Tuesday, January 8, 2013

And now a word from Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick!

It's 2013, already. Happy New Year to all! I've been busy with new projects, but I'm so pleased to hear from a lot of people that they're enjoying reading Wild Horse Scientists. One really great thing is that I've gotten to know (in the cyberspace way) T.J. Holmes (see December post below), who writes a wonderful blog here about some wild horses in the area of southwestern Colorado where she lives. This sagebrush desert land has the wonderful name (for a storyteller like me) of Disappointment Valley, but to the BLM, it's also the Spring Creek Basin Wild Horse Management Area. T.J. chronicles these wild horses in words and lovely photographs, but she's also actively involved in work that may help to ensure their continued survival, because as one of Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick's trained army of volunteers, she darts selected mares of this herd with the contraceptive vaccine PZP. Another exciting thing is that T.J. is working with others to help educate young people about the dilemma of wild horses in the western U.S., and was therefore happy to discover my book. It could be a good teaching tool for middle schoolers, so I'm grateful to have made this connection with T.J. Look for a guest post from her soon!

But in the meantime, I'm pleased to give you a guest post from Jay Kirkpatrick, the scientist responsible for the success of PZP. Wild horses in America are the center of a complicated, hotly-debated controversy, and he has written eloquently of that dilemma elsewhere. He could write a book on this subject (and I think he should! Actually, he did write one, back in 1994 (Into the Wind), which I highly recommend if you can find it. It's lovely and informative. But here is a brief update from Jay, director of the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana, developer of the PZP vaccine. Thanks so much, Jay!

The work of the Science and Conservation Center (SCC) is focused on the non-lethal control of wildlife populations, through fertility control, with particular emphasis on horses.  To that end the SCC produces the vaccine and trains people to use it properly.  Certain wild horse populations are being managed through fertility control for the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, wild horse sanctuaries, preserves, and various Native American tribes.

Use of the fertility control vaccine PZP for wild horses has increased slowly over the past 25 years, but not as fast as it might have, largely because of the social, cultural, economic and political forces that oppose this approach.  Often who uses the vaccine and who doesn’t depends on the progressiveness of thinking among local wild horse managers, and less on policies.  This places much of the work for moving this form of management outside the purview of science.

The SCC also manages some urban deer populations, many zoo animals, free-roaming African elephants and bison with the contraceptive vaccine and it is interesting that this world-wide effort had its birth on the marshes of Assateague Island National Seashore so many years ago. 

The SCC also engages in some research activities.  One project is the testing of a recombinant form of the vaccine (rZP) as an effective booster inoculation.  If rZP works, it will expand the ability to treat many more animals.  Production of the native PZP at the SCC is a time consuming, labor-intensive endeavor and if the rZP works, the SCC would only have to produce primer doses (the initial dose) and that would increase dramatically the number of animals that could be treated.  Other research includes species’ differences in the response of the PZP vaccine. For example, some recent research shows that it is much more effective in species of the goat and sheep families than in other mammals.

But, wild horses will remain the primary focus of work at the SCC.  

For more, here's a video interview with Jay (it's worth sitting through the commercial, I think. If any tech-savvy reader knows how to cut that from the clip, please let me know!):

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