In an uncertain world, it’s those who seek out knowledge who gain not only an understanding of where they are, but where they can safely go.
For Roch Hart, CEO of Wildlife Protection Management, Inc. (WPM), that meant first investigating at how to deliver cost-effective and humane vaccines to wild horses that still roam throughout the United States. Along the way, he also gained useful data that may be a way to prevent zoological diseases that cause pandemics like COVID-19.
“We’re now able to track the individual temperatures of wild horses and recognize a fever that might indicate a sickness spreading in the whole herd,” said Hart. “We anticipate adapting our technology to track the health of wildlife throughout the world, some of which could spread diseases to humans much like what is speculated may have happened with the novel coronavirus.”
At the beginning, Hart, manager of a 22,000-acre ranch teeming with wild horses, first looked at dangerous horse roundups. He saw the stress they had on horses and the amount of money that the federal government was spending on them. In a 2019 report to Congress, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management estimates a cost to taxpayers of $1 billion in the next six years to manage 46,000 wild horses. Hart thought there must be a better way and looked for ways to develop a technology to track and vaccinate wild horses in a safer, more cost-effective way.
“We started with Arrowhead Center’s Technology Incubator and then AgSprint,” said Hart. “We created our first prototype through the work we did there.”
New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center is a business incubator and accelerator. For Hart and WPM, it provided resources needed to grow from an idea into something that was executable.
“Especially in light of COVID-19, which has a possible zoonotic connection, where earlier and more detailed information on diseased animals can possibly save lives, helping WPM develop their prototype through customer analysis showed that it could be a crucial tool for future wildlife management,” said Kathryn Hansen, director of Arrowhead Center. “Through AgSprint and our advisor network, he was able to talk to those who not only worked with wild horses, but those managing larger and different types of wildlife that might have more interaction with humans.”
WPM’s newest prototype, attached to an alfalfa feeding station, shoots radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, vaccines, and contraceptives into the horses as they are feeding. The development was a group effort. Jonathan West worked robotics and computer software. Jaime Pulido worked on the vaccine box, figuring out the pressure of the dart delivery and how to control vaccine temperatures. Frank Drewett managed how to sync the data from the RFID chips, the cameras, and power the feeding station via solar energy.
The technology is now being used on the ranch where Hart works, but it can be adapted to feral pigs, deer and other wild animals. Hart said there’s been interest from various agencies, but those agencies are looking for results from a larger trial. WPM seeks investment to be able to take their product to the next level.
“Wildlife managers from the Centers of Disease Control, USDA, the U.S. Forest Service and others have always been wanting to find a way to detect disease in wildlife before it reached humans or domestic animals,” he said.
In the report, the Bureau of Land Management detailed that if nothing is done to curb annual growth rates of herds, their population would naturally double every four or five years. The number of wild horses and burros on the range could exceed 2.8 million by 2040. While Congress allocated $80 million annually for the efforts from 2011 to 2019, the Bureau of Land Management estimated it needs $116 million next year, growing to $246 million by year seven.
Hart and WPM are already successfully and cost-effectively controlling herd population with a hormonal USDA-created contraceptive vaccine called GonaCon. Even during the COVID-19 crisis, the USDA made special accommodations for WPM to receive the contraceptive, since production had stopped due to the virus.
“Not only is this a humane way to control the population of wild horses, we feel that this will be a way to protect humans from diseases that still run wild in animals, diseases that could spread and cripple our economy and our lives, much like what we’ve seen,” Hart said. “If we track and prevent with vaccines, we could stem the tide of zoonotic transfer before it happens.”