PZP: Where hope, science and mustangs meet

 

The longtime mustang advocate, TJ Holmes, and I head into southwestern Colorado’s Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area, searching for mustangs. We do this regularly. TJ has documented these mustangs for eight years, working in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management. A big part of her work is administering PZP, the fertility-control vaccine (porcine zona pellucida), to the mares.

The air is heavy and smoke-filled from recent fires. Topping a rise, we see mustangs silhouetted against the hazy gray sky: three bands, each comprised of a stallion, his mares and grown offspring; and a group of young bachelor stallions. TJ recognizes each horse on sight and knows the roles each plays within the herd. I’m learning, and I see that something is missing — foals, the fillies and colts of springtime. 

Spring Creek Basin has a BLM-allotted carrying capacity of 35 to 65 adult horses, and is at about 60 right now. Yet there could be 20 foals on the ground, and there are only two, one before us napping with his mama in the heat, the second far across the range. More could come this year, but even with the expected three to five foals, this herd management area will not reach maximum capacity. 

That means no wild horses will be removed in 2016 or 2017, and no mustangs will head toward the overcrowded, short-term holding facility at East Cañon Correctional Complex near Cañon City. 

The last BLM roundup in Spring Creek Basin took place in 2011, when 82 mustangs resided in this herd management area, including 13 surviving foals (eight had died). The agency removed 40 horses, and for the next four years, TJ darted mares with PZP. Trained by Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, senior scientist at the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana, TJ used PZP on 10 mares the first two years, which dropped foal numbers to eight in 2013, and seven in 2014. The BLM then permitted TJ to dart more than 20 mares, and what we see before us — just one colt nuzzling his dozing dam — is the result of her successful PZP program.    

Wild horse in Wyoming, where PZP is also being tested.

PZP does not harm mare, fetus or nursing foal in any way, though a mare might buck or jump from the sting of a dart in her rump. Mares are not vaccinated every year; a BLM selection process based on genetics, age and herd health indicates which horses get the dart. PZP, which is reversible, causes eggs to reject sperm, though mares continue to cycle normally, with no disruption to herd dynamics or psychology. Stop the darting, and the mare can conceive again.

Still, some folks oppose PZP, seeing it as human meddling. But let’s face it: We’ve already meddled — digging ponds in desert soils to catch water, erecting fences to prevent mustangs from accessing natural water sources used for generations, ending “free roaming.” Solutions presented by the public are opposing and dramatic: Reinstate slaughter practices, or do nothing at all. Both are equally terminal ideas: death in the slaughterhouse, or death by starvation.

Introducing PZP into a herd area is the wisest action BLM can take for horses, habitat and the American public. With fewer horses born, fewer roundups happen, more years pass before removal is necessary, and fewer horses are taken to holding facilities. All this saves taxpayer dollars, and for the horses, fewer are traumatized and die unnecessary deaths. 

Taxpayers pay about $49,000 for each mustang removed from the range and not adopted. PZP costs about $27 per darted horse per year, and often the darters are volunteers like TJ, who works for mustangs, not wages. PZP has effectively slowed herd reproduction in Spring Creek Basin, as it has in Colorado’s Little Book Cliffs and Sand Wash Basin, and in additional herd management areas across the West. 

“The McCullough Peaks area in Wyoming reached zero-population growth in just three years,” Dr. Kirkpatrick told me, adding that the potential taxpayer savings was $7 million. “The Challis (Idaho) Herd Management Area is just getting started and estimates they have already saved more than $350,000.” Why, then, is the BLM not using PZP in every herd management area? That is the question the public needs to ask the BLM.

Horses, reintroduced to the Americas in 1493, are here, just like the rest of us. They have reoccupied this land for 500 years. We don’t have the wherewithal to control human population, homelessness and hunger, but with a $27 injection, we could make a huge difference in life on the range.

Kathryn Wilder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She has mustangs and cows and lives in Dolores and Disappointment Valley, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Western Slope Conservation Center Paonia, CO WSCC seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking and a creative problem-solver. Position Summary: The Executive Director leads...
  • ARIZONA STATE DIRECTOR
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT/HOSPITALITY SERVICES
    Seasoned ranch manager of award-winning conservation ranch seeking position as nature reserve/resort or ranch manager. Visit philipmoonwalker.com for resume and certifications. Contact: [email protected]
  • PART-TIME OREGON GRANT WRITER
    Help advance rights for people, communities, and nature - Part-time grant writer. The Oregon Community Rights Network (ORCRN) has been active over the last six...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Utah Public Lands Program Director Location: Southern Utah Position: Full Time (40 hours per week) Supervisor: Conservation Director About us: The Grand Canyon...
  • FSBO PROPERTY-SOUTHEAST ARIZONA
    Located in an area steeped in history, this gentleman's ranch sits at the entrance to the renowned Cave Creek Canyon. Enjoy picturesque views of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • LAND CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    JOIN OUR TEAM! The New Mexico Land Conservancy in Santa Fe is seeking a Land Conservation Project Manager who will work to protect land and...
  • HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NP
    Comfortable home at foot of Boulder Mountain, on one fenced acre. Amazing views!
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.