USDA Helping Tribes in the Northwest Deal With
Feral-Horse Overpopulation Issues
Make no mistake about it: Native Americans love their wild horses. Although these animals could be considered an invasive species—because the ancestors of today’s horses were brought into what became the United States by Spanish explorers and later escaped—nobody wants to eradicate them. But getting their numbers down to a manageable level is imperative. On some reservations in east-central Washington and Oregon and nearby Idaho, feral horses are eating all the vegetation on rolling hillsides, depriving livestock of forage and endangering plants important as sources for traditional foods and medicines. And then there’s the salmon.
How can horses affect fish? Well, if you’re a salmon, you need especially clear water in order to thrive on your way back upstream, from the ocean to your river of origin, where you can spawn. Horses can wreck the clarity of streamwater and even of entire rivers—just because of how they eat. In the wild, horses tend to pull whole plants out of the ground rather than just browsing the tops of the plants. That makes it hard for plants to reestablish themselves after the horses pass on to new territories for their next meal.
When a hillside has no more plant life on it to hold down the topsoil, rains simply roll that soil downhill and right into streams. Clear water becomes silty and salmon suffer.
The salmon is not just any old species to northwestern Indians, either. Salmon occupy a central position among the animal kingdom in the spiritual traditions of many northwestern tribes. This fish is viewed as a brother by Indian people. The return of the salmon upstream to spawn is celebrated locally, and many subsistence hunters rely on salmon harvests to feed their families year ’round. On a commercial scale, numerous tribes manage salmon production facilities where tribal members harvest the fish, salt down or otherwise preserve it, and market it nationally and internationally. As goes the economy of the salmon industry, so goes the economy of the northwestern tribes.
The Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Indian Reservation of eastern Washington State have the biggest horse problems. Currently, about 12,000 feral horses roam their reservation, near the city of Yakima (note the different spelling). Jim Stephenson, the tribe’s big-game manager, has been studying the Yakama ferals for years. He figures the reservation can support a stable population of about 2,500 horses without unacceptable levels of rangeland degradation.
Out West, rangeland is not fenced, however. The Yakama horses wander around without reference to reservation boundaries. Similar herds are eating their way through natural forage at the same alarming rate nearby, at the Colville Reservation (also in Washington), at Warm Springs and Umatilla (in Oregon), and at Shoshone Bannock (in Idaho).
When representatives of the wildlife management units at those five tribes gathered together in November 2008 to talk about this problem, they came to the conclusion that there are at least 20,000 feral horses on their reservations altogether. Now horses typically live to about age 30, and a mare ordinarily has a foal every year. With few to no apex predators in that part of the United States, feral-horse populations are going up about 20 percent every year, with no end in sight.
If the tribes don’t figure out how to control the burgeoning population of feral horses, and soon, the ecological damage will wreck the salmon situation. And supplies of certain wild plants will be disrupted, if not wiped out completely. These plants, such as wild carrot and bitterroot, are important for medicinal purposes, for seasonal foods, and for use in spiritual ceremonies. This spring, Yakama reports that their horses have been digging up and eating the actual roots of bitterroot plants. This has never happened before and clearly indicates just how sparse local forage has become.
Since this problem is acute on Indian reservations and the U.S. Government has a trust responsibility to manage reservation lands for the benefit of the federally recognized tribes, Federal agencies must help rectify this situation. But which agencies, and how?
As Janet Wintermute found out when she began working with Jim Stephenson on the feral-horse problem in late 2008, APHIS is not a major player. Our authorities with regard to equines are extremely limited overall. VS does not have a major horse program, and Animal Care’s involvement is restricted to enforcing the Horse Protection Act, which is solely about protecting gaited horses from the inhumane practice of soring in order to get them trained faster to produce the high-stepping gait called the “big lick.” VS is charged with enforcing the Humane Transport of Horses to Slaughter Act, and that is the extent of the agency’s authorities on the matter.
