BLM Resurrects Cruel Plan to Sterilize Wild Mares

Lisa Grant

Wild Horse & Burro Specialist

BLM Burns District Office

28910 Hwy 20 West

Hines, OR 97738

Dear Ms. Grant, 

On behalf of The Cloud Foundation (TCF), a 501(c)3 non-profit and our hundreds of thousands of supporters throughout the United States, we would like to thank you for the opportunity to comment on DOI-BLM-ORWA-B050-2019-0013-EA.

Experimental research involving wild horse mares, especially in the unsterile Burns Corrals facility, is unconscionable. It is particularly abhorrent when the research is invasive and likely lethal for some of the mares. Frankly, this proposed animal cruelty should never have seen the light of day, and the plug should be pulled immediately on this type of unnecessary, dangerous, abusive and inhumane “research” before even one wild mare is mangled by misguided intentions.

Safety Concerns regarding Mare Sterilization Research

Procedural Concerns

Ovariectomies have been shown to have a high complication rate under sterile conditions and ovariectomies via colpotomy are even more suspect. According to the University of Kentucky,

“Although effective, the procedure can be accompanied by a high rate of complications (approximately 4% in one study [5]) due primarily to excessive hemorrhage from the ovarian pedicle, and such complications were described in the NRC report [1] as severely limiting application of ovariectomy through a colpotomy approach in addressing the needs for controlling fertility in wild equids.” (Article can be found here)

The Burns Corrals facilities are not sterile, and thus the procedural risks are even higher than the already demonstrable risks of performing the procedure in a clean hospital environment. In our research for these comments, we contacted expert equine veterinarian Don Moore, who stated that many professional veterinarians would not even considerovariectomy via colpotomy as an option.

In private practice, colpotomy is considered an inferior procedure with likelihood of post-surgical infections and complications (i.e. colic) especially in unsterile conditions. Post-operative care usually lasts several days to often weeks and mares are in most cases monitored in box stalls or cross ties, which cannot be accomplished with wild mares.” 

Dr. Don Moore, Expert Equine Veterinarian

In an article for Practical Horseman, Dr. Peter Knox, DVM explicitly warns against the dangers of this type of ovariectomy, stating “I do not recommend an ovariectomy procedure called a colpotomy. This is done “blindly” (without a laparoscope) through the vagina. Even when performed by very experienced surgeons, it has an increased risk of accidental injury to other organs, bleeding and post-surgical colic.” (emphasis added)

 TCF’s own equine veterinarian, Dr. Lisa Jacobson, also expressed serious concern about ovariectomy via colpotomy, fearing that complications (infection, bleeding from a severed artery, prolapse of the intestines), would most likely result in death for at least some of the mares. 

 In addition, Rolfe M. Radcliffe, DVM and Section Chief of the Large Animal Surgery and Emergency Critical Care at Cornell University, one of the most prestigious veterinary colleges in the United States, concluded the following:

 “I would have significant reservations about performing this technique in wild equids for several reasons. First, colpotomy involves removal of both ovaries through penetration of the craniolateral vaginal cavity. This is potentially dangerous in any domestic horse, much less wild horses where response to sedatives and analgesics would be less predictable and pain induced movement more dramatic. Second, this procedure is done blindly based upon palpation alone and not visualization which increases the risk of inadvertent injury and complications. Third, serious complications include fatal hemorrhage, damage to other abdominal structures, infection of the peritoneal cavity, eventration or herniation of intestinal structures through the surgical site in the vagina, abdominal adhesions, serious rectal or vaginal injury, abscess formation, etc... Fourth, the ability to safely and adequately restrain a wild horse, and the less predictable response to sedative drugs make this procedure more challenging in wild horses. Lastly, this method of reproductive control would be difficult to sustain, and fraught with concerns about animal welfare.

 I believe other methods of reproductive population control are possible in horses, including the use of vaccines to prevent ovulation.” 

