On Monday May 17, 2017, I joined Salt River Wild Horse Management Group President Simone Netherlands at the capitol of the Navajo Nation, Window Rock, Arizona, to present information about humane wild horse management via PZP birth control.
At a meeting attended by representatives of the Navajo Nation’s Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Departments, Simone spoke about wild horses, their strong social bonds and their family band structure. She gave a Power Point presentation that we developed with assistance from the Science and Conservation Center, while I spoke about our PZP birth control program on the Virginia Range horses in Northern Nevada. Destini Rhone, a volunteer with the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, also spoke briefly about the identification system used to track the Salt River wild horses, which is an app to which each of the 80 volunteers in the group contributes.
Simone stressed to the officials the need to address reproduction to reduce population growth rates. She spoke about why, in the absence of that approach, the need to remove more horses will simply continue to recur due to the phenomenon of compensatory reproduction, which causes the horses remaining on the range after a removal to reproduce at an unnaturally high rate. She explained the mechanisms of the PZP birth control vaccine, why we support it (safe, effective and maintains natural behaviors and social structures), while I explained how it is being implemented on a large scale in our Virginia Range program.
After our presentation, Leland Grass of Dine’ for Wild Horses & Seminars addressed the meeting. Leland is a prominent Navajo advocate for wild horses. He played a key role in rallying opposition within the Navajo nation to the roundups that were taking place last year. Eventually, the then Navajo-president signed an agreement with former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and a coalition of horse advocacy organizations that brought about an end to the roundups after approximately 1,700 horses were captured and sold for slaughter. A national election has since taken place and the Navajo have new president, Russell Begaye, and a new administration that is working on a new horse management plan.
Suzanne, Leland and Simone.
Leland, a horse trainer who uses traditional methods to gentle horses, credited his 84-year old mother with instilling in him a love for horses and an understanding of them. (His mother attended the meeting with him.) He spoke of his spiritual view of horses as the medicine man. “The horse is beyond creation. They have that inside them, and we have to allow ourselves to see it.” Leland conducts seminars at the local chapters within the Navajo nation to teach people how to gentle their horses and understand them in hopes of creating a bond and an ethic of care within the local peoples. He also brings horses together with people as healers and a vehicle for teaching Navajo children about the spiritual and cultural traditions of the Dine’ people.
After the meeting, Leland took Simone, Destini Rhone, and me to see some horses in parts of Dine’ country, Navajo Nation on the Arizona/New Mexico Border. Through this visit and our discussions with the Navajo government officials at the meeting, we gained a greater understanding of the complexity of the problem facing the Navajo Nation with regard to horses.
According to their estimates, 48,000 horses live within the nearly 18 million-acre reservation – a land area the size of West Virginia. The land also is home to tens of thousands of livestock – some also free-roaming and feral – as well as to many wildlife species.
Most of the Navajo horses are domestic horses that have been set loose to graze and have become "feral," or are semi-feral horses descended from domestic horses who have now “gone wild” but are living within residential areas. We observed one of these areas and a band of horses, led by a stallion, who appeared in size and conformation to be a wild horse, who had acquired four domestic mares, each with a foal by her side. The horses grazed in the yards of houses, where dogs also roam and children play. We later observed several other groups of horses – one that included two burros and a mule – who appeared to be free-roaming domestic animals. All stallions were intact.
At the heart of the problem is lack of resources for veterinary care, castration and vaccination and for enforcement of grazing and other laws that would prevent people from just turning horses loose. The Navajo Departments of Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife, and Natural Resources are also understaffed, with only about six officers each to cover the entire reservation. Also complicating the situation is the fact that grazing enforcement officers are elected and, therefore, are reluctant to enforce grazing regulations for fear of not being re-elected.
Due to the complexity of the problem, a multi-pronged approach will be necessary. Any plan will have to include education as a centerpiece, along with resources for gelding domestic stallions, vaccinating mares with PZP and managing wild herds with this birth control vaccine to maintain their natural behaviors and social structures.
We have offered the Navajo our assistance for their work in developing a management plan and hope that they will listen to the people and choose a humane path that does not involve slaughter or hunting horses as was previously proposed. Reducing numbers by removals, slaughter or killing isn’t just inhumane and expensive, it’s also simply not effective or sustainable over the long run. Populations will just come back, often in greater numbers than before.
We very much appreciate the Navajo officials who welcomed us to their meeting, asked many insightful and practical questions about the use of PZP, and thanked us for providing them with a tool to consider in developing the management plan for the horses on their reservation. And special thanks to Navajo Fish and Wildlife Department Director Gloria Tom for inviting Simone to speak and allowing me to speak as well.
Traditional Navajo law teaches co-existence with all living creatures and stewardship of the land and animals who inhabit it. We know that many Dine’ and Navajo officials hold those beliefs and are committed to humane treatment of the Nation’s horses. We are grateful to have had this opportunity to meet them, learn more about the Navajo nation, meet some of the wonderful people who live there and see the magnificent country they call home.