RTF hosts wild horse fertility control darting clinic

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Science and Conservation Center Senior Biologist Kayla Grams assists RTF Equine Manager Elena Bajona with loading a dart into a Pneu-Dart Model 389 projector.

An important part of any equine fertility control program is a deep knowledge of the tools you must use and continued education about current research.

To that end, Return to Freedom recently hosted the Science and Conservation Center‘s Remote Delivery of Immunocontraceptive Vaccine training at RTF’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary headquarters in Lompoc.

Gearing up for being able to deploy on our own ranches, as well as enhancing our ability to engage with public lands managers, RTF staff and volunteers received this excellent training: a history of the vaccine, immunology, monitoring and identifying horses, creating successful partnerships, proper handling and storage of the vaccine, and practice with various dart projectors.

With limited land and resource space, RTF had to make some choices about managing the population of our herd groups when it opened more than 20 years ago. Options included:

  • separate the mares from the stallions;
  • geld all studs;
  • allow breeding to occur and adopt foals;
  • utilize fertility control.

Each avenue would come with its own set of challenges and limitations. Questions included: Who will train, market, and place foals? How will we educate and learn how to manage intact family bands if they are not intact? How do we model in-the-wild management if all males are gelded?

Clearly, if a safe and effective fertility control method could be employed, it would be the best choice for RTF. The immunocontraceptive vaccine, ZonaStat-H, a PZP vaccine, has proven an elegant solution, and we have utilized it since 1999.

If we are to work alongside, and not at odds with, land management agencies, then our experience and attention to detail when it comes to programmatic approaches towards wildlife fertility control will be part and parcel of being a successful ally to wild horses and burros on our public lands.

We have worked to manage the horse populations at our headquarters and satellite ranches with PZP. We have analyzed our approach, changed our tack when necessary, and increased our efficacy rate from 91 to 98%.

We provide data to researchers and enjoy continued discussions with other practitioners and experts so that we can continually refine our management.

From left: Kate McCurdy, Kayla Grams, Jerry Elkins, Maria Rogers and Helen Womack practice mixing PZP vaccine.

Science and Conservation Center Senior Biologist Kayla Grams describes what to look for in a dart.

UC Sedgwick Reserve manager Kate McCurdy, right, takes a practice shot using a JM Special CO2 projector.

RTF Ranch Manager Jason Buckingham practices with a blow gun.