The time has come (it’s past time, really) to go ahead and publish this post, which has been in draft form for a few months now.
The misinformation out there about fertility control – including PZP-22 and native PZP, often used interchangeably (though the base vaccine is the same) – is staggering and, given its potential value as an effective tool in the management of wild horses, horribly disturbing. I read something the other day that said PZP causes stallions to fight all the time over mares that are always in heat. I’ve also heard that because the mares continue to come into heat each month (that, in fact, is true – every 18 to 23 days with some seasonal irregularities), they are “continually raped” by stallions.
***Rape is a wholly human construct. Stallions do not rape mares.***
A mare’s “heat cycle” is her body’s indication that she is fertile and ready to be bred.
Rape is a terrible, terrible thing that is about domination. Please do not confuse the awfulness of a man overpowering a woman against her will with the natural cycle of procreation in a wildlife species.
This year, I witnessed an early-foaling (April) mare being bred in June. That means she missed (conceiving on) her foaling heat and the next month’s heat cycle and was bred (again, I assume) two months after she foaled. She has never been treated with fertility control. The stallion did chase her, and she did stand for him.
Alpha still apparently has not conceived, though she received a dose of PZP-22 in August 2007, and it had no effect on the other three surviving mares that received it then (and no, PZP-22 was NOT responsible for the two mares’ deaths). You might remember that Alpha foaled in late July 2008 – an event not connected to fertility control (neither PZP nor PZP-22 affects the fetus a mare may be carrying when she receives the vaccine). Why so late? Trouble conceiving? She is an older mare, though I’m unsure of her exact age. The fact that Storm was still nursing as of last fall means one of two things: She’s either not pregnant or she’s not enough pregnant to be ready to wean her big boy.
An older mare getting an extended break from the demands of carrying and caring for a foal is not a bad thing.
Mahogany, who lost her foal this spring, also is an older mare. She’s an older mare being courted by three young-ish bachelors, the youngest (I think) of which seems to have the highest “rank” and has claimed her. But that doesn’t stop them all from enjoying quiet moments together.
Mouse at left, Mahogany facing and Sundance behind her. Aspen, the third stallion, is definitely the low-rank stallion; he was just up the hill.
Mahogany is likely pregnant again – not cycling, to be blunt – but that doesn’t stop these bachelors from sticking close to her – watching her and each other for an opening. (Jan. 20 update – these four horses have finally apparently split from Steeldust’s band.) This is likely rank-related because Mahogany is, as I said, likely pregnant. Every now and then, there’s a scrap, quickly resolved, and sometimes, there are moments the stallions share like this:
… from a visit in September. Mouse, left, and Sundance. It’s just as sweet as it looks – no seconds-later sparring after this picture was taken.
So Mahogany, never treated with fertility control, has three boys vying for her “affection.” She lost a foal but was likely bred on her foaling heat and is most likely pregnant now with a foal due this spring – but healthy and doing well without a foal in the last year. Alpha, treated once with PZP-22 – and apparently not yet pregnant, so cycling every month, though she’s doing it so quietly I haven’t witnessed it – has one extremely devoted stallion, is in fantastic condition and has a big, ultra-stout colt who has gotten double the nutrition and attention from his alpha-mare dam.
Late births? Sure, we’ve had a few – treated AND UNtreated mares:
* Chipeta received PZP-22 in August 2007. She did not foal in 2008, likely because she was young and had not been bred or had not conceived in 2007. She has foaled July 26, 2009, and Sept. 1, 2010 (and why that difference?). Her 2009 foal, Joven, died at about 2 weeks.
*Kiowa received PZP-22 in August 2007, has foaled May 1, 2008; July 1, 2009; and June 28, 2010.
* Alpha received PZP-22 in August 2007, foaled July 25, 2008 (again, not influenced by fertility control). No foals since.
* Mona, treated with PZP-22 in October 2008, foaled in mid-September 2010.
* Raven, treated in October 2008 with PZP-22, foaled in April 2009, not in 2010 and looks pregnant for a foal this spring (though only she knows exact timing).
