Brian Steed, Bureau of Land Management’s Acting Director

“Federal agencies are not supposed to be run like a temp service.” – PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch

Source: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

For Immediate Release: Feb 12, 2018
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337


All Decisions by Acting Park Service, BLM, and Fish & Wildlife Heads Legally Void

Washington, DC — President Trump’s record tardiness in nominating agency leaders may undo months of work inside the Department of Interior, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  The way the Trump administration has filled agency leadership slots with temporary or acting directors violates a law enacted to prevent a president from circumventing the U.S. Senate’s constitutional advice and consent power.

The PEER complaint filed with Interior’s Office of Inspector General charges that the acting directors of the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) are in blatant violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.  Under that act, any action taken by a noncompliant official “shall have no force or effect” nor may it be later “ratified.”

“The law prevents a president from installing acting directors for long periods and completely bypassing Senate confirmation,” argued PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that President Trump has not nominated or even announced an intention to nominate, persons to fil the NPS, BLM, or FWS vacancies.  “Federal agencies are not supposed to be run like a temp service.”

The complaint recounts Vacancies Reform Act violations invalidating the appointments of –

  • NPS Acting Director P. Daniel Smith, who did not serve in a senior position for 90 days during the prior year, as the Act requires. Nor did Trump appoint him, another requirement of the act;
  • BLM Acting Director Brian Steed, who also did not serve in a senior position for 90 days and Interior Secretary Zinke, not Trump, appointed him.
  • FWS Acting Director Greg Sheehan, who not only suffers from these same deficiencies but also now exceeds the 210-day limit the act imposes.

Read the rest of this press release HERE.




Stephen Nash, author of “Grand Canyon for Sale,” on special interests controlling public lands that belong to all Americans (Wed., 9/27/17 on Wild Horse & Burro Radio)


Wild_Horse_Burro_Radio_LogoJoin us on Wild Horse Wednesdays®, this Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017

5:00 p.m. PST … 6:00 p.m. MST … 7:00 p.m. CST … 8:00 p.m. EST

Listen to the archived show (HERE!)

You can also listen to the show on your phone by calling (917) 388-4520.

You can call in with questions during the 2nd half hour, by dialing (917) 388-4520, then pressing 1.

This show will be archived so you can listen to it anytime.

Our guest is Stephen Nash, the author Grand Canyon for Sale.” Stephen will tell us how the interests of an extraordinarily powerful few are controlling public lands that belong to all Americans. Grand Canyon For Sale is a carefully researched investigation of the precarious future of America’s public lands: our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments, and wildernesses. As one example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allows livestock grazing on 60% of public lands, even though cattle cause serious detrimental impacts to the land. Livestock grazing permittees include hoteliers and heiresses; the Koch brothers and the Walton family.

Stephen Nash is the author of two award winning books on science and the environment. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, BioScience, Archeology and the New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at University of Richmond.  You can read Stephen’s articles and find out about his other books and more at stephenpaulnash.com

This show will be hosted by Debbie Coffey (V.P. and Dir. of Wild Horse Affairs) of Wild Horse Freedom Federation.

To contact us: ppj1@hush.com


Feel Good Sunday: Wild horses continue to roam Cumberland Island


Caption: About 125 to 175 wild horses reside on Georgia’s Cumberland Island, according to the National Park Service. Credit: Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

Georgia’s southernmost and largest barrier island claims Jekyll Island as its neighbor to the north and Amelia Island, Fla., to the south.  Unlike its neighbors, however, Cumberland is only accessible by ferry from St. Marys or by private boat.

The tranquil island is roughly 18 miles long and ranges from three-quarters to 2.5 miles wide, depending on the location.  Across the sound to the west lies U.S. Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, which houses Trident nuclear-powered submarines.

While submarines may roam the waters around Cumberland, wild horses roam the island.

Today, 125 to 175 horses reside there, said Jill Hamilton-Anderson, chief of interpretation, education and visitor services for Cumberland Island National Seashore, part of the National Park Service.  The horses keep to smaller groups, often staying within certain areas, such as the island’s south end.

The earliest account of horses on the island dates back 275 years to a battle over Fort St. Andrews in 1742.  When the Spanish entered the British colonial fort on the island’s north end, they found about 50 to 60 horses in a corral, according to the NPS.  However, while evidence is scarce, the NPS believes that horses were brought over in the late 1500s when the Spanish missions were established.

Read the rest of this article HERE.

