Mustang Love and COVID-19: The Unexpected Consequences

America is now two weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, confined to our homes and either working remotely or furloughed until this mess passes. Some businesses remain on the job: those enabled by technology and front-line workers in healthcare, law enforcement, supermarkets, trucking, banking, and – I  can’t believe I am saying this – accountants. God bless them all!

I’m one of the lucky ones whose work life has not been interrupted. As the CEO of Wildlife Protection Management, a tech company that manages wild and feral animal populations remotely, my job requires little or no physical human contact.

As a ranch manager, social distancing is easy. Patrolling a 22,000-acre ranch, maintaining fences, and monitoring the livestock and wildlife is a one-person job. Here’s what I’ve noticed on the ranch lately. The many bands of wild horses that call it home did not get the message to social distance.

The season of mustang love is here.

And yeah, it’s pretty obvious love is in the air. The stallions are preening and posturing. The fillies are flirtatious and skittish. The mares are beginning to foal, and in as little as six days later, with spindly colts trotting by their sides, inviting stallions to breed again. The nature lover in me could spend hours watching the social interactions and smiling. The ranch manager in me groans.

New Mexico’s fragile environment is simply not equipped to handle unchecked growth of wild horses.

Neither are Nevada’s, Oregon’s, Utah’s, and other states where the overall population of free-roaming horses has swelled to over 300,000. On federal lands alone, there are more than 90,000 wild horses; that’s 60,000 over the federal limit.

I groan because without intervention, the population of free-roaming horses doubles every five years. Can the United States support over 600,000 by 2025? No.

Can we support a more manageable number? Of course.

This takes us to the unexpected consequences of COVID-19.

Nature does not stand still for pandemics. But human life and all of the activities we take for granted, that we expected to occur, have ground to a halt. And it’s happened literally overnight.

Have you noticed that the mustang and burro adoption events across the country have all been cancelled?

That’s a problem because the horses and burros that would have been placed with owners will continue to be warehoused and fed, along with 50,000 of their brethren, in holding pens and with TIP trainers, individuals paid by the federal government to gentle wild horses to the point that they can be adopted.

How humane is this situation? And another question: are those caring for these horses still able to do so as the world hunkers down, each to his or her own home, with or without a paycheck?

The pandemic has also caused many of our federal lands to be closed to visitors. The advocates who devote themselves to monitoring the wild horses are cut off from contact. Federal employees are still on the job, but practicing social distancing and enforcing other immediate concerns.

And it’s safe to say a number of federally funded wildlife population control efforts such as helicopter roundups have been temporarily suspended due to the critical need to focus on human safety and keeping people apart and free of disease.

Meanwhile, the unexpected consequence is that efforts to control the wild horse population may have been been put on the back burner and natural procreation continues unabated. Some advocates may cheer this development. However, it’s not a positive situation in the least. What it means is as the number of wild horses soars, the extreme measures of population management will come back with a vengeance when the pandemic passes.

So I’d like all of you, the advocates, the BLM, USDA and National Park Service; tribal entities, and my fellow ranch and land managers to consider this:

If you were using Wildlife Protection Management’s technology-driven approach to managing wild horse populations, a humane system that delivers contraceptives to stop unnecessary reproduction and RFID chips for tracking and record keeping without the need for physical human intervention, the COVID-19 shutdown would not be a problem.

Here’s why. The Wildlife Protection Management (WPM) system is much like a self-serve urgent care center for wild horses. The horses walk up to the Hub, and while feeding on alfalfa, their sex is identified via video, and then the horse is implanted with RFID microchips and contraceptives (for the mares) using low velocity darts triggered by remote-controlled technology. There is no human being physical present in the process.

Within a minute of implanting the RFID chip, the horse’s body temperature and location is readable and documented. From that point forward, each horse has a numeric identity within the system. Wildlife managers can then track the health and fertility status of an individual animal or an entire band anywhere in the world using a smart phone, tablet or desktop computer. Find a complete explanation of WPM’s system here>

This is critical on two fronts. First, regardless of what is happening in the world, including a Black Swan event like the current COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to ethically and effectively control wild horse populations can continue without compromising the safety of people or horses. So instead of wild horses continuing to breed freely this spring and summer due to lack of human-present extenuating circumstances, WPM’s system would enable planned population control efforts to continue unimpeded by stay at home mandates and social distancing.

Second, as scientists continue to see the linkage between human and animal health, there is now a mechanism to remotely monitor specific populations that can carry and spread disease such as horses, bison, deer, and feral hogs. What I mean by this is scientists can easily monitor the health of any wild horse or other animal via an RFID chip remotely implanted using WPM’s system. Any spikes in temperature indicative of illness would be immediately evident when the chip is read. Likewise, a die-off could be detected and investigated to determine why. More on our RFID component of WPM’s system here.

If we have just one lesson to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic it’s this: we can’t depend on past practices to protect us in the future let alone keep populations of wild horses at a manageable level. We must embrace changes that make life better, safer and more humane for all, people and animals. Thank you for reading this post. If you have questions or would like more information, you’ll find my contact information here.

Yours truly, Roch

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