*Kootenai, treated in October 2008 with PZP-22, has not had a foal.
* Jif foaled Sept. 22, 2009 (never treated with fertility control), likely her first foal; she was not rounded up and had no foal with her post-roundup and no foal (or indication of pregnancy) in 2008. Jif lost her foal immediately or soon after birth in 2010, which would have been in August or September, as did three other mares in 2010 never treated with fertility control.
To continue something I can’t explain, three 2-year-olds have foaled (one lost the foal at birth), and two 3-year-olds (they’ll be 4 this year … I haven’t seen Reya for a while now, but Baylee still looks girlish slim) have not yet foaled. I wonder about it, but I can’t explain it. I wonder also about the overall health of the young mares and their foals vs. that of the mares foaling when they’re older, more mature, stronger.
Nature vs. fertility control? Neither PZP nor PZP-22 cause late births, though I do believe the timing of the application has much to do with it, whether caused by timing of roundups or delay because of legal action. Late births do occur naturally. Something I consider a very positive “pro” of native PZP over PZP-22 is that the remote field darting can coincide with the mares’ biology and is not dependent on human-timed roundups.
We have proposed a fertility control program here as is done in Little Book Cliffs, near Grand Junction, Colorado: With trained volunteer darters, using native (annual) PZP.
The benefits to the horses (individually and as a herd) are indisputable: Fewer births = slower herd population growth = less frequent roundups/disruptions of natural bonds. Mares are healthier, and apparently more attention is given to the foals they do have, which results in healthy(ier?) horses with a high(er?) level of herd knowledge.
The benefits to BLM are – true to form – in numbers: Huge cost savings because of fewer roundups. We think a fertility control program can reduce roundups from three per decade (2000, 2005, 2007 in the last decade) to one. Fewer horses in the adoption pipeline … fewer horses in long-term holding = major cost savings (truly, a benefit to American taxpayers). Overall, this savings numbers in the millions of dollars: Numbers I’ve seen (attributed to a BLM spokesman) are $100,000/day cost to care for horses in long-term holding and an average cost of $20,000 per horse over its lifetime in long-term holding.
Benefits to us who love these horses – to the horses themselves: Dare I say it, priceless.
Several factors make Spring Creek Basin perfect for this type of annual fertility control darting by volunteers: The herd is small (AML=35-65 horses). The herd management area is small (~22,000 acres). The horses are documented by yours truly, the benefits of which I realized shortly after our roundup when I witnessed the Little Book Cliffs roundup and soon after that met the director of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center (documentation in both herds has been ongoing for years). Our mares are approachable. Contrary to what some (BLM) folks say, visitors do not particularly enjoy the sight of mustangs running away in a cloud of dust a quarter of a mile away. We like to SEE our horses, being horses, grazing, napping, playing, sparring, grooming. This does not make them any less wild?! I don’t understand that argument. But to address it, another benefit to remote darting is that it eliminates the need to round up horses or trap horses or handle horses in order to treat them – hands-off management, which BLM espouses.
Do the horses start to realize what you – the darter – are up to? Of course they do – they’re wily wild! But here’s another misconception debunked: Annual darting of mares on Assateague Island (National Seashore, National Park Service) has been ongoing for 24 years now. Is it hard to dart those mares? They come right up to the tourists, right? In fact, only about 5 percent of the horses are in tourist areas; those horses are the second hardest to dart – second to Little Book Cliffs horses (I have these facts from someone personally involved in the programs of both places). Thought those mustangs were “tame,” too, did you?
Do they become impossible to dart? Twenty-four years (this year) of successful annual darting on Assateague and close to a decade at Little Book Cliffs would seem to prove otherwise, eh?
I am not in any way advocating sterilization. In fact, I am absolutely against sterilization – gelding or otherwise. And I’ll note here that – according to the more than two decades of research on this issue – six or seven consecutive years of PZP application has been found to render mares permanently infertile. Look at that in practical terms. I do not advocate sterility of healthy, mature mares in the prime of life … But neither would I have minded mares like Ceal and Molly NOT leaving orphans because they had foals right up to the years they died. And I would not have minded seeing a mare like Bones, with her healed fractured pelvis, not able to have foals (which killed her – and her foal) but quite able to enjoy wild life with her stallions as long as possible.
