By Betsy Simon, Cody Enterprise
Dazzle was no fool.
Sensing an approach by humans Thursday, the chocolate brown mare on the McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area east of Cody slipped past BLM wild horse specialist Tricia Hatle and volunteer Ada Inbody of Cody, avoiding a dose of birth control during a field darting session.
“We’ve been working on her and figured if she was close today, we might be able to get her,” Hatle said, adding that her goal is to get the birth control to Dazzle by September.
In addition to patience, field darting requires Hatle and Inbody to incorporate themselves into a herd and scope out a horse that hasn’t been treated with birth control to help keep down the wild horse population.
All information on the horses is tracked using a photo database and description of each animal.
Once an untreated horse is found, Hatle prepares the shot for Inbody to administer with a dart gun, aiming at the horse’s backside.
“You need to be 20-40 yards away from the horses to get the best shot with the dart gun,” Hatle says. “It’s a little dart that pops in and out of the horse’s rump, but we only take a shot if we know the horse won’t know it was us. They are smart animals and if they know we did it, they won’t let a human near them next time.
“We need them to think it’s a horse nearby or a fly, so that’s why it can take so long to do this. We have to wait for the perfect opportunity – it takes patience.”
There is always a chance a dart could hit a stud or an unintended horse or human. But Inbody, a regular Annie Oakley, makes sure that won’t happen.
“I never miss,” she says.
In cases like Thursday where no shot is taken, the darts must be used within 48 hours.
Darts cannot be reused and the birth control, which is made in Billings, is pricey at $24 per dose.
If a shot isn’t going to be a sure thing, as it wasn’t Thursday, Hatle said they simply try later.
The BLM started using field darting in 2011 and it’s a process that seems to be working to administer the birth control and manage the wild horse population.
About 65 mares receive the birth control annually, which is a mixture of shredded pig ovaries that blocks sperm from reaching the horse’s eggs.
And Hatle said it seems to be working.
In 2009, a total of 46 foals were born. That figure dropped to 14 in 2012.
Hatle says she speaks to groups about the BLM’s field darting work to make the public aware of the practice.
“We’ve been reported by people before for shooting the horses, so we just want to make people aware of what we’re doing,” she said.
Where other herds in the state are tracked with helicopter gathering, Sarah Beckwith, public relations specialist for the BLM, said the McCullough Peaks herd is the only one in Wyoming where helicopter gathering is not used with the wild horses.
“When you have a large herd, helicopter gathering is the most humane and safe way to move the horses,” Beckwith says. “But this is an unusual site, where the horses are intimately tracked, and field darting works here.”
An appropriate adult wild horse population that balances public resources and uses is 70-140 horses, according to the BLM.
Hatle said it’s best to keep the McCullough Peaks adult herd at about 100 to maintain the herd, so field darting takes place seven days a week,
Earlier this year the BLM completed a bait trap removal of 20 wild mustangs and seven domestic horses from the McCullough Peaks. The trapped horses were put up for adoption.
Hatle says it’s easier to track the horses in the summer because they congregate near water sources, which are limited later in the year.
Hatle says the shots last 9-12 months, so the BLM can adjust how birth control is delivered in case the herd size needs to grow.
The birth control treatments won’t always stop pregnancies from occurring, though, as shown by the recent birth of a foal named Lansa.
Inbody says the injections don’t harm the fetuses, but give the horses a better quality of life.
“This is the best and most humane form of birth control for the horses,” she says. “The mares are nursing their foals longer now and they aren’t lactating or foaling every year, and it’s amazing how good and healthy they look.”