NAPA (KPIX 5) — They’re an icon of the American West: wild horses roaming free on public land. KPIX has reported on an amendment to a spending bill in Washington that would allow thousands of them to be humanely euthanized. Part of the problem: adoption rates for mustangs are way down.

wild mustang gather getty images

A helicopter pilot rounds up wild horses. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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Now, wildlife advocates are pushing for birth control as part of the solution.

Mike Kerson and his wife Nancy Kerson still get emotional talking about Ruby, the first wild horse they adopted 17 years ago.

“This is Ruby, this is our first mustang,” said Mike Kerson, introducing us.

“Everywhere we went, all around the fairgrounds, she would be looking at us, it was just uncanny, just like she picked us!” said Nancy Kerson.

It didn’t take long for Ruby to adjust to her new family in their Napa Valley home.

“There’s this moment where all of a sudden you can just see them look at you and they go that’s what you want? Yeah, I can do that. And it’s the most — I mean it gives me goose bumps and it happens! It does happen,” said Mike.

“That moment is so addictive. That is why people end up with too many!” said Nancy.

Sure enough, after Ruby came more wild horses: Sparky, then Benny, then Piney and finally Dawn, the wild burro.

The Kersons paid $125 to adopt Ruby from a holding facility for wild horses in northeastern California, run by the Bureau of Land Management.

Apparently visits from humans are a popular distraction for the 300 mustangs held there. It didn’t take long for a group of young geldings to surround us when we visited, apparently as curious about us as we were about them.

Yet, just a year ago, they were running in terror, chased into captivity by the thundering sound of helicopters, like the wild horses that KPIX photographed recently being rounded up in Utah. It’s a disturbing sight but the BLM says rounding them up to control their numbers is necessary since they have no natural predators on the range.

“If a wild horse herd is left to over-populate it’s going to destroy the rangeland,” said Jeff Fontana with the BLM’s Northern California District.

“Other users like livestock, big game like elk and mule deer and pronghorn also have a place on the range,” said Fontana. “Our challenge is to provide rangeland resources for those various users and keep those resources healthy.”

“I think that the largest lobby on the other side is the ranching contingent,” said Gillian Lyons with the Humane Society of the United States.

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“Most of the uses like ranching or hunting, they are profitable,” said Lyons. “And the agency is looking at these public lands as a way for individuals and the government to make money. But horses aren’t really a profit-making venture.”

The new adminstration is pushing for drastic measures: The Interior Department’s proposed 2018 budget would allow euthanasia of tens of thousands of healthy wild horses.

“They have ignored directives from advocates, from Congress, from the National Academy of Sciences for years to change their management strategy and they never did,” said Lyons. “And they got themselves into this big financial hole, and because they have done this, they want to kill horses to get themselves out of the problem they created. We oppose that.”

Instead, the Humane Society is pushing for birth control.

“We don’t think sterilization is the right answer but we think contraception is definitely the right answer,” said Jim Schnepel with the Wild Horses of America Foundation.

His foundation has been leading the charge on that front.

“It’s not going to be a cure-all, there are definitely going to be herds that are really hard to get to but groups like ours would really like the chance to go out and prove that we can get to these horses,” said Schnepel.

Schnepel’s efforts to use dart guns to inject mares with PZP — a hormone derived from chopped-up pig ovaries — has led to lawsuits from other wild horse advocates who don’t want the mustangs touched at all.

Back in Napa, the Kersons don’t see any easy solutions.

“How many people can actually adopt? I mean it’s a problem,” said Mike.

“Funding has been cut and most of the money is going to feed the horses they have now, which means they can do less range management and they can do less efforts towards adoption, which it becomes a bad spiral,” said Nancy.

“All I know is these are our animals and I just want as many people to know about them as possible, because they are worth saving and if you put the training into them you are going to have an incredible animal,” said Mike.


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