The world’s first system for the humane management of wild and feral animal populations is a labor of love for ranch manager Roch Hart who grew to love the free-roaming bands of horses in his care. The former police detective 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. In his free time, Roch and his team built a prototype of what is now known as the Wildlife Protection Management (WPM) Remote Vaccine Delivery System with the help of engineers, software developers, and robotics experts who have since became co-founders of WPM. Roch’s vision from day one was to create a system that respected both the horses and the habitat. The WPM team has achieved that.
Lux-Writes has been hired to help Roch with the branding, marketing, and PR needed to commercialize the system. I recently sat down with him and am now sharing our conversation with you.
Why do feral animal and wildlife populations have to be managed?
The predators that used to naturally control deer, free-roaming horses, and feral hogs have largely been eliminated. Without predators, these populations grow out of control. 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, humane management, deer and wild horses can continue to live free and feral hogs can be controlled.
Most people have no idea there’s a problem with wild horses.
Wild horses are cherished in America; they are so beautiful! However, left unchecked, their numbers double every five years. 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 of 26,690 horses. 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 loss of habitat for native species is devastating.
How is the wild horse population currently managed?
Traditional method of removing wild horses from the open range include costly, controversial roundups, involving helicopters and traps. This method is labor intensive, is stressful, and dangerous for horses and humans. Post roundup, the ideal situation is for horses to be adopted. But there aren’t enough adopters for the vast numbers of available horses; less than 10% 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.
What is WPM’s Remote Vaccine Delivery System?
WPM’s Remote Vaccine Delivery System is the first humane, high-tech, hands-off 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’s 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. 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 range or tribal land populations. Watch our demo here>
Why are the horses micro-chipped?
Up until now, there’s been no way 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, 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 is the only system in the world that can remotely implant and monitor free-roaming horses with RFID microchips.
WPM is now testing 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. Our pilot program is very encouraging!
How are the contraceptive vaccines delivered to the animals?
The two vaccines used with free-roaming horse populations are PZP and GonaCon™. Both can be administered by dart or injected by hand. Both require yearly booster vaccines to keep the mares from getting pregnant. Both are reversible and allow mares to eturn to active breeding if desired.
The BLM is currently using contraceptives in wild horses. However, they have to roundup the horses to deliver the vaccine. The horses are then gathered again every year for booster shots. This is neither efficient nor humane. Plus, the horses aren’t micro-chipped so there’s no way of knowing which have been vaccinated. Our system, which requires no round-ups, no human touch and micro-chipping for accurate identification, is a much better alternative.
What role do video cameras play in WPM’s Remote Vaccine Delivery System?
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. Finally, our “hidden” cameras provide tons of interesting video of the horses’ social behavior.
There are many dedicated animal advocates who love wild horses who may have concerns about how WPM’s system will affect America’s wild and free-roaming horses. What would you say to them?
WPM respects wild horse advocates who work tirelessly for the rights of the animals. 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 will 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 all advocates to connect with us and subscribe to our newsletter here>
Can WPM’s Remote Vaccine Delivery System be used on other feral or wild animal species?
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 and people to deliver contraceptives and microchips to the animals. It is so much better than what we’re doing today!