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His Kingdom for a Horse: Jay Kirkpatrick, expert on fertility control, speaks to the ongoing issues regarding wild horse management in the U.S. and abroad

By Mae Lee Sun

Mustangs at Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary, USA Photo: Frank Staub

“Wild horses are more or less able to run freely in 10 Western States.”

This statement was published in the New York Times on October 10th, 2011 in a blog entry titled ‘Wild Horses, Hard Choices’ by a guy who had spent a little time interning with the U.S. Forest Service during his school break.

The intern/blogger went on to write how he dreamed of one stallion in particular. How he felt its independence. How the horses are not fenced in. How hard the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) was working to manage their numbers ever since the horses had been granted protection through the landmark 1971 Free-roaming Wild Horse and Burros Act. How BLM administrators like Ben Noyes, in charge of HMAs (Herd Management Areas) were keen on protecting the ecosystems from being damaged by the horses presence. And, that “The bureau vigorously pursues a policy of rounding up wild horses to keep their numbers at a level that prevents them from over-grazing and hogging water.”

The gist of it is that the blogger presented shockingly inaccurate information.  So much so that nearly every reader comment following the post urged the blogger to do his diligence as they discredited him via hurling statistics and research data his way.  Some readers went so far as demanding he rewrite the story. Ironically, the blog appeared in the ‘Science’ section.

Unfortunately, the blogger is not alone.  Perpetuating the less than favorable and rather unscientific data about wild horses is “par for the course” according to Jay Kirkpatrick, one of the foremost researchers in the world on fertility control and Director of The Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana – the worlds’ only dedicated facility for development of wildlife contraceptives and methods of application.

The scientific and environmental reality concerning wild horses is quite a different factual picture than what the intern put forth says Kirkpatrick.

“Cattle outnumber the horses 40:1. Horses do not wreck water sources. They water and leave, while cattle stay there and really do wreck water sources.”

He’s not surprised that the blogger is simply quoting the usual party line from the BLM.  They (the BLM wild horse program) have an annual budget of nearly 70 million dollars.

“It’s a mess,” says Kirkpatrick, and it gets progressively complicated.   If it’s not environmental reasons, the next line of defense in the wild horse wars is that they eat grass meant for cattle and sheep.


Dr Jay Kirkpatrick, Director of The Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana, darting a wild mustang with PZP, an immunocontraception on Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland. Photo: courtesy of The Science and Conservation Center

“Ironically, less than three percent of the U.S.’s entire beef cattle graze public land and sheep ranching is subsidized to the tune of $123 million. We could remove every sheep and cow from public land tomorrow and the nation would not notice a thing.  So livestock vs. horses is probably an irrelevant point of contention for the larger debate if you ignore the money the taxpayer is losing. But it surfaces all the time anyway.  But more important, regardless of your orthodoxies, removal of cattle and sheep from public lands simply isn’t going to happen.  Why keep talking about it?”

To be fair to both sides, Kirkpatrick feels even if there was consensus on the myriad issues surrounding wild horses, i.e., whether they’re considered a native species in need of conservation protection or feral pest; natural vs. unnatural management schemes; allowed or not allowed on public lands; re-home or slaughter, etc., it would not have much of an impact on the much larger problem of how the current populations are managed regardless of whether we’re talking Mustangs living in HMAs in America or Brumbies roaming the outback and national parks throughout Australia.

“Even after all the cows and sheep are gone, horses would one day overpopulate the land anyway”, he says.

Management to date across many countries has failed due to methodologies that continue to amount to little more than capture and removal when populations are deemed to be too high.  Not to mention the welfare issues that abound in the process of aerial culling, round-ups and transport.  The end result leaves administrators in charge of emotionally and physically traumatized horses who are then taken to slaughter, holding facilities or in the case of the lucky few, re-homed by sanctuaries.

While many Australian wild horse rescue groups have successfully trained and re-homed hundreds of Brumbies under capture and removal schemes, Kirkpatrick states that although that is a positive undertaking, we didn’t make inroads into the cat and dog problem by creating more no-kill shelters.   The issue was successfully addressed by attacking the real problem- reproduction.

However, capture and removal (whether to rehome or slaughter) and/or aerial culling continue to reign as the primary wild horse management strategies in Australia regardless of widespread knowledge of fertility control technology that has and is being used successfully in the U.S. and other countries.