 If this evidence isn’t enough, it should be noted that in 2015, Oregon veterinarian Leon Pielstick conducted this very procedure on 5 burros and 1 domestic mare, the mare died of evisceration, one burro bled to death. Three burros required extensive postoperative care in order to survive, according to the American Wild Horse Campaign, and several of those three died post-surgery likely due to infection, according to Citizens Against Equine Slaughter. With a 20%+ mortality rate AND a 50% morbidity* rate, moving forward with such a plan is unthinkable. (*Morbidity is defined in this EA as “the frequency of the appearance of complications following a surgical procedure or other treatment”)

It took just a few short hours to find numerous examples of testimony from experienced equine veterinarians stating that ovariectomy via colpotomy is an inherently dangerous procedure that should be avoided, especially on wild mares. To perform the surgery in a non-sterile facility on a wild animal is obviously irresponsible and cruel. This leaves us, quite frankly, astounded that BLM continues to attempt such a dangerous and inhumane study when significant concerns from equine veterinary experts are in evidence. 

Return to the range and herd dynamics

We are deeply concerned that mares who have suffered through this procedure will be released only a week post-op without adequate aftercare, putting them at danger of infection, mortality, and morbidity.

Ovariectomy comes with a high risk of changing the behavior of a mare. Reactions depend on the individual, and while it’s possiblea mare may continue to have a normal estrus cycle, it is likelythat this procedure will result in one of three behavioral changes: the mare will not experience estrus at at all, she will continue to experience estrus irregularly, or she will “appear to be permanently in estrus” (according to The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.) 

Any one of these changes are sure to change the dynamics of the herd, since the success of the stallion’s invitation to breed is dictated by the estrus-pattern of mares. If a mare shows no sign of estrus behavior, she will likely not be receptive to the stallion’s breeding invitation, possibly resulting in frustration of both the stallion and the mare. (Article about behavioral changes in ovariectomized mares;Article on reproductive behavior of stallions

On the other hand, mares that end up sterilized, but in permanent estrus tend to be bred continuously by stallions. Mares with this reaction (called “teaser” mares) are frequently used to stimulate stallions for artificial insemination programs and for breeding soundness exams. In post-op wild mares, repetitive breeding can lead to physical damage, re-opening the vaginal incision and introducing infection, hemorrhage and/or evisceration. These mares will not have completely healed from surgery before being released into the wild and will be exposed to the traumatic and painful experience of being bred over and over again. 

If private practice veterinarians feel uncomfortable performing this procedure on domestic mares in sterile conditions with substantial postoperative supervision, we cannot fathom how the BLM could contemplate putting wild mares through the trauma of this procedure, particularly in a non-sterile environment. In a wild setting the procedure will present even greater opportunity for infection, with little to no postoperative observation and no protection from repeated stallion breeding. Wild horses should not be used as guinea pigs. This practice will endanger the mares and inflict untold, unnecessary suffering.

Sterilized herds

A U.S. District Court Judge has already struck down the approach of creating sterile herds of wild horses. 

The Defendants decision to manage the herd as entirely non-reproducing is arbitrary and capricious. The BLM failed to consider the impacts of maintaining the herd as non-reproducing and whether those impacts were consistent with the requirement that the herd maintains its free-roaming behavior.”

United States District Court for the District of Idaho, Case No. 1:16-cv-00001-EJL, Memorandum Order, Pg. 40. 

Sterilizing an entire population will lead to local extirpation, and in addition, permanently eliminating genetically unique lines jeopardizes the genetic viability of wild horse and burro populations and could cause inbreeding.  Isn’t the creation of sterilized herds the definition of “managing to extinction” and the very antithesis of managing “healthy, self-sustaining herds”? Spaying wild mares does not align with the 1971 WFRHBA and seriously risks the permanent disappearance of America’s beloved Wild and Free-Roaming equids. 

Furthermore, professional veterinarians agree that mass experimental surgeries performed on wild mares amounts to negligence and abuse. 

“Any veterinarian(s) who would perform these experiments is in violation of the oath taken as a graduating veterinarian, ‘above all else, do no harm.’ If a veterinarian in private practice performed these procedures in the manner described in this document, they would most certainly be reported to and disciplined by the regulatory board of that state. Disciplined would likely mean suspension of that veterinarian’s license to practice in that state.”