In Memoriam: Well-Known Yellowstone White Wolf Dies Unnatural Death

by John Soltes as posted on Earth Island Journal

“Twelve-year-old alpha female deserved a wild end to her wild life, but that was not to be…”

Photo Neal Herbert/National Park Service
The wolf, pictured above, was one of three rare white wolves in the park and had 14 living pups. Park officials are offering a $5,000 reward for information on who might have shot her.

Officials at Yellowstone National Park first shared the sad news in mid-April: A well-known white wolf in the park had been found severely injured and was later euthanized. Then on May 11, after a necropsy by the US Fish and Wildlife Service forensics laboratory in Oregon, they shared the real shocking news: This wolf, the alpha female of the Canyon Pack, had “suffered from a gunshot wound.”

Details are still emerging on what happened, when and where; the investigation remains active.

It all began on April 11, when hikers discovered “a severely injured” alpha female wolf, according to a press release from Yellowstone National Park. The white wolf, well-known among wolf enthusiasts and park officials, was seen near Gardiner, Montana, the town at the north entrance to the iconic park.

Staff eventually found the wolf in “shock and dying from the injuries,” and made the difficult decision to euthanize the majestic canine. The necropsy confirmed the animal had suffered from a gunshot wound, and park officials believe the incident took place near Gardiner or the Old Yellowstone Trail, located along the park’s northern boundary. The shooting likely occurred on April 10 or 11.

“Due to the serious nature of this incident, a reward of up to $5,000.00 is offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual(s) responsible for this criminal act,” Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said in a press release.

When the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf, which can be gray, black or white in color, was taken off the endangered species list a few years ago, states were given the authority to set up their own wolf management plans. In 2015, Montana saw 210 wolves hunted or trapped. Yellowstone, which is nationally protected, is mostly in Wyoming with slivers of land in Montana and Idaho. Hunting and discharge of firearms are prohibited in the park.

There are approximately 100 wolves in Yellowstone, which is an impressive number given that the canids were once extirpated from the local wilderness. In 1995, wild wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park as part of an extensive recovery program. The population took hold, and now the park features several packs that fluctuate in numbers. The oasis that is Yellowstone is often seen as the best place in the world to view wild wolves.

Of the nearly 100 wolves in the park, only three were known to be white in color. The white wolf who was euthanized in April was 12 years old, twice the average age of a wolf in Yellowstone. She was a leader of the Canyon Pack and could be seen in many areas of the park. “For these reasons, the wolf was one of the most recognizable and sought after by visitors to view and photograph,” the press release states.

I think I saw that alpha female during a wintertime visit in January of this year. Of course, it’s difficult to 100 percent confirm that the sighting was of the Canyon Pack alpha female, but all signs point to this impressive 12-year-old animal being the one…(CONTINUED)


Everything We Know About the Horse Ryan Zinke Rode to Work Yesterday

by Sarah Emerson as published on Motherboard

“Secretary Zinke was proud to accept an invitation by the US Park Police to stand shoulder to shoulder with their officers on his first day at Interior..”

Hats off to Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, for making a dramatic entrance on his first day of work. The new agency head rode in on horseback—Stetson, jeans, boots, and all—from the National Mall to the Interior’s headquarters, just east of the White House.

The secretary was escorted by nine officers from the the National Park Service’s law enforcement arm.

All things considered, it could have been worse! (Looking at you, Betsy DeVos.) But that’s not what we want to talk about today. While Zinke’s ability to protect 500 million acres of American lands is still up for debate, one federal employee is already excelling at his job: his name is Tonto, and he’s a horse.

That’s according to Heather Swift, a spokesperson for the Department of the Interior, who revealed the identity of Zinke’s handsome steed.

“Secretary Zinke was proud to accept an invitation by the US Park Police to stand shoulder to shoulder with their officers on his first day at Interior—the eve of the Department’s anniversary,” Swift told me.

After seeing photos of Tonto, I wanted to know everything about this enigmatic equine. How did he get this job? Where does he live? Is he worried that Zinke’s dedication to public lands will be rendered useless by President Trump’s desire to exploit them?

For starters, Tonto is a 17-year-old bay roan gelding. He stands nearly six feet tall, which is a pretty average height for an Irish sport horse. This breed is celebrated for its agility and speed, but is also known for having a good temperament; an important quality for a civil servant!

Sergeant Anna Rose of the United States Park Police (USPP) told me that Tonto was donated to the unit in 2014. He lives at their central stables on the National Mall, which according to the Trust for the National Mall, are in desperate need of an upgrade. I hope Tonto’s living conditions are at least comfortable…(CONTINUED)


Assateague Island’s wild horses to be featured on new U.S. stamps

The only wild horses that will be “forever” may be the ones pictured on this stamp.