What I am FOR is mustangs, wild, on their home ranges, without disruption, longer. I hate roundups – I had a very physical reaction at our roundup in 2007, and to say I am not looking forward to the roundup this fall is the understatement of the eon. BUT – I would rather see healthy horses, able to withstand the helicopter’s assault, brought in than horses in lesser condition. Our horses in 2007 were not quite skinny … but where’s the line? They were definitely lean, on the edge. The population was way over AML, probably between 110 and 120. The basin is fenced or cut off by insurmountable natural boundaries. The amount of forage is limited; the amount of water, even more so. The quality of water is terrible – alkaline with a higher salt content than is considered acceptable for livestock. Cattle graze on the area only from December through February – only when there’s snow – fresh water in frozen form. Coincidence? I doubt it.
I would rather healthy horses be rounded up than horses in less-than-good condition – because I know the future. I will never advocate that “nature take its course” within the confines of human management: fences. “Free-roaming” isn’t, quite.
Here, our group(s) – Colorado chapter of the National Mustang Association, and as representatives to Disappointment Wild Bunch Partners, which also includes representatives of Four Corners Back Country Horsemen, Mesa Verde Back Country Horsemen and San Juan Mountains Association (though SJMA is not an advocate organization) – advocates for BLM’s spoken goals – protecting and managing wild horses in balance with their range – and we are working to provide local BLM with the information to achieve those goals.
This is a big, complex issue, and I can’t possibly cover it all in this post. I hope I’ve given it a broad enough brush to spur thought. We don’t want people protesting our roundup. This year – every year – we want smart management choices to be made on behalf of our mustangs. Sixty of 90 horses to be rounded up are slated for removal. If not next year, 90 of 120 to be removed? Healthy horses or not-so-healthy horses?
I am speaking strictly for Spring Creek Basin, where I know the horses and I know the range. Horses on other ranges – their numbers, conditions, range and water conditions – are not my expertise.
One thing readers should know about me if you haven’t learned it by now: The mustangs of Spring Creek Basin are my No. 1 priority. Period. I will do all I can, as long as I can, for their continued well-being and natural, long, wild lives – and I expect that to be a very long time indeed. And I hope what we do here, following precedent set in a handful of other herd areas, will become, in turn, part of that model for more herd areas to follow. Time, data, experience, success. BLM cannot continue on its current unsustainable course.
Another post I read recently has it right: These horses belong to US, not to BLM. But BLM is charged with management of wild horse herds on BLM lands, in addition to other charges regarding other resources. We have the opportunity to advise BLM in the horses’ best management (another benefit of this herd management area, where I know the horses best), but it has to be smart. BLM must be willing to take responsibility and completely overhaul its management practices. I believe that includes fertility control – not starvation – and not continued reaction to “excess” horses instead of managing from the front end – mares get pregnant, have foals, population grows, population outgrows finite resources.
If this post starts the wheels turning, it has accomplished my goal. I cannot recommend highly enough or often enough that you read this series, put together by Matt Dillon, director of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center: http://pryorwild.wordpress.com/category/pzp/
I didn’t intend to get so heavy with this post, thinking “love triangle” was a cute way to illustrate the picture of Mahogany with her boys and bring up – and debunk – misconceptions about PZP at the same time. But we’re all locked in a love-hate triangle: wild horses, advocates, BLM. Wild life is messy, not all advocates agree with all other advocates, BLM itself is a dysfunctional agency, I believe, but I also believe there are some good people within its ranks. One cannot paint all herd areas with the same broad strokes, nor all herds, nor all advocates, nor all BLM employees.
In principle, I can agree with this, from the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign:
The AWHPC Coalition is calling on Congress to reform the government’s wild horse management program and organizing a grassroots campaign in support of:
- A suspension of roundups in all but verifiable emergency situations while the entire BLM wild horse program undergoes objective and scientific review;
- Higher Appropriate Management Levels (AML) for wild horses on those rangelands designated for them;
- Implementation of in-the-wild management, which would keep wild horses on the range and save taxpayers millions annually by avoiding the mass removal and stockpiling wild horses in government holding facilities.