Dr. Don Moore, Expert Equine Veterinarian 

Healthy Self-Sustaining Herds

Currently over 70% of wild horse herds are managed at the arbitrary and unscientific, “appropriate management levels” (AML) which the National Academy of Sciences has deemed “not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change.” The low appropriate management levels set for these herds endanger the genetic viability of the animals. Use of permanent sterilization as a method of population control will further endanger the future of North American Wild Horses, ensuring their eventual extinction.

The implementing regulation 43 C.F.R. § 4700.0-6(a) requires that activities affecting wild horses and burros shall be undertaken with the goal of maintaining free-roaming behavior. Sterilization destroys those aspects of wild horse behavior, developed over millions of years of evolutionary history in North America. A Judge in the US District Court of Idaho ruled that sterilization removes an animal’s ability to be wild, in essence destroying the essence of the animal: 

“… preventing births and reproductive capacity of the horses alters wild horse behaviors and the social structure of the herd. …. The NAS Report concluded that ‘absence of young horses itself would alter the age structure of the population and could thereby affect harem dynamics.’ …. Accordingly, the Court concludes the Defendants have violated NEPA by failing to take a hard look at these important aspects of its decision and failing to disclose and analyze the NAS Report in the FEIS.”

Case No. 1:16-cv-00001-EJL. United States District Court for the District of Idaho, 2017. Pg. 21-23.

The implementing regulations require that “wild horses and burros shall be managed as self-sustaining populations of healthy animals in balance with other uses and the productive capacity of their habitat.” 43 C.F.R.§ 4700.0-6(a). “. . .activities affecting wild horses and burros shall be undertaken with the goal of maintaining free roaming behavior.” Id. at § 4700.0-6(c). Sterilization of these animals does nothonor either implementing regulation. 

Alternative Solutions

Experimentation on wild horse mares is not needed. What isneeded is a commitment to use the safe, reversible fertility vaccine PZP or PZP-22 which is being used successfully in numerous HMAs lucky enough to have enlightened, intelligent, and forward-thinking BLM managers. 

The BLM has received repeated offers of volunteer support to aid in developing effective fertility control programs but has more often than not shortsightedly ignored such offers of help. In HMAs where volunteers and BLM staff work together to implement fertility control, such as McCullough Peaks and the Pryor Mountain WHR, the population of the herds have been kept in check so that birth and death rates are roughly equal. The need for traumatic removals and cruel surgical procedures does not exist. 

In a recent conversation with Dr. John Turner of the University of Toledo Medical College, we learned that PZP-22 is now dartable and is ready for mass production. It is a very promising contraceptive with longer-term effects on wild mares. We question why this kind of research is not the BLM’s focus, rather than the invasive experimental sterilization of wild mares that has been proven to 1) needlessly inflict pain and 2) result in life-threatening complications.

According to Dr. Turner, PZP-22 has a 40% rate of effectiveness after the first application. However, after a second application, there is a demonstrated 90+% rate of efficacy for at least 5 years. The advantage of this humane, reversible fertility control is that it protects the genetic viability and variability of our “healthy, self-sustaining herds” as mandated in the 1971 WFRHBA, if treated mares are rotated. 

Humane fertility control is largely misrepresented in this EA. PZP-22 iscost-effective, perhaps even more so than surgical sterilization. The financial advantage of this contraceptive is that the cost of a dose (both the primer and booster) are subject to the economies of scale. According to Turner, if PZP-22 was ordered by the thousands of doses, each dose (both primer and booster) would cost only $117 per dose.

By contrast, the costs of the ovariectomy procedure remain the same (no discount based on number of surgeries performed) and could rise exponentially as more mares are treated (cost of caring for recovering mares, injuries, “human euthanasia”, medications, etc.) Surgical sterilization also presents the logistical problem of being unable to rise to scale. On an HMA with hundreds of mares, performing hundreds of ovariectomies is completely unfeasible without a fleet of veterinarians and techs to provide aftercare and observation. This should demonstrate to any logical mind, that along with its ethical and biological problems, ovariectomy is not cost-effective and a negligent expenditure of tax-dollars.  

The Cloud Foundation strongly urges the BLM and all government agencies dealing with wild horses to abandon research plans involving sterilization of wild horses and immediately pursue sustainable, ethical, economic and humane methods which are already available and supported by the National Academies of Science.