Source:  Richmond Times-Dispatch


The horses of Assateague Island will be featured in a series of stamps honoring the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

Richmond Times-Dispatch

The wild horses of Assateague Island National Seashore will be part of a series of U.S. Postal Service stamps celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

The park, which straddles the Virginia-Maryland border, is known for the horses that inhabit the island and the nearby Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The horses are divided into two herds — one on the Virginia side of a fence marking the state border, the other on the Maryland side.

In summer, the Virginia horses are moved from the Chincoteague refuge to Assateague Island in the annual pony swim.

Tim Fitzharris of Fayetteville, Ark., took the photo used for the stamp, the Postal Serivice said.

The stamps will be issued June 2.

While Some Park Rangers Head To Greener Pastures, Their Horses Aren’t So Lucky

By Barbara Moritsch as published in the National Parks Traveler

Although most people don’t know it, the horse slaughter industry is alive and thriving in the United States.

“Norman,” a retired NPS steed, was destined for a slaughterhouse outside of the United States before he was rescued/Photo courtesy of Kat Gonzales

“Norman,” a retired NPS steed, was destined for a slaughterhouse outside of the United States before he was rescued/Photo courtesy of Kat GonzalesMy first partner in my first job with the National Park Service was a dark bay mare. I was extremely popular with the kids when I’d show up at the General Sherman Tree or Lodgepole Campground in Sequoia National Park riding Sweets. So you can imagine the shock and horror I felt last August when I learned that three NPS horses were on a feedlot in Colorado, waiting to be shipped to a slaughterhouse in Mexico.

In September of 2014, my husband and I rescued our first kill pen horse: a coal black, BLM-branded mustang in his mid-20s. Since then we’ve been able to do the same for 19 other horses in the same predicament. I regularly monitor Facebook pages that list these equines-in-need, and in August I spotted a photo of a big sorrel horse with the caption: “Fern, NPS Horse.” I scrolled further and found two more: a black and white paint gelding named Fairplay, and a big, thin sorrel gelding named Norman. All three of these beautiful, fit-looking NPS horses were at immediate risk of being “shipped.” I was stunned. How could we allow an NPS horse to end its career at a slaughterhouse?

Although most people don’t know it, the horse slaughter industry is alive and thriving in the United States. Ten years ago, Congress passed an act prohibiting the use of federal funds to inspect horse slaughterhouses, which ultimately led to closure of all facilities in the United States. It’s still legal, however, and lucrative, to ship horses to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, “Slaughter is a brutal and terrifying end for horses, and it is not humane. Horses are shipped for more than 24 hours at a time without food, water, or rest in crowded trucks. They are often seriously injured or killed in transit. Horses are skittish by nature (owing to their heightened fight-or-flight response), which makes accurate pre-slaughter stunning difficult. As a result, horses often endure repeated blows and sometimes remain conscious during dismemberment—this is rarely a quick, painless death.”

Fortunately, numerous people are working to end the transport of horses for slaughter in the United States, and to save horses that find themselves in the “slaughter pipeline.” A horse enters this pipeline when a “kill buyer” finds a free or inexpensive animal advertised on Craigslist or in the newspaper, or buys horses at public auctions. In most cases, the horses are hauled to feedlots, where they are microchipped for shipping and fattened up on substandard feed before being hauled to the border. The fatter the better; the horses will be sold by the pound.

Groups in several states try to find homes for the feedlot horses before they ship. In these situations, the kill buyers charge a few hundred dollars more per horse than they would get from the killers. Many groups use Facebook pages to post photos of the kill-pen horses. For some horses, limited information is provided: sex, approximate age, and deadline (when the horse is scheduled to ship). Occasionally, there are a few notes: “very friendly,” “sound,” “injury to left leg,” “said to be broke.” The price also is posted, usually ranging from $200 for a yearling to $1,000 for a big draft horse. The rescuers sometimes give the horses names.

When the three NPS horses popped up on my screen, I immediately shared their pictures on the slim chance someone might recognize them. Over the next few days, two of the horses were saved by people I don’t know, but no one was stepping up for Norman.

I put out a call for help, and was contacted immediately by several former and present NPS employees. The Santa Monica Mountains Fund provided Norman’s bail to get him off the feedlot, and several individuals pulled together money to transport him to a safe foster home, and to cover his board while in foster care. In a wonderful gesture of kindness and generosity, one former NPS employee, Kat Gonzales, even offered Norman a forever home.

