A Maryland model

April 18, 2005

HAVING SPENT most of his long career in Montana, Jay Kirkpatrick knows some folks out West find the wild horse roundups he performs on Assateague Island peculiar.

Slogging through the marshy muck, searching with binoculars to identify scores of animals at long distance, he spends hours lining up just the right shots to send darts bearing contraceptive vaccine into the unsuspecting rumps of grazing mares. Then there's the glamorous business of trailing behind his targets gathering urine and fecal samples for pregnancy tests.

No lassos, no wranglers, no helicopters herding terrified equines into pens. Mr. Kirkpatrick is more gynecologist than cowboy. And yet the method he developed for managing wild horse populations is cheaper, more effective and far more humane than gathering up excess horses and trucking them off as they do out West.

Assateague now serves as a model for how the federal government can succeed at its conflicting missions of protecting wild horses on the Western range while ensuring their numbers don't grow too large for the allotted space. The intimacy of the island setting can't easily be duplicated, but the birth control techniques can and should be.

Yet today, the Bureau of Land Management is experimenting only with a relatively modest contraception program -- about 800 horses a year out of a total 37,000 -- limited by budget, restrictions on use of the vaccine and Western culture. If Congress doesn't actively encourage and facilitate a more aggressive effort, the 8,400 captive horses the bureau is trying to shed will be replaced again and again.

Had the BLM instituted fertility controls 30 years ago when Mr. Kirkpatrick first suggested it, the agency wouldn't now be frantically seeking homes for thousands of horses that otherwise may be sold for slaughter.

Contraception is hardly an overnight solution, though. Even in Assateague, where Mr. Kirkpatrick has been working with the National Park Service for more than a decade to manage horses on the Maryland side of the barrier island, the 155-horse herd is not yet small enough to protect sensitive vegetation and habitat. Officials are considering a one-time removal of up to 60 animals to get the numbers down quicker, but Mr. Kirkpatrick hopes the aging herd will have shrunk sufficiently by the time such a transfer could be approved.

Foals are sold off once a year on the Virginia end of Assateague, where the wild ponies -- as they are called there -- are privately owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and managed more like domestic animals.

That practice rankles purists, though, who contend wild horses are healthiest and happiest if allowed to roam with minimal interference.

Granted, Mr. Kirkpatrick's method is hard work, and in the West it won't eliminate the need for an ambitious, smartly marketed adoption program.

The rewards of such toil were obvious, though, at the end of a long day spent thigh-high in muck, when Mr. Kirkpatrick could gaze across a beachy landscape where work horses evolved over centuries into small, shaggy creatures of the marsh -- wild as the egrets, free as the deer -- and know he's helping keep them that way forever.

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