Meaningful observations

If the BLM insists on proceeding with this misguided and inhumane experiment on ovariectomy via colpotomy, the BLM should at least provide the public with a meaningfulopportunity to observe and document the experiment, and in particular should improve the visibility of the mares during and after surgery. 

Notably, this is not the first time that BLM has decided to experiment on ovariectomy via colpotomy and to restrict the public’s right to observe and document this government activity. In 2016 and 2018, the BLM decided to undertake very similar experiments involving ovariectomy via colpotomy as well as two other surgical sterilization procedures. Because these experiments presented grave risks to wild horses, I worked with a coalition of wild horse advocates to request that the BLM provide an opportunity for the public to observe and document the experiment. 

When the BLM denied two such requests and stated its intention to proceed with its inhumane experiments behind closed doors, I worked with the same coalition of wild horse advocates to file lawsuits challenging BLM’s decision as an arbitrary abuse of the agency’s discretion and a violation of the constitutional rights of myself and others. In the face of these legal claims, the BLM abandoned the earlier experiments. I am attaching the declaration that I submitted in that legal proceeding to these comments, in which I explain the importance of meaningful public observation and documentation of these experiments.

Inexplicably, the BLM has again decided to resurrect this ill-founded and inhumane experiment on ovariectomy via colpotomy. And although the BLM is allowing limited public observation and recording, the designated observation points as shown in appendix E of the EA do not give observers a chance to make meaningful observations. The observation point within the working area allows observers to only view the side of the chute, which is completely closed and seals the mare from the outside. The veterinarian would further block observers’ view of the mare during the surgery, leaving virtually no ability to view the mare or the procedure. 

The best spot to observe the surgery would be at the back of the chute, looking down into the chute from a higher angle. To provide meaningful observation, we insist that a camera be installed from this higher point looking into the back of the chute which records and live-streams all surgeries and provides clear audio and video of the live procedure. 

The recovering pens designated for the post-op mares right are not visible from the observation point. Not only do the fences and chute block views of the pens, the observation point and the pens are also a long distance apart from one another. As seen in appendix E of the EA, picture C, the observation point does not allow visitors to look at either the center, the far left or the far right of the pens and does not provide meaningful observations.

Given the wild nature of the mares, it is likely that they will want to recover in the calmest place: far back, away from human activity, or all the way in the front, close to the outside.  It is unacceptable that the observation point for observing the recovery pens inside the working barn are not suitable for providing meaningful observations. The public must be allowed to fully observe the recovery of these mares, and we insist cameras are installed in both the front and back of the recovery pens recording and live-streaming the recovery of all the mares 24 hours a day, for the full recovery time. 

Lastly, the recovery pens outside the barn are too far removed from the “Auto Tour” road. Wild horses will likely not recover near the fences on the roadside but will instead choose to stay as far from human noise and interference as possible. Visibility from the “Auto Tour” road is limited, and it is unacceptable that the BLM has not provided for truly meaningful observation of these mares post-surgery. Cameras must be installed in all outside pens providing complete vision on the recovering mares, recording and live-streaming for 24 hours a day, during the full recovery time. 

We have no doubt that the BLM’s true motivation for restricting observation is to prevent audio-visual evidence of the ghastly and inhumane ovariectomy procedure truly is that it does not want the public to be able to disseminate accurate video evidence of how ghastly and inhumane a procedure ovariectomy via colpotomy truly is. However, the agency’s desire to shield its decisions from public oversight is not a rational or legitimate basis for a restriction on the public’s right to observe its own government agency in action.

Because the BLM’s restriction on observation of this brutal experiment has no legitimate basis and infringes on the public’s rights, we request that the agency provide full visibility of all mares during the surgery and in the recovery pens through live-streaming and recording 24 hours a day until the mares are released back into the wild.

We urge that our comments will be taken in consideration. We hope the BLM will seriously reconsider the feasibility, humanity, sustainability and cost-effectiveness of this experiment, and will recognize other applicable tools to manage wild horse populations that do meet above criteria. 

Kind Regards,

Ginger Kathrens

Founder and Executive Director, The Cloud Foundation

Dana Zarrello