After we got him hauled off the feedlot, Norman was quarantined at a foster facility for 30 days, because horses from auctions and feedlots are under great stress and often are exposed to numerous equine diseases. The quarantine period helps prevent a new owner from taking a horse home and exposing their other horses. At the end of Norman’s quarantine, he was moved to his new retirement home in Minden, Nevada. A GoFundMe account was set up to pay for Norman’s ride to Nevada, as well as hoof trimming, vet bills, and lots of horse treats.

So this story had a happy ending. Fern, Fairplay, and Norman got lucky; very lucky. But these horses, who likely worked very hard for the National Park Service, came too close to ending their lives in terror at a Mexican slaughterhouse. This raises serious questions:

* How did they end up in the slaughter pipeline?

* What NPS policy is in place to ensure that hard-working equine rangers are guaranteed a safe retirement?

* Were Fern, Fairplay, and Norman simply unfortunate exceptions, or are numerous former NPS horses landing on slaughter lots and meeting gruesome ends?

While handling the logistics of getting Norman safe, healthy, and settled in his new home, a few of Norman’s supporters attempted to contact NPS managers to alert them to the fact that NPS horses were showing up on slaughter lots, and to inquire about NPS policy for retired equines.

Phone calls weren’t returned and emails generated no response. The Yellowstone Park Foundation (although polite and seemingly sympathetic) reported that they were not “privileged to release information” about equine retirement policies in the NPS. When a manager in the NPS’s Washington, D.C., Visitor and Resource Protection (VRP) Branch office finally responded, he told us to submit a Freedom of Information Act request. We are waiting for the information from this request.

What we do know is that the NPS defines live animals as property; basically, the same as a desk, gun, computer, or toilet brush. In the NPS Handbook for Director’s Order #44 (Personal Property Management), live animals are included on the list of “excess personal property” that can be donated to other entities. If such an animal is auctioned, there is a clause in DO44 that may prohibit anyone who had “prior contact with the item” from bidding. So if I had wanted to purchase the mare I rode on patrol in Sequoia after she was done with her career, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to do so. Treating live animals the same as any other type of property is outdated and demeaning to these public employees, and is likely one of the primary reasons retiring equines are showing up on kill lots.

How could an NPS horse land on a feedlot that ships horses to slaughter? There are many ways it could happen, but it starts when a horse like Norman gets too old to do his job, or when the park where he is working decides to terminate their equine program. The park contacts a local horse rescue operation and asks for help in finding Norman a safe and comfortable retirement home. The rescue group finds Norman a home. Norman’s new owner dies, and the rescue is not notified of the person’s death. The heirs take Norman to a local auction, where he is purchased by a “kill buyer.” Or the new owner finds herself in a financial crisis and can’t keep Norman. Instead of contacting the rescue, she takes him to an auction. Few people know that all horses sold at auctions in the United States are at high risk of being purchased by a kill buyer. Approximately 130,000 horses per year are shipped out of the United States for slaughter every year.

National Park Service officials in Washington, D.C., however, cited a provision for disposing of horses and mules unfit for continued service.

§ 1308. Disposition of unfit horses and mules

Subject to applicable regulations under this subtitle and division C (except sections 3302, 3501(b), 3509, 3906, 4710, and 4711) of subtitle I of title 41, horses and mules belonging to the Federal Government that have become unfit for service may be destroyed or put out to pasture, either on pastures belonging to the Government or those belonging to financially sound and reputable humane organizations whose facilities permit them to care for the horses and mules during the remainder of their natural lives, at no cost to the Government.

That said, some horses and mules apparently fall through the cracks. Some parks relocate horses to other NPS units, which can be successful, but also has ended in at least one horse’s death when the receiving park employees were not horse savvy. Other parks work with local equine rescue groups to find homes for the retirees, and some horses have been passed on to nearby police departments.

Several years ago a now-retired NPS employee involved with Yosemite’s horse program drafted a retirement plan for NPS horses and sent it to NPS’s property management office in Washington, D.C., but the draft plan seems to have dropped out of sight.

On a brighter note, it became clear during our investigation that many NPS employees are very concerned about the fate of the agency’s hard-working equines after they retire. Sadly, as with so many other issues within NPS, these employees are afraid to speak out about their concerns because doing so could compromise their jobs.

In 2000, H.R. 5314.ENR, also called “Robbie’s Law,” was passed to facilitate the adoption of retired military working dogs. It is time for the Department of the Interior to promote a similar law (perhaps named Norman’s Law?) that would address the lives of working equines and other service animals from the time they are acquired to the time they are laid to rest.

