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Mustang Plan Riles the West

Some Fear for Wild Horses’ Fighting Spirit as Castration Is Proposed to Thin Herd

Federal wildlife managers are fighting in court to take the unprecedented step of castrating 200 wild stallions in Nevada, in an effort to control surging populations of wild horses across the West.

Animal-rights activists oppose the plan, which they contend would strip the wild stallions of their fighting spirit and change herd dynamics. A coalition of horse advocates last month filed suit to block the U.S. Bureau of Land Management from castrating the stallions, also known as gelding. In response, the agency agreed to postpone the castration until a federal court in Washington, D.C., can hear arguments later this year.


The federal government occasionally gathers up wild horses, then puts them up for adoption. Pictured here, a 2010 roundup in Utah’s Conger Mountains.

Federal scientists contend they have no choice but to try dramatic steps such as castration because the wild horse population is out of control—and costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. Mustangs have few natural predators, and herds can double in size every four years. “We’re on an unsustainable path,” said Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management.

Wild horses are not native to America; they’re descended from domesticated horses brought over by early European explorers. Still, federal law protects mustangs as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

Wild-horse advocates say that castrating stallions will change that. “Gelding destroys what these animals are,” said Neda DeMayo, who runs a wild horse sanctuary in California.

Gelding stallions changes their hormonal balance and will likely leave them unable to perform typical behaviors, such as corralling a harem of mares into a close-knit herd and fighting off challenges from other males, said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, one of the advocacy groups that sued to block the castrations. “You’re changing their social structures,” Ms. Roy said.

The wild horses roam across millions of acres of federal land in states including Wyoming, Utah, Oregon and California.

Federal scientists say the portions of range designated as wild horse and burro habitat can sustain just 26,600 animals. The population now exceeds 38,000 (including about 5,500 burros). Officials say that’s causing ecological damage, as herds trample streams and strip vegetation, destroying habitat needed by other animals, such as the sage grouse.

For decades, the Bureau of Land Management has conducted periodic roundups to thin herds by putting some of the horses up for adoption. Federal law authorizes euthanizing the captured horses, but public opinion runs strongly against that option.

In the past 40 years, more than 225,000 wild horses and burros have found new homes through the adoption program. But fewer families have come forward in recent years, a drop federal officials and horse advocates attribute to the economic downturn. In fiscal year 2011, 2,844 horses and burros were adopted, compared with 5,701 in fiscal year 2005.

The federal government is now holding more than 45,000 wild horses and burros in captivity—at a cost nearly $36 million a year. Many end up in corrals and pastures in the Midwest and Southwest, where ranchers are paid about $500 a year per animal to care for them.

Total federal spending on wild-horse management, including the cost of sheltering captured animals, topped $75 million this fiscal year, double the annual budget of just three years ago.

The agency has been testing a contraceptive vaccine on wild mares since 2004, but the treatment costs $300 per horse, must be repeated every two years and is not entirely effective; about a third of treated mares give birth, according to the agency. Castration of males is permanent and would cost $50 to $100 per stallion, federal officials said.

Officials at the Bureau of Land Management acknowledge that horse behavior and herd dynamics could change with the castrations, and say they aren’t sure the plan will hold down the birthrate, because not every stallion will be treated. The pilot project in Nevada, which aims to geld 200 stallions over the next six to 10 years, was designed to let scientists study the efficacy and side effects of castration, said Heather Emmons, a bureau spokeswoman.

The agency also planned to geld about 175 stallions in Wyoming last summer, but backed off under fire from animal-rights activists.

Some veterinary experts agree with activists that castration isn’t a good option. Nat Messer, the former chairman of a federal wild-horse advisory panel, said he fears that tinkering with natural selection by picking certain stallions to be gelded could harm herd genetics and weaken the horses’ ability to survive in the wild.

Dr. Messer, a professor of equine medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia, instead urges the government to euthanize surplus horses. Held in captivity, “they just become a herd of unwanted horses, really,” he said. “They’re no longer a symbol of the American West.”

The Bureau of Land Management has commissioned a comprehensive study of wild-horse management strategies from the National Academy of Sciences. The report is due next year.

Write to Stephanie Simon at stephanie.simon@wsj.com

Source: The Wall Street Journal