In actual practice, however, stopping or postponing a roundup here could hasten a likely emergency situation in the future. No roundup now, when horses are healthy and not overburdening their food and water resources, also would have the effect of delaying the “legalities” of implementing a fertility control program in Spring Creek Basin as soon as possible (completing a five-year environmental assessment in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act).
Also, I would substitute “accurate” appropriate management levels where it says “higher” appropriate management levels, using best science and giving wild horses priority on their designated ranges, herd areas and herd management areas, hoping that, in many of these very large areas, higher AMLs would, indeed, be accurate and appropriate.
I wholly support the third premise.
Education may not be part of BLM’s mission. It is part of mine. As someone who spends part of almost every week of the year with these horses, I feel pretty strongly that my opinion and long-term, on-the-ground, in-the-wild observations count for something that can and should be of benefit to the eternal preservation of our wild horses. “In wildness is the preservation of the world” … and our mustangs.
Some PZP resources:
* Excellent series about fertility control: http://pryorwild.wordpress.com/category/pzp/ (click through “Older Entries” to get to the beginning)
* Q&A: http://pryorwild.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/pzp-qa-third-edition-june-1-2010.pdf
Video with Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, director of the Science and Conservation Center: http://www.mywyoming.org/video/1y8d9ofce8 (it’s long but well worth the information)
I want to leave you with some things to consider:
People hate roundups because they cause such trauma and social upheaval, yet when it comes to fertility control, they seem to completely forget and/or overlook roundups/removals as a cause of any “social unrest” or that fertility control can provide a much better alternative. WHY?? (Predation is a major “if” that has a lot to do with culture and politics, and starvation makes me sick.)
When you ask for facts about PZP/PZP-22 – as well you should! – don’t forget to ask the same questions of the alternative! The alternative to fertility control is, of course, roundups and removals. Consider these factors:
Genetic: Removals are more damaging to the genetic pool of a herd than anything else. The horses most likely to be removed are the younger horses, those considered most “adoptable.” Those horses will NEVER have the opportunity to contribute their genetics. PZP/PZP-22 is reversible. Every horse gets the chance to contribute to the genetic resources of the herd. Now, I expect that rounds and removals will continue to happen, though hopefully the interval will be greater. Unless BLM takes the intense approach Assateague has (and I don’t really see that), some roundups (though we hope bait trapping rather than helicopters will become the norm) and removals will need to happen. Fertility control is not a perfect panacea … but in a fenced pasture – no matter how large – allowing constant breeding makes BLM the most irresponsible horse breeder in the country, even as it is the country’s largest landowner.
Social: Removals, it should go without saying, also are devastating to this intensely familial-bonded species. Slower population growth, effected by fertility control, prevents frequent widespread removals and severing of social/familial bonds. Is witnessed “social unrest” after roundups due to PZP/PZP-22??? Or is it due to removals of sires, dams, siblings, band stallions, mares …???
Economic: I just heard that 40 percent of BLM’s budget goes to the Wild Horse & Burro Program. I’ve read that 75 percent of the Wild Horse & Burro Program’s budget is for roundups and holding. Someone help me with an actual dollar figure per year? Millions. The cost of native PZP is $25 per dose, $1 per dose of adjuvant, $2.15 for the dart = less than $30 per mare per year. Volunteer darters provide intimate knowledge of their horses and free labor. If we can dart 10 mares per year here, that’s $300. ‘Nuff said?
Doing this post has worried me more because of what I’m afraid I’ve inadvertently left out in my explanation or details I’ve been obliged to leave out because of length rather than what I’ve included. Please do ask questions! Please do consult experts! My constant disclaimer is that I am NOT an expert, though I feel beyond fortunate to have mentors such as Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick who IS probably the world’s foremost expert on PZP.
Again, much information is here: http://pryorwild.wordpress.com/category/pzp/
More is coming in this vein …