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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wild horse advocates see better way to control herd populations on the range

Wild horse advocates have created a stable of volunteers hoping to prove a concept of fertility control will work better to keep the population of wild horses in a healthy range than other practices currently used by the federal government.

(CN) — Elena Sullivan inhaled to steady the dart gun as the herd of wild horses cavorting in the Virginia Range near Carson City, Nevada, maneuvered themselves in a way that finally afforded a clean shot at her target — a chestnut mare named Pinto. 

Sullivan is a volunteer darter with the American Wild Horse Campaign and part of a sprawling volunteer effort to prove that wild horse advocates can use fertility control to restrain the growing population of wild horses in northern Nevada.

In April 2019, the American Wild Horse Campaign signed a cooperative agreement with the Nevada Department of Agriculture that allows the nonprofit to implement and manage a fertility control program that involves shooting darts full of porcine zona pellucida, a vaccine delivered with CO2 rifled that are intended to stop mares from procreating. 

“Birth control works,” said Sullivan. “There is attrition in the range and the foal numbers are down, and so we see a reduction in population.”

With an issue so highly contentious as wild horses in the American West, there is, of course, significant disagreement about whether the plan works and whether it can reliably be exported to other management areas, but Sullivan and Deb Walker, the executive director of the program, believe they have found a humane alternative to policies that mandate helicopter-involved roundup and an adoption program rife with abuse. 

“The agency that is charged with the management and care of wild horses is instead facilitating their slaughter,” said Walker, as she looked toward the Coal Band of horses grazing in the sagebrush. 

Walker is talking about the Bureau of Land Management, which manages most of the wild horses throughout 10 states in the American West and in Nevada, where much of the state is managed by the federal government. 

Interestingly, the BLM does not manage the horses in the Virginia Range outside that wander in the public lands outside of Carson City and Reno. That is under the purview of the Nevada Department of Agriculture, which has agreed to contract with the Wild Horse Connection to perform the fertility control program on the 3,000 or so horses that wander over a triangle-sized piece of desolate land that extends from Reno to Fernley in the east and to Carson City in the south. 

However, Walker and Sullivan are convinced that if they succeed in managing the horses outside of Virginia City, they will provide a valuable template that can be reliably exported to other management areas throughout the American West. 

They will have to overcome the skepticism of people like Doug Busselman, executive vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau. 

“I salute the commitment of what they are doing, but I don’t think it’s going to work,” Busselman said. 

Wild horses graze on a hillside overlooking Carson City, Nevada. (Matthew Renda/Courthouse News)

Sullivan took Courthouse News and Walker out to what is colloquially referred to as Creepy Canyon in the unincorporated area of Mound House, Nevada. The landscape is characterized by a lack of trees apart from the cottonwoods huddled in the creek beds. The volcanic rock that crops up in places along the shoulders of the rolling hills is brown to black and differs starkly from the bright gray of the granite that characterizes the Sierra Nevada only a stone’s throw to the west. 

Wild rye, rabbitbrush and sagebrush fan out on the flanks of the hills while silver willows gather with the cottonwoods near the drainage rivulets where the water flows. 

The mustangs that graze among the sparse grassland are perhaps the most iconic aspect of the landscape, aside from the neon signs of the numerous legal brothels that flourish outside of Virginia City. 


But the area is also the birthplace of Velma Bronn Johnston, known as Wild Horse Annie.

In 1950, Johnston was on her way to work at a local insurance company when ahead of her a horse trailer was leaking copious amounts of blood on the road. She followed the truck and trailer to a local slaughterhouse and learned the horses were gathered from public and private lands in the Virginia Range and would be soon killed and used as an ingredient in dog food.

Thus was born a zealous activist and Johnston proved a formidable advocate for wild horses, calling for new laws that enshrined humane treatment for the animals that many see as an iconic symbol of the freedom offered by the wide-open spaces of the American West. 

Johnston’s fierce unflagging advocacy culminated in the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which perhaps evinces the most succinct utterance regarding the importance of feral horses as a symbol of the American West:

“Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the nation and enrich the lives of the American people.”

Free-roaming horses is a conscious choice as people from various sides of the debate argue about whether the horses are truly wild.

Biologists distinguish between wild horses — which were never domesticated — and feral horses, which are free-roaming horses descended from domestic horses. 

There are salient genetic differences between the two. 

In the United States, most people colloquially refer to feral horses as wild horses. But mustangs — the appellation for North America’s feral horses — are actually the descendants of colonial Spanish horses brought to the Americas by the conquistadors, beginning in 1493. 

Christopher Columbus was the first European to bring horses to the continent, although he brought them along for his second voyage, not his first. 

Most of the horses seen in the American West are descendants of a band of horses brought by Hernan Cortes, the bane of the Aztec Empire, who landed in the New World in 1519. 

By 1525, Cortes had enough of a critical mass of equines that he had a modestly respectable horse-breeding operation up and running as a going concern in Mexico.

