Fertile fillies

What's so bad about a little birth control?

Ross Ruf of the Palomino Valley National Adoption Center freeze-brands a mustang mare. Fewer wild horses than usual have received contraceptives this year.

Ross Ruf of the Palomino Valley National Adoption Center freeze-brands a mustang mare. Fewer wild horses than usual have received contraceptives this year.

Spring has sprung, which is to say wild horses are having babies and apt to make more in a hot minute. But equine contraceptives, which often come in dart-form from the Bureau of Land Management, have some activists concerned.

Friends of Animals, a Connecticut group that made a stir in Northern Nevada earlier this year (“Buck wild,” Feb. 5 RN&R), halted another scheduled mustang roundup in the Pine Nut Herd Management Area in March. Apart from stressful roundups and shrinking range land, use of the contraceptive porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, is one of the nonprofit’s chief complaints. The Humane Society endorses the vaccine, however, and the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign works with state agencies to administer it.

“They may want to stick their head in the sand and use this as a fundraising opportunity,” Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral said in a prepared statement that jabbed at the preservation campaign and an affiliated group called Return to Freedom—and, apparently, their motives—“but the harsh reality for wild horses is that research shows PZP has long-term detrimental effects.”

The Humane Society disagrees.

“Both deer and wild horses treated with PZP actually show comparable or better body condition than females who continue to have offspring,” the society’s website reads. “In wild horses, at least, this improvement in condition actually leads to longer lifespans.”

Friends of Animals cite a 2009 Princeton study that found the temporary contraceptive to be socially disruptive among equines, however. That’s a dire claim, considering their lives often depend on herd dynamics. PZP opponents also tout genetic research that suggests thousands of animals are needed in a given area to ensure sound offspring.

As far as BLM horse and burro specialist John Axtell knows, just two area mares have had the contraceptive this spring. Had the latest roundup ensued, the bureau would have corralled more horses, given them the vaccine, and turned them loose again. In short, we’ll get a big wave of foals next spring, which sounds cute and all until you consider the drought.

“If this is a normal summer, there’s the potential for a lot of horses to die out there if we don’t do anything,” Axtell said. “It’s going to continue to degrade the habitat.”

As for the Pine Nut roundup being stalled, well, it’s probably just that. Friends of Animals’ injunction stemmed from an outdated environmental-assessment statement on the BLM’s part, so Axtell figures the bureau will draft a new one, then try again to gather the horses after their foals have had time to mature.

The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign doesn’t endorse roundups at all, for the record, or many of the BLM’s policies. Contraception is a different story.

“It happens in a split second,” AWHPC spokeswoman Deniz Bolbol said of the darting process, for which she’s become a trained volunteer. “They don’t even run away. They jolt a little, but they just keep on grazing right in front of you.”