Norman cannot tell us what his job was with the NPS. Unless someone recognizes him and steps up to tell us his story (and he is, by the way, easily recognizable by his very large size, his white star and strip, and his brushy moustache), we will never know what services he performed. Did he pull a wagon or sleigh? Did he walk long distances in the backcountry to rescue injured hikers? Did he proudly carry a ranger in the front country, having his photograph taken by thousands or millions of park visitors? If I had not seen the NPS horses on Facebook and if others had not immediately been willing to help, Norman, after his years of dedicated service, might have, in the words of one of his key supporters, “become a taco.”

The year 2106, when the NPS celebrates its centennial, is a perfect time for the Service to establish a rock-solid plan and policy to ensure NPS equines are safe and healthy in their retirement years. Let’s hope the agency will step up and take full responsibility for these horses who have been such reliable and beloved public employees. It’s the right thing to do.

Click (HERE) for more photos and to comment directly on The Traveler


The Cloud Foundation Clarifies BLM Action to Remove Select Young Pryor Mustangs

Removal of young Pryor Mustangs excludes helicopter use

Ginger filming Cloud and Family, May 2014 ~ photo by R.T. Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation

Ginger filming Cloud and Family, May 2014 ~ photo by R.T. Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO.  The Billings Montana BLM Field Office decision to remove 15 – 20 young horses from the Pryor Mountains this summer has met with an outcry and a lawsuit filed by an East Coast animal rights group, but not from The Cloud Foundation (TCF). “There is much misinformation being circulated about this herd and this removal, and we decided to underscore the facts,” stated Linda Hanick, TCF Board Member and Manager of the Foundation’s large Facebook page. “If every herd were this well documented, all our wild horse herds in the West would be in much better shape.”

The Billings BLM Field Office Decision Record outlines Alternative A, the Plan which they chose based on public comments. TCF clarifies much of the misinformation being circulated about this removal decision:

•  15-20 horses will be removed using bait-traps set up near water sources later this summer.

•  There will be no helicopter roundup.

•  The BLM is NOT removing all the horses on the mountain.

•  The herd will remain at a genetically viable level above 150 horses.

•  Specific horses are targeted for removal to create the least impact on the herd.

•  Horses from well-represented family lines are targeted first, so family lines and unique colors will be retained on the mountain.

•  There are no livestock grazing leases in the wild horse range. This wild horse range was established in 1968, (prior to the 1971 Wild and Free Roaming Act), for exclusive use by wild horses and other wildlife.

•  The population of this herd is not inflated nor unknown.

For over two decades, Ginger Kathrens, Founder and Executive Director of The Cloud Foundation (TCF) has documented and advocated for the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Herd on the Wyoming-Montana border. The herd has become famous, largely because of Cloud, an unusual pale, palomino stallion with an indomitable spirit, documented from the day of his birth by Kathrens’ who produced three award-winning documentaries about the charismatic stallion for the PBS Nature series.

Ginger would be the first to say that she and TCF have often had opposing views to the BLM when it comes to wild horse management on public land. But in recent years, TCF has begun working with the Billings BLM to develop an “on the range” management plan that does not include chasing the horses for miles down treacherous, rocky trails with a helicopter.

“Many BLM field offices do not take public comments into consideration,” states TCF Communications Director, Paula Todd King.. “If an animal rights group really wants to raise funds from the public and spend money on lawsuits to fight the BLM, there are many BLM offices far more deserving of effort, money and attention than the managers of the Pryor herd.”

“Our goal and the goal of the Billings BLM is to eliminate removals in the future,” Kathrens concludes. “We’re not quite there yet, and I’d rather see fewer than 15 young horses removed this time around, but I believe that the current management strategies are leading to a day when no young mustangs will be removed, and every single foal born wild, will live its life in precious freedom.”

The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range consists of over 39,000 acres of desert, forests, and high mountain meadows.  The major issue facing wild horses in the Pryors is a shortage of rangeland.  The US Forest Service and National Park Service have withdrawn 2 prime grazing areas, which limits the number of wild horses that the existing range can support.

National Park Service also managing horses for extinction

From the article below, it seems that the National Park Service (an agency under the U.S. Dept. of the Interior), is touting the use of the EXPERIMENTAL, RESTRICTED-USE PESTICIDE (aka fertility control drug) GonaCon on the “feral” horses in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

On the website for the National Park Service’s “feral” horses for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, it states there is “now a herd of 70-110 animals.”  (THIS IS ALREADY A NON-VIABLE HERD.)

More disturbing is that Blake McCann, the park’s wildlife biologist, gives a different number of horses to the media: “plans to conduct a corral trap this year to start learning how and to manage the 142 wild horses currently in the park, a number well above the 40 to 90 population considered ideal.”  

142 horses instead of 70-110?  Did stallions give birth?

