LOVELL — Members of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center board this week expressed concern about a decision issued by the Bureau of Land Management last week to remove 17 horses from the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range north of Lovell.
Mustang Center board members Nancy Cerroni (board president), Matthew Dillon and Christine Reed said Monday they worry that taking 17 young horses off the range would have a detrimental effect on bloodlines and the future health of the herd.
After a lengthy period of public comment and review in the form of a scoping period last year and a comment period early this year as part of an environmental analysis, the BLM Billings Field Office issued its "proposed action" Friday, Aug. 3, to remove what the federal agency calls 17 "excess" wild horses from the range in the 1 to 4 age range through a combination of bait and water trapping.
According to the decision record, the main objective of the gather is to work toward achieving the appropriate management level (AML) of 90 to 120 horses called for in the current herd management area plan.
The BLM plans to start the removal on Sunday, Sept. 2, and continue until the objective is reached, however long that takes.
Asked what the current herd population is, Cerroni said the BLM states that the population is 154 animals, excluding the 2018 foal crop.
"We concur with that number based on our monitoring," she said.
The problem is, Cerroni said, that the foal crops have been minimal in recent years. This year, she said, there were 10 foals born, but only six survived "which is extremely low."
"Overall, our biggest concern for the herd is genetics, carrying the gene pool into the future," Cerroni said, noting that the proposed action would allow each mare to have only one offspring to carry forward to the next generation, but the plan does call for management to maintain rare or unusual colors so that one color wouldn’t become dominant or eliminated.
The plan also calls for management to prevent bloodlines from being eliminated while maintaining a core breeding population, and yet, "quite a few blood lines have ended, a lot of them due to removal decisions," Cerroni said.
But removing horses is only one part of a two-pronged management system, Cerroni noted. The second prong is fertility control, which has been used in the Pryors since 2001 and has become highly effective.
The proposed action modifies the current practice for administering the contraceptive vaccine PZP (Porcine Zona Pellucida), Cerroni noted. Under the old plan horses age 2-4 were treated, horses age 5-9 were not treated and horses age 10-19 were treated (20 and older is considered too old to reproduce).
The proposed action takes the upper age cap off for any mare that has not had offspring, and mares are allowed to have two foals, but once they produce two foals, the PZP is administered again, no matter how old they are.
Cerroni said the Mustang Center board is not totally against the plan but would like to see it modified.
“We are not opposed at all to removal, and we support the concept of fertility control and small gathers, when necessary, under the current management protocol," she said. "We came up with a short list of horses that could be removed without shrinking the gene pool, up to six horses."
Overall, however, members of the board remain extremely concerned that lowering the current population level threatens the genetic viability, and thus the health, of the Pry- or Mountain herd.
“I’ve seen studies done by Dr. (Gus) Cothran on estimates of the number of horses it takes to maintain (genetic) diversity, and it's about 150," Reed said. “Lower than that and you run into risk. That's why we're being very careful."
Dillon said keeping the horse population “as diverse as possible” is more important than specific numbers, noting that it is not wise to “maintain a bare bones genetically diverse group of horses,” and adding, “Once you lose diversity, you can’t get it back.
“You preserve that by being very careful about who gets to stay. There is that magic number (of total horses) that gets thrown around (150 to 200), but it's not a reality for us."
Reed agreed, noting, "This range cannot support that number, so it’s all the more important to keep careful records. We've got to be very careful who stays and who goes. You can't leave anything to chance. And once diversity is gone,you can't get it back."
“Personally, I would love to see it higher (the appropriate management level)," Cerroni said. "When you get to a herd size of 120 it is difficult to maintain genetic diversity as the numbers decrease. One of our points that differs from the existing EA, our number one point, is not to not carry out any management action that will immediately bring the herd to AML. Instead, use small gathers in combination with fertility control to slowly help bring the herd toward AML.”
Reed said she is also concerned about the plan to allow a mare to have only two offspring. If one is removed and something happens to the second offspring, that occurrence could be damaging to genetic diversity."
“We’re looking to leave a second offspring on the range," Cerroni agreed. “One offspring is a fragile buffer zone for diversity, especially when bloodlines are a little on the slim side. That's why our num bers (for removal) are lower. We did not recommend that siblings be removed. There are many examples of siblings (being removed) in the plan."
“One thing that concerns us is that as they talk about removing horses is that there’s little to no mention of the effects of PZP," Cerroni said. "There are major effects on reproductive mares. Research is showing that after four or more consecutive treatments, a mare probably won't get pregnant. The impact of that is, if a mare has a single offspring and it dies, they're done. The reproductive contribution of that horse is done."
In short, Cerroni said, the management techniques of removal and fertility control are “so interwoven that you have to analyze the impact of them together to determine effectiveness." Cerroni pointed out that fertility control has proven to be highly effective, leading to small foal crops in recent years: six surviving foals in each of the last two years.
Reed agreed, noting that she can remember when a foal crop of 30 was typical in a given year.
Reed called the cumulative effect of small foal crops, death from natural causes and removal on top of it all “a combustible mix,” adding, “I’m very concerned."
Looking at the BLM’s list of horses to be removed under the proposed action, Cerroni said of the group of eight fillies born in the last three years, only three would be left. She would like to see further discussion with the BLM about putting all of the information in context and “really determine where to go next to maintain a healthy herd of horses into the future."
Reed said she’s “really disappointed” in the proposed action after the amount of work done by Cerroni and Dillon to carefully determine the horses that could be safely removed from the herd.
“I’m struck by the disconnect (between the action) and the long history the Center has with the BLM,” Reed said, adding, "There's not much give and take.”
Cerroni said there have been many meetings with the BLM but not much real “two-way communication." She added that it's remarkable that after a comment and review period – a scoping period followed by a comment period on the EA, that it took six months of work on the plan to develop the final decision.
At this point, there is no longer opportunity to make comments, although there is an appeal process.
The Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center is not the only entity concerned about the proposed action.
The Cloud Foundation issued a scathing press release this week stating that the BLM has “launched an attack on the wild horses of the Pryor Mountains."
Executive Director Ginger Kathrens called reducing the size of the herd when the population is already declining naturally “counterintuitive, inhumane and unnecessary” and a “disaster for such a small herd."
Ultimately, the Mustang Center board members said, it may be necessary to garner more public involvement as was done 50-plus years ago in order to preserve the Pryor Mountain wild mustangs.
“Here we are at the 50th anniversary, with good awareness in the community, but we’re kind of back at the same place. What we’d really like is strong community support to replicate what they did 50 years ago," Cerroni said. "This might be a time when the community does need to rally together and stand up again for the horses."
"There might be some people who say this isn’t a big deal, it’s just a few horses (to be removed), but every time this type of thing happens, you’re not just looking at what you’re doing today, you’re looking down the road," Dillon said. “You always have to look at the future of this herd."