The fertility control issue itself seems to be bogged down in the disparity between some Australian Brumby rescue groups advocating for the use of the drug PZP (Porcine Zona Pellucida), which is a reversible, non-hormonal, immunocontraception, while government and privately funded organizations like the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Center (IACRC) advocates for use of Gonacon.  Neither is being used currently to actively manage wild horses in Australia and Kirkpatrick isn’t convinced that the two camps, despite similar intentions, are up to date on the science, research and facts either.

The IACRC in their own newsletter ‘Feral Thoughts’ stated that they have yet to find suitable fertility control- a statement Kirkpatrick says ignores the successes with PZP all over the U.S. with urban deer, wild horses, 85 species of zoo animals world-wide, including Australia, wild bison and even 14 different populations of African Elephants in the Republic of South Africa.

 “PZP has a 24 year history of success with a large number of free-roaming wild species. Whether or not Gonacon is a better option depends on what you want to leave behind.  If you want to leave behind a population of horses in which their entire social organization and array of behaviors has been wiped out, then Gonacon is OK. If you want to leave behind a population of horses that maintain their evolutionary driven social and behavioral organization, then PZP and NOT Gonacon is the choice.

Gonacon is variably effective in a number of species, but even a small understanding of reproductive biology tells you there is a large disruption of a number of physiological events in the mammalian body when you block GNRH. When you apply Gonacon, you cut off gonadotropins, and you prevent reproductive steroid secretions from the ovary and you dramatically alter reproductive and social behaviors.  It is a good treatment for urban deer, where no one cares about disrupting behaviors, but in a species with such a complex array of social behaviors as the horse, it is contraindicated.

PZP on the other hand, is the worlds’ only non-barrier contraceptive that operates entirely outside the reproductive stream and affects nothing but fertilization.  So it depends on what you want your horse to behave like, whether you use one or the other.  Here in the U.S., the public will not tolerate alteration of fundamental behaviors and social organization in wild horses. Registration of PZP for use in horses is already in the Federal Register.”

The concerns about behavioral changes due to fertility control are particularly troubling to Kirkpatrick.   He says they imply that these wild horse populations are natural to begin with- adding another layer to the ongoing wild horse debate.

“The populations have been so manipulated, so confined and disturbed by traditional management techniques to include gather and removal, where who gets removed is decided by human beings, that one might not even argue for allowing the horses to be ‘natural’.

One only needs to look at any of the many populations that exist to understand this. But why deal with the facts?  It’s a difficult issue to begin with and thousands of fecund horses are a lot of animals.   Reality seems to be taking a back seat while the debate goes on.  Everyone has to agree upon what they are trying to preserve to begin with.”

According to Kirkpatrick, the lead agencies charged with management responsibility tend to be at best ambivalent about that mission.  In fairness he says, as their agency name implies, they were thrust into this war with virtually no wildlife management experience, i.e., the Bureau of Land Management.   He aptly points out that agencies serve multiple masters, i.e., ranchers, miners, loggers, hunters, recreationists and a general public.

The same could be said of the Australian National Parks and Wildlife- ironically coming under the umbrella of the Office of Environment and Heritage- which is the agency that manages Brumbies under directives set forth for weeds and pests.  And since clear Federal legislation for protection of wild horses doesn’t currently exist in Australia, it is up to individual states to manage themselves.

The state of New South Wales for example will be setting the agenda for the next round of management of ‘feral pests’ for 2012-2015 by the end of February.   However, the IACRC (which is funded by both government and private entities) was recently granted a five-year renewal of funding, part of which will be allocated to study the use of Gonacon in 5, standard-bred domestic mares from 2012-2014.  (Several research projects being carried out by the IACRC will not be with actual wild horse populations).

When asked by Wild Horse Journal why PZP is not being used in Australia despite the success rate and established research in wild horses in the U.S. by the Science and Conservation Center, Simon Humphries, Commercialization Manager for the IACRC,  replied that it was not because of the drug itself or that Gonacon was more effective and rather that Gonacon had become the drug of choice by default due to the fact that it was registered for use in Australia and PZP was not.   And Gonacon could be used on both mares and stallions.  Gonacon or any drug apparently has to be tested on in-country populations despite the number of years and large body of research already undertaken on wild horses in other nations like the U.S.

“It would be a difficult process to manufacture PZP and get approval in Australia since it is registered in the U.S. as a pesticide by the EPA and as a drug by the FDA.  I believe veterinarians can use it individually (in the U.S. via extracting ovarian tissue and put it into a vaccine to administer to animals) but I don’t think it can be used on a large scale. If it were registered in the U.S. it would be easier here,” says Simon Humphreys.

