Brian Bahouth and Scott King, Sierra Nevada Ally
March 24, 2021
Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources heard Senate Joint Resolution 3, a measure that urges Congress to provide a steady stream of short-term and long-term funding to reduce the wild horse and burro populations back to appropriate management levels. If the request to Congress were to become policy, the implications would loom large for the state of Nevada, home to over 50 percent of the nation’s wild horse and burro populations.
The funding would be allocated toward further helicopter roundups of wild horses and burros, which according to the resolution, in some Herd Management Areas, are anywhere from 300 to 1000 percent over the designated appropriate management level.
Former Nevada State Senator David Parks presented the text of the resolution to the committee.
Sherman Swanson, an emeritus professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Nevada Reno, made a presentation to the committee in support of SJR3. Dr. Swanson said he also represents the Coalition for Healthy Nevada Lands, Wildlife and Free-Roaming Horses.
“We don’t need to change policy, we simply need to implement policy,” Swanson said.
The overarching goal, according to Swanson, is to sustain scarce and critically important creeks, springs and riparian areas.
Jim Sedinger, an emeritus professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Nevada Reno, made a presentation in support of SJR3. As part of his talk, he showed lawmakers a graph that compares wild horse and burro populations with native big game populations over time.
“The biomass of wild horses and burros currently is nearly three times that of native big game species, and I want to emphasize that this does not include the dozens of other wildlife species that depend on our wildlands,” Sedinger said.
“We suggest that bringing horses and burros back to AML (appropriate management level) represents a proper balancing of priorities to horses and burros and wildlife,” said Sedinger.
What About Cows?
In discussing the health of rangeland resources in Nevada, neither Swanson nor Sedinger mentioned the impact of cattle and other livestock on rangeland ecosystems. Several who offered testimony in opposition to SJR3 noted the absence of cow data.
Erik Molvar is executive director of the Western Watersheds Project and offered testimony in opposition to SJR3. Molvar explained that he is a wildlife biologist and conducted research at the Institute for Arctic Biology at the same time as Jim Sedinger. Molvar spoke directly to Sedinger during his testimony in opposition to SJR3 and said that cows do far more damage to sensitive areas than wild horses.
“I listened to Jim Sedinger’s presentation earlier talking about the biomass of wild horses exceeding the wildlife biomass, and I didn’t hear Jim Sedinger report a biomass number for cattle. Sedg, did you forget a bar in your bar chart?” Molvar asked.
The BLM estimates Nevada’s 2020 wild horse and burro population to be 51,528 with an appropriate management level of 12,811 animals. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, including calves, more than 470,000 cows roamed Nevada’s ranges in 2020.
Cattle aside, for many wild horse advocates the roundups are inhumane policy and only exacerbate the overpopulation problem.
“Rounding up horses is simply a bandaid fix that does not stop [wild horse] breeding, it just removes excess horses without actually addressing humane management,” Greg Hendricks, director of field operations for the American Wild Horse Campaign, said in a phone interview. “Here on the Virginia Range, we have the world’s largest ongoing PZP fertility control program for wild horses. We’ve been asking the BLM to implement [fertility control] to stabilize and reduce the population, rather than rounding up thousands of horses only to repeat that process in another four or five years.”
PZP, or Porcine Zona Pellucida, is a fertility-control vaccine that is administered via darting and is recommended by the National Academy of Science for federally-protected wild horse populations. The fertility control program at Virginia Range originally began in 2015 in cooperation with the Nevada Department of Agriculture, but was briefly suspended in favor of exploring other solutions. When alternative solutions weren’t realized, the program was reinstated in April 2019.
“[PZP] is a vaccine that is humane in that it blocks the fertilization capability of the egg with the titers and the antibodies through an immune reaction,” Hendricks said. “But it’s reversible in that after a year or two you can stop, or after five [inoculations] the mare will eventually self-boost, meaning she gets enough titers where she becomes infertile.”
Tracy Wilson, a volunteer liaison with Wild Horse Connection, also believes SJR3 should instead direct funds toward more tangible solutions like fertility control.
“Once you start preventing pregnancies in these [wild horse] bands, then natural attrition is going to bring down your population rate,” Wilson said. “So putting money into things like land restoration, fertility control and water sourcing for both livestock and wildlife is how they need to direct all these funds, instead of just paying millions of dollars for helicopter roundups and then just having these horses in long-term holding for their entire lives.”
The use of helicopter roundups date back to the passage of The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. In order to sustain what was considered appropriate management levels of the population, helicopters would drive horses from ranges into holding pens. From there, the wild horses could then be trained and adopted out to families.