Part of today’s problem can be traced to actions by Congress in 2007 that eliminated the last three remaining horse-slaughtering plants in the country. Now if you have too many horses to take care of, or they’ve grown too old to do their work (e.g., aged racing animals, circus performers, etc.), you can pay a veterinarian to euthanize the horses and bury them—at a cost of up to $2,000 apiece. In today’s economy, people are struggling to feed their children. Feeding a high-maintenance animal like a horse definitely comes in second place, and giving one a decent burial may be totally out of reach now for many owners.
Before 2007, you could ship your excess horses to an American slaughtering facility, which would pay you a fairly low amount of money per animal and then process the meat for export. (In France, Germany, and Japan, people eat horsemeat and it shows up on the menu at expensive restaurants.) Now that option is more complicated.
First, you have to ship your animal to either Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered. Second, the price you’ll receive for the horse barely covers the cost of transporting it across the border. If you can’t afford to keep the animal and can’t afford to send it away to be processed, what can you do? Unfortunately, many Americans have answered that question by applying the “kitty formula.” They take their unwanted horses out into the country and abandon them.
These owners are not Evil Incarnate. They believe, incorrectly, that they are giving their horses a fighting chance to survive when they can no longer take care of them. They think the animals will pal up with a roaming herd of feral horses and just become part of the family, so to speak. Unfortunately, this is not what happens at all. Domesticated horses have never learned to forage for their food. Some of them starve straightaway in the wild. Others do stumble across roving bands of feral horses, but the reception they get from their wild brothers is anything but familial. The alpha female or the single stallion in each of these clusters, known in the animal-science trade as “harems,” often attacks the newcomer. At best, it slinks away. At worst, it is killed.
There is no happy ending for domesticated horses dumped in the countryside.
And these horses add to the number of equine mouths feeding on the forage base.
What Are the Northwestern Tribes Doing About the Problem?
When Jim Stephenson made a speech about the Yakama horses at the September 2008 annual meeting of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, Janet was in the audience. She spoke with Jim afterwards, and he sent her a huge report he had written after rounding up and examining a big sample of the Yakama ferals. The tribe’s wild horses are small and relatively dark, with few paints or palomino types. Their size and coloration makes them less attractive to people wanting to get a horse through the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program. And the slaughter plants pay very little for small animals. But the Yakama’s horses are in good health, which contributes to their reproductive success—and furthers the damage they cause to local grasslands.
Janet shared Jim’s report with Terry Clark and others in VS, and Terry and Janet both attended a couple meetings of the five named tribes in the fall and winter of 2008–09 out West. The tribes decided to incorporate as a nonprofit and work together on the feral-horse overpopulation issue. They formed the Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition (NTHC) and have been meeting every other month since then. Janet and Terry participate by speakerphone from back East.
NTHC member-tribes are willing to examine all possible solutions to reduce the numbers of feral horses on their reservations. Nobody endorses killing all the horses. But some culling of these herds must happen in order to bring down the population fast enough to save the rangelands from becoming permanently barren. Tribes will continue to try to find buyers for their animals at livestock sales and auctions.
Surgical sterilization would be expensive and difficult to implement with such large populations of free-roaming animals. But birth control for horses is a possibility. There are two vaccines that prevent pregnancy by keeping mares from coming into estrus. One is based on porcine zona pellucida (PZP), derived from pigs, and the other on gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which is common to all mammals. The PZP product requires two injections, which makes it expensive for large populations of horses that have to be captured in the wild. The GnRH-based product can work with only one shot, making it a less expensive and more convenient option.
But there are some hoops to be jumped through yet. The Humane Society of the United States recently submitted data to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requesting that the PZP vaccine receive a registration label so it can be used by suitable personnel in nonresearch settings (i.e., real-world use) for horses. APHIS–Wildlife Services scientists at the National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) in Fort Collins developed a GnRH-based vaccine that works well (and is labeled for) white-tailed deer. They need to find out how well it can work in equines. And then somebody must pursue getting the product labeled for nonresearch use in horses.
