Q&A: Research lead shares his take on BLM’s new Wild Horse and Burro Strategic Research Plan

Man standing under overhang

Dr. Paul Griffin is the National Wild Horse and Burro Program Research Coordinator and leads the agency’s efforts to support management and protection of wild horses and burros through research and development. 

Dr. Griffin and a multi-disciplinary, multi-agency team assessed the Program’s research needs, and worked with wild horse and burro managers and other BLM employees to develop a new Strategic Research Plan that will guide the agency’s research program for wild horses and burros. The BLM has a history of supporting research into cutting-edge technologies, methods, and techniques to improve the management of wild horses and burros, and ultimately their welfare on public lands. The new Strategic Research Plan was published November 16, 2021.

What is the Wild Horse and Burro Strategic Research Plan and why was it developed?

There are a lot of potential scientific advances that could help the BLM. With limited available funds to support research each year, the BLM has to prioritize. In the Strategic Research Plan, the BLM  identified research questions that we think would most immediately improve our agency’s management of these amazing animals.

The last Wild Horse and Burro Strategic Research Plan came out in 2005, and the BLM has supported a lot of research topics that were identified then...things like testing new fertility control methods, improved aerial survey methods, population genetics analyses, and improvements to health and handling. There was also a National Academies of Sciences report in 2013 that, along with Congressional support, prompted the BLM to fund a quite a few research projects. A lot of those studies ended recently, so 2021 is a good time to focus on the next, most important steps for new research.

What is the current state of BLM research for wild horses and burros?

I can’t really mention all the recent work, except to say that the Strategic Research Plan has an appendix that lists all the scientific studies that we know of, related to wild horses and burros in the USA since 2005. That’s not just BLM-funded studies, either. It helps tremendously that other state and federal government agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations have also addressed a wide variety of questions, from fertility control, to population genetics, to ecology, understanding public opinions, and advances in private care placement. We are always looking for and appreciative of partners who want to improve wild horse and burro management with high-quality science. 

Learn more about wild horse and burro research supported by the BLM

How does research help wild horse and burro herds?

The BLM has to balance a lot of demands, and having the best quality science can help the BLM make informed decisions. Scientific studies can indirectly help horse and burro herds in a lot of ways, but most of them have to do with making sure that there are enough natural resources on the public lands to support the wild horses and burros that are there, along with other uses. I want to emphasize that that these places can be very dry – there just isn’t a lot of forage or water to go around, so the BLM has to plan carefully to make sure the landscapes don’t get overgrazed, or the springs trampled and damaged. That’s even more important when we consider drought conditions, like we’ve seen this year and will even more in the future.

Certain aerial survey methods that the US Geological Survey developed and validated are now standard BLM practices, and those lead to pretty accurate measures of herd size. That’s an example of how we translate basic research into management applications that help the BLM make informed judgements about how much forage and water these animals are using, and need. 

What are the most pressing research needs for wild horses and burros?

The most pressing priority for wild horse and burro research today is still the development of longer-lasting fertility control methods for mares. If we could just treat mares once and have the effects last for, say, six to ten years, then we would not need to capture animals so often, or to remove as many from the wild. That would reduce growth rates and costs to taxpayers.

Another, lower priority is for new studies that could accurately predict what will be the new range of natural variation in rainfall and forage production where wild horses and burros live. That could help the BLM calibrate management to meet future climate conditions. Again, the goal is to make sure there will always be enough forage and water resources for the wild horses and burros that are on the public lands, to keep them healthy, and to support the other uses, resources, and species that also live in those habitats.  

What has BLM research accomplished in the past?

So much! And yet not enough... I’m especially thinking of fertility control methods. The BLM would like to be able to use new humane, longer-lasting fertility control methods. One reason that we don’t have better and longer lasting fertility control methods now is that it can take a long time to  see if a new method is safe and effective for such large animals.

Some recently-completed research has already improved fertility control options for wild horses. For example, one study at Colorado State University showed that a fertility control vaccine called GonaCon-Equine can lead to four or more years of contraception after a mare gets a booster shot. Another recently-finished study led by the US Geological Survey and Oklahoma State University showed that a soft, medical-grade silicone intrauterine device can be a safe and effective contraceptive in mares.

There remains a lot more to be done to make longer-lasting fertility control methods available. I know that four years of contraception from GonaCon sounds like a long time, but keep in mind that catching an animal twice to give it two shots means a lot of planning, effort, handling, and thousands of dollars of costs per mare. Herds can grow very fast because mares can live 20 years or more in the wild, they survive at high rates, some have a foal every year or most years, and in most cases the foals have high survival rates, too – that can mean a lot of foals per mare, and then those foals have foals, and so on. So, all those reasons are why the BLM still needs a longer-lasting fertility control method.

What are you looking forward to going forward?

Sharing this Wild Horse and Burro Strategic Research Plan means that scientists can start to think about how their skills and studies could overlap with and inform the BLM’s needs. At the same time, I’m excited the announce that the BLM is currently seeking research proposals to address the high priority topics we discussed today. There are no guarantees in research, but I’d expect that a few years from now we will be able to make BLM’s horse and burro management even better, using results from studies that start in 2022.  

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