Some of those horses escaped or were turned loose by their owners and began to proliferate on the range throughout Mexico and the American Southwest, particularly Santa Fe. In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant, the famed Civil War general and 18th president of the United States, recounts traveling to Texas and being astonished at the large number of feral horses wandering about.

“There was no estimating the number of animals in it; I have no idea that they could all have been corralled in the state of Rhode Island, or Delaware, at one time,” he wrote. 

From there, the equine population exploded in the West. 

Horses are particularly adept at reproducing, capable of expanding their herd by 20% every year, meaning their population can double in four or five years. They also have relatively few predators on the range that allows the population levels to flourish.

By the time, settlers began pouring into the American West at the beginning of the 20th century, there were already a set of cowboys who would rope wild horses and gentle them for various uses. However, as the decades advanced more people began corralling the horses for slaughter and engaging in some of the practices that caught the attention of activists like Wild Horse Annie who pressured Congress to afford federal protections to the horse through the force of law.


The 1971 law led to a new era where federal agencies managed the population of wild horses on the range and effectively ended some of the more heinous practices related to the slaughter of wild horses, but it presented new challenges as well. 

Ranchers who use the range for their livestock contend that the population of wild horses has expanded beyond what the landscape can handle. 


However, recently the adoption program has been dogged by scandal, as reports have emerged that individuals have taken advantage of the $1,000 adoption incentive program by pocketing the money and then profiting again by selling the horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. 

“The evidence we’ve uncovered clearly shows that the adoption incentive program is resulting in the rampant abuse, neglect, and slaughter of America’s cherished wild horses and burros,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign.

The BLM has recently acknowledged the scandal and pledged to update its protocols to try and assuage the potential for abuse. ‘

“While the vast majority of adopters already adhere to our requirements to provide a good and caring home, the BLM is now taking additional steps to secure the health and safety of adopted animals,” said BLM Deputy Director for Programs Nada Wolff Culver. “We will begin to make additional compliance visits post-adoption, bring more scrutiny to potential adopters, and increase warnings to sale barns about the risks of illegally selling wild horses and burros, among other steps.”

But for Walker and Sullivan, such promises amount to more of the same blandishments they have been hearing for several years. 

“They’ve turned it into a racket,” Walker said. 

This picture captures volunteer darter Elena Sullivan moments before she successfully darts a chestnut mare named Pinto with a fertility control agent. (Courthouse News photo / Matthew Renda)

The solution, the advocates say, is to turn to and pursue the type of fertility control program the advocates are currently administering in the Virginia City foothills outside of Carson City and Reno. 

“The program works,” Sullivan said. 

Even critics concede that the program, begun with the imprimatur of the Nevada Department of Agriculture, has its merits. 

“They have a network of volunteers working at darting programs and perhaps the best thing they do is to continue to document the horses out on the range,” concedes Busselman. “But even if the fertility program operates at its very best, the most you could hope for is keeping the population where it is. But the population needs to be brought under control.”

The BLM said it is considering fertility control programs akin to the one being administered in the Virginia Range and has begun to explore alternative fertility control drugs to PZP, which must be updated annually to remain effective. 

“The BLM intends to increase the use of Gonacon, a longer-term vaccine that can prevent pregnancy for 4-5 years, in animals that receive two doses,” the agency said. “As part of a sustained fertility control program, the BLM supports humane methods of sterilizing some wild horses and burros as a method of slowing population growth and reducing the need for gathers.”

Busselman said the other hurdle is how remote several of the bands of horses in Nevada and elsewhere truly are. 

“Lots of places in Nevada are really remote and meaningful management of horses in those places would prove really difficult,” he said. “The Virginia foothills … it’s basically a suburban situation.”

But Sullivan thinks those are just excuses for inertia and maintenance of the status quo. 

“I started volunteering in 2015 and I had never been around horses before — I didn’t even have pets,” Sullivan said. “I never shot a gun and I didn’t know if I could do this.”

Now, she goes darting at least once a week, maintains a comprehensive knowledge of the horses and their respective bands and shows an uncanny ability to identify just about any horse by name on sight. 

Walker says that while Sullivan is one of the best volunteers she has at least 20 other darters rotating throughout the range, which complements a roster of at least 35 other volunteers, some of whom help provide rescue services. 

And more are in the pipeline, Walker said, who was heading out to help teach a darting class the day after we cavorted around the wildlands in and around Mound House. 

Walker and Sullivan believe volunteer-powered programs with a view toward a more humane treatment of horses will win the day, largely because the wild horse means so much to so many. 

“I love the wildness in them,” Sullivan said. “But at the same time they are not very wild, so you can get close to them. You can walk next to them, listen to them and see them. They are so majestic and strong. I would recommend everybody head to the desert to feel what it feels like to be out here with them and no one else.”

Elena Sullivan, a volunteer darter, tracks a band of wild horses, hoping to get near enough to a mare to fire a dart that will control its fertility in the coming year. (Courthouse News photo / Matthew Renda)
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