N.D. national park to test birth control on horsesOfficials in western North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park plan to test the use of birth control in wild horses in the hope of eventually ending roundups that can be costly and unsafe.
By: By Blake Nicholson, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — Officials in western North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park plan to test the use of birth control in wild horses in the hope of eventually ending roundups that can be costly and unsafe.
The park’s horses will be rounded up next month and about 90 of them sold at public auction Oct. 23. Auctions have been used in the past to control the park’s herd size. This time, another 25 mares will be given a contraceptive to prevent pregnancy and released back into the park
The experiment will compare the vaccinated horses’ pregnancy rate to that of a control group of 25 non-vaccinated mares to see how well the birth control works. But even if it works, Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said, it will have to go through a policy change process to become permanent.
“We would have to do environmental planning on that and likely have public comment,” Naylor said Thursday. “That’s three years down the road when the research is complete.”
Still, Naylor said effective contraceptives could eliminate expensive roundups that can be traumatic for the animals and sometimes unsafe for people. Two years ago, a helicopter used to herd horses into corrals crashed. The pilot and a park biologist suffered minor injuries.
The park has about 165 wild horses. Officials say the ideal population is between 60 and 90.
This will be the first time the park’s horses will be injected with a contraceptive, but the herd control method is not new. Federal agencies including the National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have used contraceptives in wild horses in such places as the Carson National Forest in New Mexico and the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland.
“It just makes good sense to assess the viability of a tool like this, and if it proves to be a good one, to use it,” Naylor said.
Some horse breeders believe the horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are descendants of horses owned by the Plains Indians. They call the breed Nokota and are dedicated to its preservation.
Park officials say it is impossible to prove or disprove the Nokota theory because samples of horse genetics from the pre-settler days do not exist. The park says the horses came from ranch stock running loose in the North Dakota Badlands when the park was fenced in the 1950s. The animals were kept in the park as a “demonstration” herd, so the public could see free-roaming horses similar to those in the days when Roosevelt ranched in the Badlands.
Naylor said the park has not had any complaints about the contraceptives plan from breeders who buy the horses put up for auction, nor does the park feel obligated to continue supplying them with stock.
“We maintain them as a historic demonstration herd,” she said. “We’re not trying to raise them for sale.”
Bob Fjetland runs a Nokota breeding operation near Welch, Minn., with his wife, Deb, and comes to Theodore Roosevelt National Park for horse auctions. Breeders have many other sources of stock and view the park’s efforts to keep the herd at a manageable size as the responsible thing to do, he said.
“I think the park is being very proactive in how they’re going about it,” he said.