The product is called GonaCon. NWRC produces it inhouse for experimental purposes and, now that it has been labeled for deer, makes GonaCon to sell to wildlife-management agencies and governmental units wanting to try immunocontraception to get a handle on their excess deer populations.
GonaCon researchers Lowell Miller, Kathy Fagerstone, and Jim Gionfriddo, plus APHIS Native American Working Group member John Eisemann, who handles product registration work at NWRC, are already involved in one efficacy study on GonaCon in horses. They are managing a study in Montana on nontribal lands, and need to do another efficacy study on feral horses to be sure the science supports extending GonaCon’s label, through EPA, to cover equines.
Early results from Montana are encouraging. In previous pen studies, contraception was about 100 percent effective for a year after mares were injected. Up to 4 years later, fully 60 percent were still not producing foals. The long efficacy curve here is a big consideration when you’re talking about the need to round up wild animals in order to contracept them. Not quite the same things as taking Fido or Fifi to the local vet for a shot….
Janet is exploring with Wildlife Services management the possibility of hooking up the NWRC team with one of the NTHC tribes to do another efficacy study on GonaCon. The study and the subsequent timeframe for getting the product labeled for horses will take about 4 years, and no decisions have yet been made on this matter. But collaborating with the tribes of the NTHC on the birth-control issue is one of the few ways APHIS, within its statutory authorities, could actually help in the feral-horse arena.
Sterilization of some of the ferals on reservation lands in the Northwest is still being considered by the NTHC member-tribes. Because of the harem behaviors of horses, sterilizing the dominant stallion in a cluster might go a ways to help reduce foaling.
Horses do not pair-bond for life like swans, however, so castrating those stallions is not a final answer. Can it help, though? VS veterinarian Terry Hensley has worked with Oregon’s Warm Springs tribe to find out. Terry got the veterinary school at Oregon State University to supply students to work with him twice in the last few years to castrate stallions on the Warm Springs Reservation.
Warm Springs reported significant reductions in foal crops in the test populations. This suggests that, in certain settings, sterilization may work to lessen population increases. But horses that have been sterilized, or have received contraceptive injections for that matter, don’t die. They keep right on eating. Hence, the rangeland where they eat continues to experience vegetation damage and siltation of streams.
What Does the NTHC Think About How To Solve This Problem?
After examining all the relevant options, Coalition members concluded that a mix of techniques offers the best chance of reducing feral-horse populations in order to save forage, tribally significant plants, and salmon habitat. But to save the land base fast enough, some population reduction operations will likely have to be involved.
The NTHC would like to get Congress to reverse its position on the issue of horse slaughter for human consumption, and the Coalition is not alone in this regard. Since the NTHC formed, more than a half-dozen States have launched investigations into the feasibility of operating horse-processing facilities and getting Congress to roll back the prohibition on horse slaughter if the meat is destined for human consumption. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has the overall Federal trust responsibility for managing reservation rangelands, is working with one of the NTHC tribes to fund a feasibility study on this subject. If a processing facility can be profitable as well as environmentally safe, the tribe would fund and run a processing plant and kill the animals with appropriate tribal protocols. The key to profitability is a change in Federal law to, once again, fund USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service inspection of horsemeat destined for human consumption.
NTHC members have been distributing information about this issue to their congressional delegations. While all Federal employees are explicitly forbidden to lobby Congress, the tribes can do so. Janet has been working with the Coalition to prepare persuasive written information and encourage the GonaCon research agenda. Terry Hensley will likely pursue the sterilization activities he initiated in Oregon—a fine example of how an individual APHIS employee can reach out to help the tribes. But for now, the limitation on APHIS’ authorities in connection with equines is a controlling factor in how much the agency can undertake.
Click on link below for entire USDA ANAWG newsletter in pdf form, complete w/ this article and pics not shown here;
And here is a link to the Yakami Nation where anyone can purchase a "wild horse chasing permit" - http://www.ynwildlife.org/wildhorseprogram.php
Be sure to email them to let them know what you think of their idea to build horse-slaughter plants on Native American Lands.