BLM seeking public input on new fertility vaccine for wild horses

/ In The News, News

Several horses and a foal wander through the grasslands about the Spring Mountains area near Cold Creek on March 14, 2017. Las Vegas Sun file photo.

The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Department of Agriculture are seeking public comment to study a single-dose contraceptive that could help control wild horse populations across Nevada by temporarily halting wild mare fertility.

Since the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971, federal agencies like the BLM are required to control any overpopulation of excess animals. The agency has long maintained that the nation’s public lands are being overrun with wild horses and burros, with an estimated 88,000 across the U.S., half of which reside in Nevada.

BLM officials say these lands are well beyond capacity, with Nevada’s Appropriate Management Level — a figure used to determine the number of wild horses and burros that can thrive in balance with other uses of public land — at just under 13,000.

The study will determine whether the oocyte growth factor vaccine is reliable and long-lasting enough to be an effective fertility control method. The single-dose contraceptive could halt fertility for multiple years, according to a draft environmental assessment released Thursday. The 15-day public comment period will end on Dec. 19.

“We want the public involved the process,” BLM spokeswoman Jenny Lesieutre said. “We certainly hope that this fertility control is promising and that in the long-term, will save a lot of horses and stress on the range.”

Efforts to seek more effective fertility control methods began after the National Academies of Sciences released a study determining that a single treatment that induces lifetime infertility is the most preferable way to control populations, Lesieutre said. She added that the fertility control currently on the market, Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP, which is often administered with a dart, has proven labor-intensive and only lasts a year if mares aren’t reinoculated.

“We’ve been looking to scientists and academics to come up with proposed projects to safely slow herd growth while reducing excess horses from the range,” she said.

The BLM has been criticized by wild horse advocates for its roundup methods. Under federal law, agencies are allowed to use helicopters to capture and remove wild horses and burros, which advocates like Deniz Bolbol of the Gardnerville-based Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates say is inhumane and cruel. Those roundups increase the number of horses in captivity, making  them more vulnerable to slaughter, she said.

Fertility programs are starting to be favored by advocates and federal officials alike. In September, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an additional $35 million toward the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program with some of the funds specifically going toward more long-term contraceptive methods. While roundups are still on the table, some advocates see it as a viable compromise.

Neda DeMayo, founder and president of horse advocacy group Return to Freedom, said her organization has been pushing for birth control as a population-control solution for more than a decade.

Lesieutre said the goal is to find a contraceptive method that will last at least four years. Until then, she hopes for what she calls an “emotional, high-profile program.”