By Andrew Clevenger

The Bulletin

WASHINGTON — Advocates from the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign asked members of an advisory board to the Bureau of Land Management Monday to use a birth control vaccine to control the wild horse population in Southeastern Oregon.

By using the immunocontraception porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, the BLM could keep the population of 3,120 wild horses in Oregon in check, Marika Ruppe told members of the BLM’s Southeast Oregon Resource Advisory Council, according to a copy of her remarks provided by the AWHPC.

Ruppe presented the members of the council, which makes wildlife policy recommendations to the federal agency’s local branches, with 11,000 signatures in support of her remarks, which the AWHPC said it collected in just four hours.

The BLM’s wild horse and burro program, which involves culling herds and keeping the collected horses in government holding pens at an annual cost of tens of millions of dollars, has come under heightened scrutiny in recent years. Published reports accused the agency of selling more than 1,700 horses — roughly 70 percent of all the horses it sold between 2009 and 2011 — to a Colorado rancher known to support slaughtering the animals for their meat.

Without outside intervention, wild horse herds are capable of doubling in four years, according to government studies, and the government maintains the wild horse population would overburden public resources if left unchecked.

“Everyone acknowledges that the current approach to wild horse management is broken. The artificially low population limits combined by frequent removals fuel population growth rates, according to the National Academy of Sciences,” Ruppe said. “The stockpiling of an astounding 49,000 wild horses in holding facilities — a number that exceeds the population left on the range — is completely unsustainable.”

Ruppe also asked the BLM to give wild horses a larger portion of the forage within the designated herd management areas where they are allowed to roam. Even on the 2.7 million acres of public land where wild horses range, up to 80 percent of the grazing goes to privately owned livestock, she said.

Wild horses were not on the official agenda for the RAC’s two-day meetings held in Ontario, but AWHPC used the public comment portion of the meeting to raise the issue.

AWHPC director Suzanne Roy said Tuesday that members of the RAC appeared open to discussing the organization’s suggestions.

“It’s a start to a dialogue, and I think we’re at a point in this issue where the BLM and ranchers realize that scrutiny of this program and public support of the horses is not going away,” she said.

Polls show that most Americans support keeping wild horses in their natural habitat over rounding them up and warehousing them in holding pens, she said.

“This is an issue of growing public concern. These are our public lands, and all Americans have a say in how they are managed,” she said.

BLM spokesman Jeff Clark said the BLM has been involved in developing contraceptive agents for wild horses since 1978, and PZP is the most promising. However, administering it, either by an ingested liquid or by dart, is impractical, requiring contact with mares once a year, Clark said. The vaccine can also be hand injected as a pellet that lasts 22 months, which is administered after the horses have been captured, he said. However, that method requires the BLM to capture a large number of mares to be treated and released, which is possible but difficult, he said.

AWHPC favors PZP, which can be applied by dart to mares as infrequently as once a year, over spaying mares via surgical procedures performed in the field, Roy said. Spaying mares and castrating stallions can alter their behavior in the wild, she said.

Traditionally, wild horses have been viewed and treated like livestock, to be rounded up periodically and harvested, she said. Instead, they should be treated like wildlife, to be managed properly under the latest and best available science, Roy said.

According to the BLM’s most recent data, as of March 1, 2014, more than 3,100 wild horses lived on the 17 herd management areas overseen by the BLM in Oregon (as well as a Wild Horse Territory it co-manages with the U.S. Forest Service in Malheur National Forest). This exceeds the BLM’s approved management level for wild horses in Oregon by 15 percent.

Nationwide, there are almost 42,000 wild horses in the wild, with another 49,000 held in government holding pens, according to BLM figures.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com

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