EDEN, Wyo. -- The mares received the equine equivalent of the pill and the stallions remained intact.
The dust has settled from a government roundup of nearly 700 wild horses in southwest Wyoming in which the U.S. Bureau of Land Management injected six dozen mares with a fertility control drug before returning them to the open range.
The roundup south of Eden, a tiny town amid a sagebrush sea that stretches to the Wind River Range, marked the start of a new federal policy that puts more emphasis on fertility control and less on horse removal to manage the wild horse population throughout the West. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management policy calls for scaling back its removal of wild horses from Western ranges from 10,000 to 7,600 a year.
An initial plan to spay all mares and geld all stallions before releasing them to the wild would have spelled doom for the herd, according to wild horse advocates who fought the Wyoming roundup.
Ranchers counter that the number of wild horses in the West, estimated at 38,500, is more than 40 percent above the BLM's target of 26,600. They worry that fertility control won't do enough to limit rangeland damage.
"There's only so much grass produced and I have to control my cow numbers," said Gary Zakotnik, a rancher in the Eden area and member of the BLM's National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board. "I don't know of any ranchers, or very few ranchers, that are opposed to horses. But they're like anything. Their population has to be controlled."
Horse activists have steadfastly opposed government roundups as cruel and sometimes deadly. In August, a judge sided with the Wild Horse Freedom Federation by finding that a government helicopter came too close to, and may have struck, a horse during a Nevada roundup.
One area ranching group has filed suit to get the BLM to reduce the number of wild horses north of Rock Springs to what it considers ideal: Zero.
The Rock Springs Grazing Association says the government hasn't lived up to a 30-year-old agreement to maintain no more than 1,680 wild horses in the region. The estimated population before the recent roundup, which took place on only a portion of the area used by the association members, had reached at least 4,700, according to the group.
"They are here year-round and really do quite a little bit of damage," association president John Hay said. "And the numbers are such that we finally had to do something."
The association manages private grazing land interspersed with BLM land over a total of some 2 million acres, an area bigger than Delaware.
While the lawsuit technically seeks to force the BLM to remove wild horses from association land, that effectively would mean removing horses from the entire area because few if any fences separate public and private lands.
The association had supported the BLM's first plan for the roundup.
It called for corralling as many as possible of the 1,000 or so horses in western Wyoming's White Mountain and Little Colorado herd management areas, then gelding or spaying the 300 or so that would be returned to the range.
"Really the only way you're going to control the horses, if indeed you have any out there, is if they're sterilized," Hay said.
The bureau then decided it would not spay the mares but would geld the stallions. That prompted a lawsuit by the Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, which argued the plan to render the herd nonproductive violated the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, a 1971 law that protects the animals on public lands in the West.
BLM officials finally decided neither to spay nor geld but to use a fertility control drug called PZP. The roundup began Aug. 21 and ended a week later.
Of the 699 horses corralled, 205 were returned to the range, including 72 mares treated with PZP. The rest are destined to be adopted or sent to wild horse refuges around the country.
More widespread use of PZP someday could end the need for roundups and meet the BLM's population goals, said Suzanne Roy with the preservation campaign.
"They could achieve their current management levels in 12 years and save taxpayers $200 million," she said, citing research by the Humane Society of the United States.
But ranchers question whether heavy reliance on PZP is good policy. Derived from pig ovaries, the drug is 100 percent effective only for 22 months after it is administered. Its efficacy gradually diminishes.
"I don't think that it's as effective as some of the other advisory board members do," said Zakotnik.
The BLM is well aware that activists oppose horse roundups but doesn't consider relying completely on fertility control would likely be effective, said Tom Gorey, a bureau spokesman in Washington, D.C.
"There is no realistic turning away from gathering thousands each year. Otherwise the range will deteriorate rapidly," he said.
An upcoming study by the National Academy of Sciences could shape long-term BLM policy. A report due in 2013 could advise a new approach or combination of methods to control wild horse numbers, Gorey said.
Even then, he added, "We are not unrealistic, thinking that everybody is going to say, `Oh yes, we agree.'"