More importantly, a National Park Service wildlife biologist states that a population of 40-90  (a non-viable herd) is considered ideal.  From the article below, he seems to be more worried about a “viable tool” than about a viable herd.

GonaCon didn’t work the first time the National Park Service tried it in 2009, so they re-vaccinated the same 28 mares with it again last year. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted regulatory approval of the experimental RESTRICTED-USE PESTICIDE GonaCon for use on wild and feral horses and burros in Feb. 2013.  So the National Park Service was testing a pesticide on “feral” horses 4 years before there was even EPA regulatory approval.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has also used GonaCon on wild horses.

They got a permit, BUT Department of the Interior agencies are EXPERIMENTING ON FERAL and WILD HORSES AND BURROS, with little regard for variability or viability.  Plain and simple.

And how were the “volunteers” able to determine that stool samples from those 28 mares weren’t from other horses?

And, the debate about the designation of horses and burros as “feral” versus “wild” also continues.  –  Debbie Coffey

SOURCE:  farmandranchguide.com

Park’s wild horses an experiment in birth control

By Lauren Donovan Bismarck Tribune

548b0207ee9fd.image (photo by Lauren Donovan, Bismark Tribune)

One of the wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, along with a few others back in the juniper trees, found refuge and forage in the public campground, which is quiet this time of year.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK – Dan Baker is not like an expectant dad waiting to find out if it’s a boy or a girl. He’s the opposite, hoping to hear that all the pregnancy tests come back negative.

Baker, a research biologist at Colorado State University’s animal reproduction and biotechnology laboratory, is the man in charge of an experimental contraception program in the wild horse herd at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

There is hope that Baker’s work is productive — not reproductive.

Waiting for results

Within a month, he’ll know if he’s onto something that will have implications far beyond this singular herd in this one park — or if he’s back to square one.

The samples are in, and tests will be run soon. He hesitates to even guess at the results.

“It’s totally unknown. It could be anything between no effects all the way to permanent sterilization. This question has never been answered,” Baker said.

If his experiment works, it could be a new way to control the park’s constantly expanding wild horse herd and possibly the thousands of wild horses on Bureau of Land Management land. The method also could have uses in the control of unmanaged wild dog populations in Third World countries, or simply to suppress fertility in domestic horses, dogs and cats.

Badlands lab

Baker’s work in what he calls a perfect — not to mention beautiful — outdoors laboratory dates back to 2009.

“It’s such a great natural lab out there. The area the horses are confined in is large, but not too large. It’s great landscape, and we can find them most of the time,” he said.

In 2009, during the park’s scheduled wild horse roundup and herd reduction, Baker vaccinated 28 wild horses with GonaCon, a vaccine that has been used to suppress pregnancy in captive animals, not free-roaming wild ones such as those in the park.

The results were poor. Half the vaccinated mares became pregnant and, within three years, they all did.

What they’ve since learned is that, even though the park’s wild horses are in excellent physical condition, with good forage, they carry a big parasite load, which may have prevented the kind of antibody response needed to suppress pregnancy.

“Real world horses get injured, or have fence cuts, and their immune systems go toward those things rather than suppressing the hormones that control reproduction,” Baker said.

Last year, the park conducted another wild horse roundup and that’s when Baker’s research took a step further. The same 28 mares were revaccinated to learn whether a second booster of the same drug would achieve a higher antibody response and improve contraception.

Last month, volunteers collected fecal samples dropped on park ground by as many of the 28 vaccinated mares as could be located.

By measuring the feces for estradiol, a hormone excreted by a fetus, Baker’s lab team will soon know if the revaccination was successful.

“As the fetus matures, the concentration of estradiol gets higher and higher. If it’s 10 (nanograms per gram), they’re not pregnant. If it’s 100, they are. In a couple of weeks, after we’ve looked, if everything’s really high, the study’s over,” Baker said.

The proof will be in the lab, but the mares will also be observed in the spring to verify the actual foaling rate.

Park waiting, too

Blake McCann is the park’s wildlife biologist, a man who prizes science and wildlife equally.

McCann’s hopeful the revaccination works, too, but for reasons that have more to do with the horses, than the science itself.

He’d like to see the park bring to an end the longstanding practice of controlling the wild horse population with controversial helicopter-driven roundups and transport to public livestock sales barns. Instead, if the revaccination controls pregnancy by even 50 percent, McCann said becomes more feasible to also lure the wild horses into a makeshift corral in their own environment and remove small select numbers for sale right there.

That practice would be much less traumatic all around for humans and horses, he said. He plans to conduct a corral trap this year to start learning how and to manage the 142 wild horses currently in the park, a number well above the 40 to 90 population considered ideal.

