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Wild Horses

Friends of Animals’ position on wild horse protection in the United States

In recent months, much misinformation has been spread regarding Friends of Animals’ (FoA) work to protect wild horses on public lands in the western United States. Most if not all proponents of wild horses can agree that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s approach to managing public lands—with its primary emphasis on catering to the cattle and sheep ranchers—is detrimental to the survival of wild horses. Tens of thousands of horses have been removed from public lands in recent years to appease ranchers, with many horses being killed in the process. Despite years of seeking to get BLM to better protect these animals under the Wild Free-roaming Wild Horses and Burro Act (WHBA), little has been accomplished and America’s wild horses are more endangered today than the were when that law was passed in 1971. 

It is for this reason that Friends of Animals has initiated an aggressive agenda to protect wild horses that relies upon many approaches not previously considered by wild horse advocates. Yes, we still intend to bring legal challenges under the WHBA and National Environmental Policy Act. In fact, FoA achieved a rare injunction just this year prohibiting the roundup of the famed Pine Nut herd in Nevada. To complement these efforts, our activists have commenced live protests of individual BLM roundups, and our legal advocates have been asked to come up with new approaches under other federal and state laws. As a result, FoA begun to establish a physical presence in opposition to BLM treatment of these animals (to the extent that FoA members were recently threatened with arrest in Nevada. Moreover, we have filed the first ever petition to protect wild horses under the Endangered Species Act and just this past week, filed a legal petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requesting the agency consider new scientific evidence demonstrating the need to cancel the registration of the pesticide porcine zona pellucida (PZP) for population control of America’s wild horses and burros based upon new information that shows PZP may be detrimental to horses’ health and long-term genetic viability as a population.

Sadly, many in the wild horse community, however, have not reacted favorably toward our novel approaches, and have often sent out misinformation regarding our work. The following is intended to correct the record regarding our beliefs and intentions. 

What is Friends of Animals position regarding wild horses generally?

A driving principle behind FoA’s mission is that we must reestablish meaning with regards to the word “wild.” Humans often refer to “wild animals” or “wildlife” only to distinguish them from truly domesticated animals. Little thought is given to what “wild” should mean, and how to protect it. The truth is, a majority of all “wild” animals are not wild at all today. They are merely free-roaming, human managed animals. FoA’s definition of wild means no human exploitation and manipulation of the animal, period. Humans should not be managing any wild animal by keeping them in small “herd areas,” or limiting their population through culling, relocation or forcibly drugging them with the fertility control drugs. 


Yes, FoA recognizes that many might see our position as a “pipe dream.” Today, public lands in the United States are a bleak place—largely ecologically unsound because of extensive human involvement. We have killed off or limited the number of nearly every native animal; we have over utilized resources; and we have filled the landscape with non-native species. But still, it is a dream we cannot give up on; if we do, then any chance of a return to ecological balance is lost forever. But if we continue to push, maybe we can someday soon see a real push for true ecological zones on public lands; zones where the landscape and animals are free from exploitation and management. 

As Aldo Leopold said, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” Friends of Animals cannot.

 

What is Friends of Animals position regarding the BLM’s wild horse and burro program?

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) claim that there are excess wild horses ignores science and instead represents its resentment of wild horses because it is wedding to corporate ranchers, whose cattle and sheep are responsible for range degradation. The wild horse population is fragmented to isolated and small herds that threaten the species’ survival. Over a decade ago, experts warned that the majority of wild equid populations managed by the BLM are kept at population sizes that are small enough for the loss of genetic variation to be a real concern. The Equid Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission recommends minimum populations of 2,500 individuals in a connected area for the conservation of genetic diversity. Others have warned that populations managed with a target size of fewer than 500 horses are at some risk of losing more than 90 percent of selective neutral genetic variation over a long period of 200 years. A loss of genetic variability can lead to a reduction in fertility or viability of the population. 

FoA is adamant that domestic cattle and sheep be removed from Herd Management Areas on public lands. We need to begin by designating a western U.S. ecological zone that is free from all human exploitation and management.

 

Why does Friends of Animals want wild horses on public lands designated as an endangered species? 

FoA believes that wild horses are unique and need to be protected. Yes, there will likely always be horses in this world. But there is nothing quite like a wild stallion and mare. 

Wild horses live and behave far differently than do domesticated horses. Most notably, to survive in their ecological setting, natural selection among wild horses increases the chance of the populations survival by ensuring that those traits best suited for living in the arid, harsh American west are passed on to future generations. In other words, wild horses better mirror their prehistoric ancestors’ natural tendency, as Darwin identified, in that animals that are able to survive and reproduce in the wild will pass their genes to surviving offspring, which can improve the fitness of the population. Breeding of domesticated horses, on the other hand, is generally controlled through human-directed, selective breeding. 

The behaviors of wild horses also differ dramatically from those of their domestic counterparts—wild horses live in highly structured, hard-won family groups and are acutely attuned to dangers in their environment, and wary of humans. They have developed ways to protect their herds from other animals (including other wild horses) through communication and aggressive behaviors.  On the other hand, domestic horses are accustomed to and dependent on human contact. Although domestic horses may exhibit social stratification, they do not exhibit the full complement of associations (e.g., harem bands, multiple male and female bands, and bachelor groups) observed in free-roaming horses. 

