WASHINGTON — Across the West this summer, helicopters buzz low, herding thousands of wild horses into gated areas.
The roundups, made necessary by the devastating effects of wildfire and drought, show how climate change is endangering the iconic wild horses, livestock and other wildlife, according to ranchers, activists and the U.S. government.
The dire situation on Western lands has led to unprecedented dialogue between horse rights activists, the cattle industry and the Bureau of Land Management, which is charged with providing federal protection for wild horses.
Horse defenders have long hated the helicopter-led roundups, where wild horses are herded into corrals and then brought to long-term grazing facilities, mostly in the Midwest. A smaller number are put up for adoption. But, faced with dwindling water and plant resources, some rights activists have accepted the roundups as a necessary evil when faced with climate change.
Those activists are now advocating a mix of roundups and fertility control measures for wild horses, whose population has grown from an estimated 30,000 in 2013 to nearly 80,000.
Stephanie Boyles Griffin, the chief scientist of the Humane Society wildlife protection department, said climate change has forced different groups to come together.
"The greatest threat to our wild horses and burros and our public lands right now isn't the BLM, it's not cattle, ranching or mining interests. It's not animal advocates. It's climate change and the new reality is fast settling in."
The worry for the survival of cattle, wild horses and wildlife in the West has spurred this on. "No one who cares about these animals wants to see them suffer and die of dehydration or malnutrition," Griffin said.
Tammy Pearson, a rancher and county commissioner in Beaver County, Utah, is a founding member of the Path Forward coalition. Pearson said that year in year out, she is reducing her cattle herd size because of the changing weather conditions.
"We know they're going to be hungry or starving to death because there's not going to be water there that year," Pearson said.
A tough shot to give
The Path Forward group is a coalition of animal rights groups, public lands advocates, local and state government offices and farming and cattle industry representatives that favor using contraception aggressively so that the wild horse population achieves a sustainable level.
They hope, as contraceptive measures ramp up and the number of wild horses gradually stabilizes, the round ups are phased out.
The contraceptive techniques require injections ranging between one to five years, but are reversible. The horses are injected by dart or hand at a cost of $30 to $50 per horse, but the BLM says the cost of capturing and holding a horse for the time required to administer a shot costs 50 times as much as the actual shot.
In 2013, a National Academy of Sciences study noted that round ups had not curbed the wild horse population and called fertility prevention shots "promising". But the BLM website describes the 2013 report as finding "no highly effective, easily delivered and affordable fertility-control methods" and advising further research.
The BLM's use of the shots stalled for most of the decade. It delivered 384 treatments in 2014 and those numbers rose to 735 in 2020. The BLM said in a statement that its use of fertility controls was also slowed by lawsuits.
Of the record 18,000 horses that will be rounded up this year, 1,000 will receive fertility-control shots, said Nada Culver, the deputy director of policy and programs for BLM.
On its website, BLM said that the vaccine technology has become more viable over time, but the logistics to carry out a dramatic expansion has often proved daunting because many wild horse herds dwell on hard-to-reach terrain. Beyond that, Culver said the populations are so large that vaccines alone cannot bring the size down.
"The challenge in the short term is that's not going to reduce populations," Culver said. "It allows us to work in places where there are stable populations at sustainable levels."
Horses should not carry climate burden
But the Path Forward approach, which the group has lobbied for in Washington, has been vehemently attacked by some wild horse groups.
The American Wild Horse Campaign opposes any roundups except in emergency situations and believes that horses should receive fertility control vaccinations only in their natural habitat. The group's director, Suzanne Roy, points to the work her group has done, without gathers, delivering 4,287 contraceptive shots and boosters to 1,474 mares since 2019.
Other groups and ranchers say it is impossible to reach enough horses if they are free ranging.
She also dismisses the notion that horses should bear the burden of the West's hard times.
"There are 86,000 wild horses and burros on 27 million acres in the West. That's a fraction of the land that's grazed by livestock," Roy said. She notes that some public lands are also leased by oil, gas and mining companies who are "all huge contributors to climate change."
Still even with her fierce opposition to the roundups, Roy and the American Wild Horse Campaign engaged in their first-ever collaboration with BLM in July.
After the agency rounded up 435 wild horses from the Onaqui mountain range in Utah, at least 123 horses were returned to the range. Some of the mares received fertility treatments.
"It shows when there is a will, things can be done," Roy said.