The predators that used to naturally control deer, free-roaming horses, and feral hogs have largely been eliminated. Without predators, these populations grow rapidly and habitats become crowded. Deer in urban areas are involved in numerous accidents with motor vehicles. Overgrazing by horses damages rangelands leaving little forage for themselves and other wildlife. Feral hogs do billions of dollars in damage to agriculture each year, and have been responsible for killing horses and even people. With thoughtful, effective management, deer and wild horses can continue to live free and feral hogs can be controlled.
Wild horses are cherished in America; they are beautiful and majestic animals. However, left unchecked by a lack of predators, their numbers can double every five years. Already, there are too many free-roaming horses, which is having a devastating effect on the nation’s rangelands and land owned by Native American tribes. In 2019, the Bureau of Land Management had approximately 88,000 horses on the open range—more than 60,000 over the allowed maximum level (AML) of 26,690 horses. The AML represents the number of horses that can thrive in balance with other public land resources and uses. Free-roaming horses also live on land owned or managed by other government and tribal entities, bringing the actual number to around 300,000. The impact on the environment and subsequent loss of habitat for native species is devastating.
Traditional methods of removing wild horses from the open range include costly, controversial roundups involving helicopters and traps. These methods are labor intensive, cause intense stress to the horses, and are dangerous for horses and humans. Post roundup, the ideal situation is for horses to be adopted; indeed the popularity of competitions like “Mustang Makeover” have demonstrated the appeal and versatility of these horses among equine enthusiasts. But the number of adopters does not address the vast numbers of available horses; less than 10% of captured horses are adopted each year. Those not adopted are kept in holding pens and fed by the federal government. In 2018, the U.S. government spent more than $80 million on these efforts and just approved spending more than $100 million in 2020.
WPM’s Remote Wildlife Vaccine Delivery System is the first humane, high-tech system created to manage free-roaming horses and other species in a manner that respects the animal and habitat. The system includes a feeding Hub the horses enter under their own free will. Video cameras are used to identify the sex of the individual horses. While the horse is feeding, it is injected with low-velocity darts—an RFID microchip that gives the horse a unique identity and enables tracking, and if the horse is a female, a contraceptive that keeps her from becoming pregnant for a year. The process does not stress the horses; they freely return to enjoy the alfalfa in the Hub on a regular basis and “check in” with their RFID microchip. WPM’s system is safer, more effective and less costly than roundups. It’s also easier to scale to address individual bands of horses or entire rangeland or tribal land populations. Learn more about our technology here.
Up until now, there has been no way for the BLM to accurately identify individual horses other than photos, sketches or memory. So while contraceptives have been delivered to free-roaming horses, either by hand or via sharp shooters, there is no definitive record of what horses have been vaccinated or when boosters are needed. To implement and maintain an effective, safe, ongoing contraception-based population management program, each animal that receives a vaccine must be identified. This helps insure individual animals are not over nor under vaccinated. It also allows for tracking, health monitoring, and data collection that can support research and resource allocation. The BLM does administer RFID chips in some horses, but to do so the horses must first be rounded up for micro chipping and recaptured for identification. WPM implants the RFID microchip in the triceps muscle of the horse in a vertical position. This keeps the microchip in place and easy to read. WPM is the only system in the world that can remotely implant and monitor free-roaming horses with RFID microchips.
WPM can also implant microchips programmed to read a horse’s temperature. This is important since many diseases have accompanying fevers and recognizing an emerging disease early could help prevent the spread to other horses, wildlife, domestic animals, and humans. Thus far, our pilot program is very encouraging!
The two vaccines used with free-roaming horse populations are PZP and GonaCon™. Both can be administered by dart or hand. PZP is traditionally administered to the rear muscle group of the horse. The rear muscle group is the largest and therefore presents the biggest target for dart guns. GonaCon can be administered into any muscle group. The WPM system is designed to deliver vaccines to a horse’s triceps muscles, which some veterinarians believe is more advantageous in terms of dispersal in the horse’s system. We are working to secure approval to administer PZP to this alternative location.
Currently there are two contraceptive vaccines used for free-roaming horses: PZP and GonaCon™. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) governs these vaccines. Both vaccines are immunocontraceptives. PZP is a single-year vaccine that activates the female horse’s immune system to block reproduction by producing antibodies that bind to the membrane surrounding the egg, thus blocking fertilization and pregnancy. GonaCon™ is a single–shot, multi-year vaccination that stimulates the production of antibodies that bind to a hormone in the brain that controls the production of important reproductive hormones. GonaCon™ can also work in males, but given the magnitude of the horse population, only mares have been targeted. PZP is manufactured and controlled by the HSUS while GonaCon is a USDA-manufactured product.
PZP must be kept in a temperature-controlled environment and used within 48 hours. GonaCon lasts up to six months in a temperature-controlled environment. WPM’s system includes solar-powered refrigerated storage to ensure the potency of the contraceptive vaccines.
Both vaccines are reversible and allow mares to become pregnant again. With PZP, mares go into estrus each month. With GonaCon, they do not. Currently, both vaccines require short-term and booster vaccines to keep the mares from getting pregnant. Reversibility is important as it allows mares to return to active breeding if desired.
Our video cameras play several important roles. They are automatically triggered when horses approach the Hub and capture video in regular sunlight as well as after dark. Cameras are positioned at low angles to allow the determination of a horse’s sex. Other cameras are focused on the forequarters of the horse while in the hub to verify micro chipping and vaccination. The video is also used to monitor injection sites. All video can be archived. The video can also be used to support facial recognition technology, a project WPM is working on with Sandia National Labs. Finally, our “hidden” cameras provide tons of interesting video of the horses’ social behavior.
WPM’s Remote Vaccine Delivery System is a labor of love for former police detective turned ranch manager Roch Hart who grew to love the free-roaming bands of horses in his care. Roch spent hours observing their social behavior and chronicling their lives through photography. However, as a ranch manager he also saw the damage occurring to the habitat due to overpopulation of the horses. Roch assembled a team of talented engineers, software developers, and robotics experts who became co-founders of WPM. They built a prototype of the Remote Wildlife Vaccine Delivery System that is now the most humane system available in the world to deliver contraceptives to horses. From day one, it was this team’s goal to create a humane system that respected both the horses and the habitat. The WPM team has achieved that.
WPM welcomes the input from wild horse advocates. Our system allows the horses to continue to live free and for the mares, without the burden of constant pregnancies. Should the WPM be widely implemented, there may no longer be a need for roundups! We also believe our system can be used to support adoption efforts by identifying and promoting the younger, most adoptable horses that will visit the WPM Hubs and subsequently be filmed and micro-chipped. WPM invites you to connect with us and subscribe to our newsletter here.
Our system can be adapted to humanely manage many other animal species whose populations are growing out of control and are difficult to manage using traditional means. This includes feral hogs, deer, camels, and kangaroos. Just as with free-roaming horses, our system relies on technology rather than the stress of roundups to deliver contraceptives and microchips to the animals. And, animals no longer have to be rounded up or chased to deliver contraceptive booster shots. Surgical sterilization is not necessary either!