Federal contraceptive program to control US wild horse numbers a step closer

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Two wild horse advocacy groups applaud US lawmakers for budgeting funds for use of contraceptive vaccines.
Two wild horse advocacy groups applaud US lawmakers for budgeting funds for use of contraceptive vaccines. Image by Steppinstars

Federal lawmakers are on track to dedicate funding in the next financial year for a humane fertility control program for wild horses.

On Monday, the US Senate Appropriations Committee included critical directives in the Interior appropriations bill, which will cover the next fiscal year, for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to administer reversible fertility control vaccines to wild horses.

In July, House appropriators likewise set aside significant funding to scale up the use of fertility control vaccines.

This is the first time Congress has set aside dedicated funding for the BLM to develop a humane fertility control program.

The Animal Welfare Institute and the American Wild Horse Campaign applauded the Senate Appropriations Committee for including the funding.

Senate appropriators provided $US11 million for the BLM, which manages most of America’s wild horses, to administer reversible fertility control vaccines, such as the widely supported Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) immunocontraceptive vaccine, which is 90% effective at preventing pregnancy in horses.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) championed the inclusion of funding to “implement a robust and humane fertility control strategy.”

The request was supported by many lawmakers from western states, as well as key members of the Appropriations Committee.

The committee explicitly noted that reversible immunocontraceptive vaccines are available for the BLM to use immediately as a means of curbing population growth.

The BLM must report back within 45 days with its strategy for a vaccination initiative.

To date, the agency has declined to implement effective fertility control measures that would keep herds on the range. Instead, it routinely removes wild horses through helicopter roundups.

The BLM currently spends less than 1% of its Wild Horse and Burro Program budget on fertility control, but spends about $US60 million annually on removing wild horses from public lands designated for their use, the advocacy groups noted.

The captured horses are moved to off-range holding facilities for the rest of their lives.

In July, House appropriators likewise set aside significant funding to scale up the use of fertility control vaccines, meaning both the House and Senate bills are aligned in directing the BLM to pursue this management approach.

Importantly, the Senate’s language also recognizes that a strategy premised on removals is counterproductive because it has the “unintended effect of increasing foaling”. This echoes the National Academy of Sciences’ key finding that roundups accelerate population growth rates through a biological phenomenon called compensatory reproduction.

In addition to maintaining longstanding critical provisions intended to prevent wild horses and burros from being sent to slaughter, the Senate bill further calls for the Department of the Interior to form an inter-agency council to address wild horse and burro management.

However, the Senate Interior appropriations language was not uniformly positive for wild horses. The committee noted its support for the prior administration’s report to Congress on wild horse management, which called for accelerated removals, which would balloon the number of wild horses kept in captivity. The Animal Welfare Institute and the American Wild Horse Campaign labelled this stance ill-advised, saying the costs in the first five years alone could hit nearly $US1 billion.

The National Academy of Sciences found that roundups accelerate population growth rates through a biological phenomenon called compensatory reproduction.
The National Academy of Sciences found that roundups accelerate population growth rates through a biological phenomenon called compensatory reproduction. Image by Tom6667

Notwithstanding this stance on accelerated removals, the House and Senate’s comprehensive directives would otherwise result in meaningful reforms to the broken federal Wild Horse and Burro Program, the two advocacy groups said.

“This is the first time that Congress has set aside dedicated funding for the Bureau of Land Management to develop a humane fertility control program — something that is desperately needed to break the costly and ineffective cycle of roundups and keep wild horses in their natural habitats,” said Joanna Grossman, the equine program manager and senior advisor at the Animal Welfare Institute.

“The BLM has largely refused to employ proven and safe immunocontraceptive vaccines, so we are grateful that House and Senate lawmakers have acted decisively to remedy this problem and set the BLM on a more sustainable path towards managing wild horses.”

Holly Gann Bice, the director of government relations for the American Wild Horse Campaign, said the group applauded the Senate Appropriations Committee for what she described as a historic step toward reforming the Wild Horse and Burro Program by providing $US11 million in funding for fertility control.

It was, she said, a humane on-range management strategy that will ultimately help keep these animals in the wild where they belong.

“We’re deeply grateful to Senator Booker, subcommittee Chair Jeff Merkley, and others for providing the necessary leadership to place the BLM on a better track for the humane management of our Western herds.”

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