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NMSU, Albuquerque Startup Company Testing New Technology To Control Wild Horse Populations

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

Aiding in the rescue, rehabilitation and protection of horses has been a focus of the DePonte family’s philanthropic work for decades. The horse is a majestic animal that for most people conjures up the ideals of beauty and freedom, power and courage, nobility and triumph. Horses are an iconic symbol, their history deeply embedded in the history of mankind and in the foundation of this country. Here in the American Southwest, horses are an ever-present part of life; it’s not uncommon for people here to own horses, to ride them on the trails, in the mountains and through the deserts. Horses are a link to our Wild West roots; they are a welcomed and revered part of our communities as we strive to maintain a connection with the natural world and simpler times.

But these horses that we call our pets, our family, our friends are not the only ones in need of our protection. Throughout the United States, and especially in the American West, wild horses and burros (donkeys), descended from those brought to the continent by the Spanish in the early 1500s, continue to roam free. Despite a shrinking wild habitat and the threat of drought and food shortages, wild horse and burro populations continue to grow, by some estimates at rates of 18-25 percent per year. In 2017, National Geographic stated that over 70,000 wild horses were living on public lands that are estimated to support 27,000 animals. The current estimated population according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the organization responsible for monitoring and controlling the vast majority of these populations on public lands, is more than 95,000 animals.

This unregulated growth of horse and burro populations not only overtaxes the landscape but poses a risk to the health of these animals as they struggle to find adequate nutrition and fight for territory. Additionally, according to the BLM, they will cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion from 2019 to 2023 on efforts to protect wild horse and burro populations on more than 32 million acres of public land. It’s a daunting task, and for decades the BLM has been rounding up wild horses and burros using helicopters and water traps as they struggled to find humane and effective ways to bring the population down. Currently, theses animals go into a holding facility where, unless they are adopted, they will live out the rest of their lives. There are about 50,000 wild horses in captivity, and the BLM estimates each of these horses costs $23,000 over its lifetime. According to an article by ABC News, the bureau has spent nearly $390 million holding horses since 2012.

In response to this growing challenge, an Albuquerque-based startup company, Wildlife Protection Management (WPM), and New Mexico State University are joining forces in an effort to help control the wild horse population in New Mexico. Their efforts focus on developing a humane and effective method for administering contraception to groups of wild mares. Using contraception in wild horse populations is not new, but previous efforts that utilized rifles to shoot darts into the animals from a distance were not always accurate or safe. The contraceptives also require booster shots, which added to the challenge of ensuring the mares were in fact benefiting from the shots.

Former rancher Roch Hart, founder and CEO of WPM, has developed a method that uses food as bait to lure horses in and then delivers a remote contraceptive dart at close range. The new system for contraceptive delivery also allows for identification, disease monitoring and vaccine care for the horses through the use of solar energy and satellites. An RFID (radio frequency identification) component can track and pinpoint a horse’s exact location using WPM’s computerized system. Video of the technology in action, provided by KRQE in Albuquerque, shows that while the dart startles the animal for a moment upon injection, the horse immediately returns to the food, demonstrating that it does not cause undue pain or fear for the animals.

Thanks to a $256,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, WPM will work with New Mexico State University faculty to manage the data they’ve been collecting, the university reports in a news release. They also intend to investigate the use of facial recognition technology to reduce the costs of having to implant every horse with an RFID chip for tracking, the release states.

It is certainly an exciting endeavor, and one that we will be following closely. Many thanks and congratulations to WPM and NMSU for their efforts to help protect these beautiful creatures in New Mexico and beyond!

Interested in reading more about wild horses in the United States? Check out these awesome articles!

N.M. Startup, Wildlife Protection Management, Holds Tech Solution Patent for Roundups and Culls

The History of America’s Wild Horses

The Role of Horses and Burros in the American Southwest

Fertility Control Among Wild Horse Populations

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