According to the latest update from the Science and Conservation Center however, PZP is literally only weeks away from registration/approval with the EPA, specifically for use in horses.  Where Gonacon has been approved only for use in deer, PZP has been used in authorized trials for a variety of wildlife including horses for the past 24 years as previously stated.   The Science and Conservation Center has a well established working model whereby they train personnel, not just veterinarians, from other organizations worldwide to both make the vaccine and administer it (on their own wild life populations) so they can be self-sufficient and can be used on a larger scale.

Kirkpatrick has also been working with select wild horse sanctuaries in the U.S., including one of the most prominent and well respected-Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary.  He and RTF are concerned with maintaining viable herd structures and genetic diversity with respect to conservation and preservation, stating again that PZP allows the mares to continue to cycle and are healthier as a result.


Mustang mare with foal living at the Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary, US. Photo: courtesy of Return to Freedom


In addition to trialing Gonacon, the IACRC is also looking at the application of phage pan peptides, which will bind to cells in mares and make them nonviable.  Since mares have a finite number of them (follicles), the process will render them sterile.

This approach may be very successful, but this means sterilization, not contraception says Kirkpatrick, and raises interesting philosophical issues and differences between the respective view of wild horses in the U.S. and Australia.

“In the U.S., the wild horse is slowly but surely being recognized as a reintroduced native wildlife species, on the basis of sound science, although those with political and cultural objections to the horse simply ignore the science.  Nevertheless, if a contraceptive changes the fundamental evolutionary-driven social organization and social behaviors of the species, it is not acceptable.

 In Australia, my impression is that horses are simply non-native pests.  Thus, it seems to matter not at all what you leave behind there and that is not the case here.  Any GNRH blocker will change all that organization and behavior.  That is a major difference and one that drives the choice of contraceptives.”

The questions then become, if PZP were available in Australia, would it be used?  Are Australian wild horse researchers and the Australian Government uninformed, misinformed or simply ignoring important facts?

And after more than 35 years of gather and removals which cost the U.S. taxpayer just short of 30 million dollars a year to care for and a lack of any hard data to indicate the actual cost of wild horse management or lack thereof to the Australian taxpayer,  it is clear that wild horses are not being effectively and humanely managed by these ‘agencies’ regardless of country.  (None of the Australian governmental agencies and research organizations contacted by WHJ were able to provide up to date or accurate information as to what particular agency, if any, had obtained or is responsible for collecting data on annual financial costs to manage wild horses throughout Australia.  The IACRC however, does provide on their website a published figure of 720 million dollars annually for the social, economic and environmental damage attributed to ‘invasive animals’ in general. )

David Berman of  Australian Wild Horse Management Services in Queensland asserts that no one really knows how many Brumbies there actually are in Australia, with estimates ranging from 300,000 to one million horses, even though an official 2011 fact sheet on feral horses sent to WHJ by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities in Canberra, New South Wales, states 400,000.   Berman also asserts that using multiple methods of management, from aerial shooting, roundups, hauling horses to slaughter, and fertility control to sanctuaries, is necessary.

“Australia is different than the U.S. because the location of the wild horses can be in remote areas and we don’t know the numbers.  We have to use all our options and it is up to each state or territory to manage the numbers.  We can’t just ban shooting like in the U.S. when numbers get out of control.”

While there is a different set of bureaucratic processes and an array of departments to manage wild horses in Australia vs the U.S., it seems the complexity of the problem is largely similar.  Berman advocates essentially for a ‘by any means’ approach to the Australian wild horse situation and oddly enough will be presenting on the detrimental impact of wild horses on cattle grazing in Australia at the 2012 Society for Range Management 65th annual meeting in Spokane, Washington, at the end of January.   The main sponsor for the conference is Dow AgroScience.  Auspiciously, Berman concurrently holds a position monitoring feral animals at the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, a government agency of which he made clear he is not representing at the conference.   Kirkpatrick on the other hand continues to question the logic and actions of the political and economic structures charged with the task of management.

“In the western states, where wild horses dwell, there are state BLM offices, with a politically appointed state director at the helm despite the existence of a national office overseeing wild horse management.  Each state more or less goes its own way and each state director seems to have more power than the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. A good question would be why we even have a national office?  It is not that the ideas that flow from the national office are bad; it is that they are seldom heeded.