Some doses of the second vaccine were delivered by dart, which was acceptable for the experiment.

“For research, yes, but to use that as a management tool, we would have to go into an environmental impact statement. Darting animals is not part of our management plan,” McCann said.

Whether through contraception or smaller removals from the temporary corrals, McCann said he does not want to see wild horse numbers return to the all-time high of 200 that were there last year when 103 were culled and sold at Wishek Livestock.

“I don’t want to get to 200 again and do another helicopter roundup. With the corral trapping, we can remove a dozen or so every year and get the young mares out before they become reproductively active,” he said.

That said, McCann said he’s hoping Baker’s work is productive, not reproductive, as it were.

“I would like to see the vaccine be a viable tool. We always have to be adaptable as a situation unfolds. I’m hopeful it’s effective,” he said.


National Park Service Reduces Assateague horse herd to a NON-VIABLE number

This might make you wonder, could tourists also be considered an invasive species?

SOURCE:  The Star Democrat

Park Service reduces Assateague horse herd to 100

By JEREMY COX The Daily Times of Salisbury

BERLIN (AP) — Technically speaking, horses are as foreign to the sands of Assateague Island as phragmites, the reedy marsh plant that covers hundreds of the barrier island’s acres.

The National Park Service accuses both invaders — calling them out on an agency website from among a host of invasive species on Assateague — of inflicting “significant impact” on native plants and animals.

For its ecological crimes, phragmites have been marked for eradication. Park managers remove them by hand or spray them from the skies with a potent weed-killer designed for aquatic pests.

By comparison, the feral horses are treated with kid gloves. Twenty years into its horse-control program on the Maryland side of the island, the park service can claim victory. This year, the agency reached its goal of reducing the size of the herd to no more than 100 horses.

In response, biologists with the Assateague Island National Seashore are shifting strategies, taking steps to ensure the horses’ numbers remain stable instead of continuing their decline. If all goes according to plan, horses will be part of the island’s landscape for generations to come.

This week, the island’s other group of horses will take its place in the spotlight once again during the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department’s Pony Swim. For the 89th year, “saltwater cowboys” will gather the 150 “ponies” they own on the Virginia side of the island and swim them across the channel to Chincoteague, where the foals will be sold at auction.

There will be no Phragmite Festival. If there were, it would be a first.

The disparity in treatment between horses and phragmites demonstrates that land managers don’t always do what’s strictly best for nature. Sometimes, tradition trumps science.

“Everything has an impact,” said Jay Kirkpatrick, a Montana-based researcher who has studied Assateague’s horses for nearly three decades. “Three white-tailed deer will have an impact on the island. The issue is because the park service’s mission is wider, the question you have to ask is, ‘What is an acceptable impact?’”

Such considerations were almost surely not on the minds of European settlers when they introduced horses to the 37-mile-long island in the late 17th century. The arrangement enabled the horses’ owners to shirk taxes and fencing laws.

Over time, the horses adapted to the island’s harsh environment. Adjusting to the nutrient-poor diet of marsh grass, they shrank in stature to the size of ponies. They became like camels, drinking twice as much water as the typical horse to offset their salt intake. Their midsections grew plump and round.

Their shorter legs proved advantageous for navigating the island’s soft, unpredictable terrain, as well. A rangy thoroughbred would probably break a leg trying to hoof it among Assateague’s bogs and sugar-sand shores.

In modern times, the “Chincoteague pony” became recognized as a distinct breed, valued for its hardiness and easiness to train.

In all, about 250 horses live on the island. But since 1968, the population has been bisected by a barbed-wire fence running the length of the Maryland-Virginia border on the island.

The Virginia horses live in large “grazing compartments” in what is known as Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Their fire department owner pays the federal government $1,500 a year for grazing rights.

Their cousins in Maryland, on the other hand, are owned by the park service.

They run freely, sometimes too much so. They’ve been known to raid campsites and beach blankets for food. Other times, humans are to blame, risking a nasty bite or trampling for the sake of a photo op.

Keeping horses on the island involves environmental concessions, park officials concede.

“We have plenty of vegetation to support a lot of horses,” said Allison Turner, a park service biological technician who has been working among the horses for years. “But it would destroy the natural barrier island habitat. What we’d have is just a horse farm.”

When the park service first took control of the Maryland portion of the island, it had just 28 horses. Like phragmites, their numbers multiplied — by 10-15 percent a year, to be exact.

The environmental damage seemed to grow at a similar rate.

The horses, being horses, compacted the soil beneath their hooves. Native fiddler crabs can’t burrow into overly trampled sand. And shorebirds, including the federally listed piping plover, found their nests at risk whenever the horses sought refuge from the biting flies on the bay side of the island in the summer.