Throughout the 1970s, the adoption program was a successful measure in stabilizing wild horse populations. However, according to Hendricks, since the 1980s there haven’t been nearly enough adoptions to match the numbers of wild horses being brought in through roundups.
“If their path forward is to increase the roundups to 15-20,000 horses a year and they’re currently only adopting out about 7,000 horses a year, we will be stockpiling horses,” Hendricks said. “Eventually, you’re going to stockpile in excess of 100,000 horses, so you can imagine the cost to the American taxpayer. This is not a path forward, but a path to the slaughter because sooner or later it’s going to get too expensive to keep [the wild horses] in holding.”
Meanwhile, whereas a vast majority of the captured wild horses will end up in long-term holding pens, the remaining free-roaming populations will continue to reproduce.
“When you take horses off the range, the [remaining herds go] through what’s called ‘Compensatory Reproduction,’” Hendricks said. “What that means is that the fewer wild horses you have, the more they reproduce and are able to bring that population back. So what the BLM historically has done is [facilitate] greater reproduction for more horses on the range and more need for rounding up and stockpiling horses again every four or five years.”
According to Wilson, it’s also the nature of how wild horses reproduce that contributes to the cyclical problem that’s become compensatory reproduction.
“The family bands have a lead stallion who will have a handful of mares and their offspring,” Wilson said. “They stick together as a family and over time, they self-regulate their genetics because the fillies will leave those bands and get taken in by another stallion. [The lead stallion will] also kick their young sons out once they hit sexual maturity, so they’re not battling for the same horses and they’re not inbreeding.”
Estimates of wild horse population growth in a given year are often placed between 10-15 percent, or even as high as 20 percent in compensatory reproduction areas. Consequently, the results that are beginning to be realized at Virginia Range holds promise as a better and more humane alternative.
“Now in our second year, we’re seeing a really strong indication that our fertility control is taking effect,” Hendricks said. “Our population levels are basically going flat, meaning they’re not going down yet, but they’re not growing.”
Additionally, Hendricks and Wilson both suggest that SJR3 fails to account for the scope of the problem. The resolution places the blame for overgrazing on public lands solely on wild horse and burro populations, so their solution of simply removing those populations is simply too narrow and too costly to be a viable solution.
“The BLM manages 245 million acres of public land, 155 million acres of which has grazing livestock and 27 million acres of that land is shared by wild horses,” Wilson said. “So they allocate 80 percent of that land for livestock grazing, while they only allocate 20 percent of that land for grazing for horses. So saying the horses are eating all the grazing is the number one misconception because they’re sharing the grazing land with livestock on public lands.”
Jim Sedinger said the need to act was urgent, and there was some bombast in his math.
“There’s an urgent need to act,” Sedinger said. “Because horse numbers increase at 15 to 20 percent per year if left unmanaged, which means that a one-year delay adds 15 to 20 thousands horses to wild horse population at our current level.”
If a 15 to 20 thousand horse increase represents 15 percent of the “current level,” then the wild horse population would be nearly three times the current BLM estimate of 51,000.
“When you talk about putting money into just taking away horses, that is a very narrow plan to bring back range habitat and health for both wildlife, horses, and ranching,” Greg Hendricks said. “If you want to save money and manage horses, you have to manage fertility control because if they’re not born, you don’t have to gather them or put them in holding. Historically, the price of a horse going into the BLM system after it’s gathered can run up to $50,000 of taxpayer money, whereas a shot of PZP costs $35.”
Therefore, Hendricks says, it’s not just a wild horse issue, but a failed management issue by escalating the use of outdated measures.
“We’re at a point where [BLM] has used the same technique since 1971 of gathering horses and their response [with SJR3] is to do the same thing again, only more of it and expect a different result, “ Hendricks explained. “So literally, this resolution is asking to spend even more money on gathering horses and stockpiling them and it really barely touches their real, true path forward, which is fertility control. We need BLM to change their old tactics and start embracing those that actually will make a difference down the road.”
Therefore, advocates are calling for the rejection of SJR3 in favor of more humane and cost-effective measures like the PZP vaccine. They’re voicing their concerns because wild horses have developed a unique relationship with the state of Nevada over the course of state history.
“There’s something about the wild horse that Nevadans relate well enough that we put it on our state quarter,” Hendricks said. “Nevadans relate to wild horses in the freedom that they represent, their tenacity, their survival instincts, the history of these horses in that they helped settle, they helped mine and they helped bring people out West. They economically benefit tourism in the area because we have people coming all over the world to see Nevada’s wild horses, so Nevadans want the horses managed humanely.”