With a backlog of 35,000 warehoused horses in the most unnatural of conditions at BLM holding facilities -horses that need veterinary care and feeding, there is no room to take in more.  And as horses out on the range continue to reproduce and do so at rates faster than before the removals due to the phenomenon of ‘compensatory reproduction’, there is a requirement for more sanctuaries.

Those horses currently at sanctuaries are faced with uncertain futures because the sanctuaries are now finding themselves in critical financial straits,” says Kirkpatrick, adding that sanctuaries tend to over-extend themselves and place far more horses on limited land than they can afford.  This is done with “a good heart and poor economic sense, ” which happened long before the Global Economic Crisis.  Some sanctuaries have to raise $350,000 a year just for feed.

Whether discussing Mustangs in America, Brumbies in Australia or wild horse populations in other nations, as the numbers go up, slaughter becomes an ever-pressing reality, calling further attention to welfare issues.


‘Trooper’, an Australian brumby captured as a foal during a government culling operation in Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales. He was rescued by the Hunter Valley Brumby Association shortly before his scheduled slaughter at an abattoir near Sydney. Photo: Mae Lee Sun


Although horse slaughter is banned in the U.S., the industry continues to thrive in Australia, Mexico, Canada, and across the European Union, Asia, South America and Africa despite overwhelming evidence that horse slaughter – from capture to killing, cannot be made humane.  Not only are randomly mixed horses dangerous to one another in transport, horses differ significantly from cattle in their skull structure and emotional/ psychological responses to stress rendering the captive bolt mechanism cruel in its application, not to mention the hundreds of pages of documentation from the U.S. governments’ own agencies of abuse and cruelty that has taken place in the processing of horses for slaughter.

Livestock slaughter is an industry that benefits from capture and removal policies as do the pet food and horse meat export industries -notwithstanding the breeding, racing, inexperienced handling and training of and apathy towards domestic horses that also support the slaughter and food industry.

Even as wild horse advocates talk of preserving rare breeds and work to achieve heritage status that resemble the Spanish horse of the 1500s, Kirkpatrick says;

“This is the stuff of breeding farms not wildlife populations. If a characteristic is important to the survival of a horse, the characteristic will survive with no help from us.”

Kirkpatrick aptly notes that in recent years fertility control has become the poster child for many wild horse advocacy groups.  The concept is simple: stop reproduction in some humane manner and over time the number of horses will decline to some acceptable level.  Fertility control has worked well for several small populations under the management authority of the National Park Service in the U.S. and other agencies, leading some opponents of the wild horse to begin embracing the approach.  A U.S. Geological Survey study showed it might save taxpayers $7.7million per year.

“Gather and removal is not logistically or financially sustainable.   Stacked against gather removals, fertility control which allows almost every mare to breed at some point in her life and has a healthier foal survival rate among treated populations in contrast to mares who are in poorer condition because of chronic pregnancies is sounder to making genetic contributions to the herd vs. those horses who are taken off the range and never bred and will never do so.”

He raises pertinent questions- might it be better to have fewer horses in healthier condition than many horses living on the edge?  What if we had one or two “National Wild Horse Ranges” in each of the ten states with wild horses, where there was no conflict with anything else?


‘Mystic’, a stallion removed from Hart Mountain, Oregon, by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, now living at Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary Photo: courtesy of Return to Freedom

“People could still go to these places and see wild horses.  This is precisely the situation in the Pryor Mountains of Montana.

It is a congressionally established national wild horse range where domestic livestock are not permitted. It is difficult to get to but several thousand people still manage to get to it every year.  Twenty national wild horse ranges totaling 5000 animals would translate into an average of 250 horses per range- well beyond what is genetically viable.

 In the final analysis, the entire wild horses issue has very little to do with either the science of fertility control or wild horses themselves, at least in the U.S.  It is just a small part of a larger issue, and that is who gets to use public lands, how they will get used and who benefits the most from their use. Game animals trump wild horses because of the economic impact of hunting; logging and mining trump wild horses because of the economic impact of these activities; livestock grazing trumps wild horses, not so much because of the economic impact, but because of the political power of the ranching industry.

Wild horses have no economic value and that is why there is an issue.”

At the time of this writing, the Australian Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, is deciding whether to resume State run trials of alpine grazing of cattle in Victoria.  Burke previously ordered the cattle be removed from the region when the Victorian government could not produce any evidence that the trial was supporting claims that their presence helped abate fuel (bush fires).  Alternately, wild horse adversaries and conservationists have lobbied to remove Brumbies from the high country, stating environmental reasons.


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Written by maeleesun

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