Darting program is model for wild horse management, say advocates
A volunteer with the American Wild Horse Campaign darts a mare in Northern Nevada. (Photo courtesy of the American Wild Horse Campaign)
The American Wild Horse Campaign says motorist collisions with horses in Reno declined 50% from 2020 to 2022, and dropped from 25 in 2020 to one in 2022 in the Dayton Valley, thanks in part to a fertility control program that involves shooting mares with a vaccination dart.
Horse advocates announced Wednesday their four-year long fertility control effort is reducing births and could set a new model for managing wild herds throughout the west, says Tracy Wilson, Nevada director of the AWHC. The group says 1,868 mares have been darted and all 3,138 horses in the main range area have been cataloged in a database.
Feral horse populations, left unmanaged, double in size every few years, according to experts. The fertility control effort involves administering a dart to every mare, with a booster administered several weeks later.
“We saw in 2022 a 61% reduction in foal births over the end of 2020, without the need to remove a single animal,” Wilson said. Given the prevalence of predators on the range, the mortality rate among foals born is 50%.
The effort is administered by three dozen volunteers and funded by private grants and donations, and began with “key support” from Blockchains and other tenants of the Tahoe Reno Industrial Park, says Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign.
Housing is at a premium in Reno. Homebuilders are venturing where they’ve never gone before – right to the edge of inhabitable hills and gorges. Development in the area has disrupted habitat and water sources for horses and other wildlife, nudging them closer to civilization and highways, experts say.
Reno Councilwoman Naomi Duerr says the area she represents has added “15,000 people and their cars” in the last 10 years. “This development has displaced horses and other wildlife from the areas of Virginia range, both their natural habitat and their access to water.”
The herds are under the jurisdiction of the Nevada Department of Agriculture, which has the right to sell the animals, if necessary for their placement, the law says. No horses have been sold in the last decade, officials say.
The Department of Agriculture has an agreement with the AWHC to manage the Virginia Range horses, which lack the federal protections afforded by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
“Since the Virginia Range mustangs are not federally protected, horses removed from the land may be sold at livestock auctions, which are frequented by ‘kill buyers’ who will ship them to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, something that three out of four Nevadans oppose,” according to an AWHC spokesperson, citing a survey by Public Policy Polling.
Thinning the Virginia Range herds is a necessity, given the lost habitat, says Roy. It’s also intended to protect public safety, reduce human conflict with wildlife, and secure wildlife corridors “so that the wild horses and wildlife, frankly, have a future in this area.”
The fertility vaccines, coupled with the natural death of horses, is expected to result in zero population growth.
Roy says the effort is “creating a new playbook” for wild horse management in the west, providing a model for an alternative to the controversial round-ups and holding pens currently used by the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the nation’s estimated 86,000 wild horses in 10 states.
‘Great for our economy’
“Come work at the biggest & most advanced factory on Earth!” Elon Musk tweeted in 2018, in an effort to stock his Storey County Gigafactory with workers. “Located by a river near the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains with wild horses roaming free.”
Now, with a new factory in the works and challenged in the post-COVID era to keep employees in the office, Musk is once again featuring the mustangs – this time on a semi-truck mural posted outside a promotional event last week, according to Chris Thompson, project manager of the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center.
Development may be bad for wild horses. But wild horses are good for development, says Thompson, who spoke during a phone conference Wednesday hailing the success of a partnership to reduce conflicts between man and beast on the Virginia Range, some 300,000 acres of Nevada land mostly in Storey County, extending east into Lyon County.
“Having wild horses and preserving their way of life – no roundups, no removals, no slaughters – but preserving our wild horse population is great for our economy,” Thompson said, adding every tenant has signed on to a collaborative effort to reduce motorist collisions with horses by reducing the horse population via fertility control.
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