There is a historically small number of wild horses worldwide. Accordingly to researchers,  “Most species of equid are endangered and, as integral parts of the ecosystems in which they live, their conservation is not only important for their own survival, but also for the species with which they interact.”

The primary threats to wild horses on federal public land are habitat loss, inadequate regulation, and excessive round-ups and removals. Overall, wild horses on federal public lands face the threat of extinction due to at least four factors identified in the ESA. First, habitat loss, particularly from cattle grazing, mining, energy exploration, and urban expansion, endangers the distinct population segment (“DPS”). Second, human utilization threatens the species, specifically removal and sterilization to reduce the population and allow commercial grazing. Third, existing regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to manage the threats that face wild horses and may, in fact, constitute an independent threat to their survival. Finally, other natural and manmade factors also threaten the continued existence of wild horses in the United States, including their artificially fragmented range and small population size. Thus, it is vital to the survival of this population segment of wild horses that it becomes federally protected under the ESA.  

 

Are wild horses native?

Critics of wild horses claim that modern wild horses are an exotic species introduced in the by the Spanish to North America some 400-500 years ago. However, the fossil record today refutes the proposition the modern horse in North America is non-native. There is no dispute that the ancestor of the modern horses originated in North America, and evolved with the habitat here approximately one- two million years. Moreover, the last species of horses believed to be in North America before extinction has been shown to not be genetically distinct from the modern wild horse we know today.  

In short, Spaniards returned horses near the end of the 16th Century to the birthplace of their ancestors.

 

What exactly is PZP?

Porcine zona pellucida (PZP), is extracted from pig ovaries and is a composite of four different acidic glycoproteins, ZPl, ZP2, ZP3, and ZP4. The antibodies bind to the ZP glycoproteins that surround the egg of the injected animal, alter the glycoproteins' conformation, and block the attachment of sperm, thus preventing fertilization. PZP is administered by hand injection or via a dart fired from a dart rifle. Even the BLM admits in most cases they will still have to conduct roundups, administer the PZP by hand injection and then re-release the mares back out on the range. 

In the BLM’s own words: Darting is generally not practical for BLM because it is difficult to approach most wild horses closely enough on Western rangelands. For this reason, the BLM mostly uses a longer-lasting, 22-month, pelleted PZP agent (PZP-22). The pelleted vaccine has been successfully administered by darting into a few mares, but typically it is hand-injected after the mares have been captured. This method of treatment means that during gathers, more mares need to be captured (for treatment and release) than would actually be removed from the range if removal was the only goal. While this is usually possible, it can be difficult to capture a large enough fraction of the population so that significant numbers can be treated and released. 

So despite what PZP proponents say, PZP will never replace roundups. 

 

Why is Friends of Animals opposed to PZP?

As noted above, humans should not be managing any wild horses (or any animals) by keeping their population numbers suppressed, whether through culling, relocation or forcibly drugging them with the fertility control pesticide PZP. Proponents of PZP have coerced the Environmental Protection Agency into thinking that wild horses on public lands are nuisances and pests that need to be controlled and managed. There is mounting scientific evidence PZP has serious physical and behavioral effects on wild horses.

 If folks are going to manipulate animals with PZP, then they should be honest and not call them “wild” anymore. At best they are managed public herds. This is simply counter to FoA’s core beliefs about wild animals. 

 

What evidence is there today that warrants pulling the registration of PZP?  

When the Humane Society obtained ESA registration for PZP in 2012, the organization never provided evidence that PZP doesn’t have negative side effects…it just provided information about the efficacy of PZP and actually requested waivers for most of the studies ordinarily required from an applicant seeking pesticide registration—including a toxicity study, ecological effects and environmental fate guideline study. The majority of research submitted by HSUS was published by Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, a veterinarian who manufactures PZP, and did not consider the biological, social and behavioral effects the drug can have on wild horses.

More recent research included in FoA’s petition (you can read the petition at www.friendsofanimals.org) has demonstrated repeated applications of PZP can cause physical damage to treated mares; it is not completely reversible; it can increase mortality in foals post-PZP effectiveness; and it interferes with herd cohesion, which is critical to the overall health of wild horses. In addition, preventing mares from producing foals can create a genetic bottleneck that may ultimately extinguish the species as a whole.

 

How does the use of PZP violate the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971?

Congress has declared that “wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death, and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found as an integral part of the natural system of public lands.” 

New studies indicate that PZP use is harassing, and even killing, wild horses in ways not considered as part of the initial registration process. 

While it is true that the WHBA provides for an exception from these general mandates to protect wild horses to control their populations, this exception is both narrow (the animal must be deemed “excess”) and can only be applied if the implementing agency (BLM or USFS) first completes certain statutory requirements. It may be that with regard to the decision to dose a particular mare the implementing agency can comply with the WHBA. However, the other horses in the herd that are not dosed with PZP (as well as the unborn foals) cannot be legally defined as “excessive” and, thus, the harassment or death to these animals caused by PZP violates the WHBA.


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