facilitate higher population growth rates of wild herds.  Like the BLM has proven after 40 some years of its own incompetent management that relies primarily on rounding up and warehousing wild horses and burros, the Forest Service will never get to AML on the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory.  So, the roundups and removals will continue, and the horses will pay the ultimate price with their lives, their freedom, and their dignity.

Photo credits: Mary Ellen Kelly


Mary Konel is the Program Specialist for the American Wild Horse Campaign. She received her M.S. in Animals and Public Policy from the Tufts/Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine where she is now the adjunct instructor at the Center for Animals and Public Policy. A long-time lover of horses, she has written extensively about various equine topics, with a special focus on wild horse adoption. At AWHC, she is responsible for researching, preparing, and presenting reports and other materials that will help facilitate the humane management of wild horses and burros.