The horses also ate just about everything green in sight.

That was bad news for a classification of birds known as rails, which depend on high marsh grass for resting and feeding. Park officials were so concerned about the potential effects on one endangered plant, the seabeach amaranth, that they began placing wire mesh cages around them to keep hungry horses at bay.

One of Turner’s jobs is to count as many horses as she can every other month. By last Tuesday, her July survey had found every Maryland horse except two: N9BO, an aging mare, and N6BKOS-H, a 5-year-old stallion.

She and Kelly Taylor, the park’s science communicator, followed a set of unreliable tire tracks down the beach in a park service pickup last Tuesday toward the last-known location of the pair.

A couple miles from the Virginia border, Taylor steered the truck down a bumpy path into the marsh, halting at a watery “gut” surrounded by lush, green marsh.

“This is one of the areas back in the day that was pretty heavily grazed,” Turner said. “It’s coming back pretty nicely.”

That comeback is one of the most surprising legacies of the park service’s horse-control efforts.

By the mid-1980s, land managers resolved to do something about the growing horse population. From media reports, they heard about a researcher out West who was experimenting with innovative methods of controlling the region’s exploding herd sizes.

For its part, Assateague offered Jay Kirkpatrick as perfect of a laboratory as he was going to find. Unlike the vast landscapes of the West, the skinny island reined in the horses, allowing them to be studied more reliably.

At first, he tried injecting steroids into the stallions to reduce their fertility. When that didn’t work, he tried it on the mares, but it had the opposite of the desired effect. Within the first year, every one that received injections got pregnant.

“They didn’t give up. They didn’t throw us off the island and tell us to go away. They said, ‘What else do you have up your sleeve?’ “ Kirkpatrick recalled.

Finally, in the third year, he settled on a vaccine for the mares that proved 95 percent effective at preventing foaling. Beginning in 1994, land managers used a dart gun to inject all of the female horses on the Maryland side with the vaccine.

Initially, the horse population continued to climb as the mares, freed from the stress of near-constant foaling, began to live into their 20s and 30s. But since reaching a high of 175 in 2001, their numbers have been steadily dropping.

This year, a major milestone was reached when the population fell to 100. Although it was short-lived — the birth of a foal bumped it back up to 101 — it was the first time the park service achieved its goal set in 2008 of maintaining a herd of 80-100 horses.

Turner said the park service is seeking to stay around 100 horses to provide some insurance against catastrophe, such as a major storm washing over the island. Keeping any fewer than 80 horses might lead to inbreeding, jeopardizing the herd’s future, the park service has determined.

For the past five years, she has stopped darting mares that haven’t gotten pregnant for at least seven consecutive years. Their infertility is likely permanent, she said.

For the first time, the park next year will enter an “adaptive management” stage — deciding how many fertile mares to dart based on the results of this fall’s pregnancy tests and the number of foals born this year.

Kirkpatrick has used the lessons learned on Assateague to apply his contraceptive methods around the world. The porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, vaccine has been used at 15 game parks in Africa, 250 zoos worldwide and elsewhere, he said.

“It’s a remarkable thing what they accomplished there” at Assateague, said Kirkpatrick, director of the Science & Conservation Center at ZooMontana in Billings, Montana.

Such an effort almost certainly wouldn’t have been expended for another non-native species.

Then again, the progeny of the North American horse is a matter of debate.

Officially, the park service has designated the horses as a “desirable feral species.” That opinion echoes the federal Bureau of Land Management in the West, which views North America’s horses as an invasive species and manages them as such.

Back on Maryland’s shore, “as far as we’ve been able to ascertain, horses were not part of the old Assateague,” said Jack Kumer, a wildlife specialist based at the park.

Scientists agree that North America’s horses died out about 11,000 years ago. But before they did, they migrated across a land bridge into Asia and eventually into Europe. The Spanish reintroduced them in the 16th century.

After that, things get murkier. Can a reintroduced species still be considered a native? Various groups, from the Park Service to the Wildlife Society, see today’s horses as outsiders. But many others, including Kirkpatrick, don’t.

“The genetics say this is the horse that originated here and was brought back here,” he said.

In June, two wildlife advocacy groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the horse listed under the Endangered Species Act because of encroaching development and the effects of government-led roundups.

On Assateague, they are protected for a different reason, Kumer said.

“In a sense, they represent early colonial North America,” he said. “The park service looked back and was sensitive to how do the people live within the park. How do they view that landscape?”

The answer was — and remains — obvious: with horses.

Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/