Conference Explores Promising Prospects for Wildlife Fertility Control

Yellowstone bison, such as this one, who migrate outside the park are often shot to control the spread of brucellosis. Contraception of bison who may be carriers of the disease could allow them to live. Photo by Aaron Armendariz.The Wild Horse Symposium and 7th International Conference on Fertility Control in Wildlife was held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from August 29 to September 1. Researchers from around the world discussed recent scientific, regulatory, and practical developments in the use of contraceptives to manage wildlife populations in place of traditional lethal methods and as disease-managing tools.

A diverse number of species were discussed, including horses, coyotes, rats, elephants, bison, kangaroos, deer, and even endangered species living in zoos. Several of these species, although cherished in some parts of the world, are seen as pests in others, especially given the expansion of human settlements and resource extraction enterprises into wildlife habitat.

In the United States, deer who stray into roadways and forage in suburban gardens are deemed a nuisance and sometimes culled—even within National Parks—and wild horses are primarily managed by roundups and removals from rangelands, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars and inflict stress and injury on the horses. Meanwhile, kangaroos in Australia have proliferated to the point where locals clamor for sharpshooters to kill them with high powered rifles.

In the midst of this, researchers are working to apply humane solutions to human-wildlife conflicts and improve wildlife fertility control to maximize animal welfare. These humane solutions, when applied, are meeting with great success. Yet in spite of this, wildlife fertility control continues to be very rarely used. So why is there still such disconnect between advances in fertility control and the will to use this technology in wildlife management?

Unfortunately, in most cases, it costs money to initiate fertility control programs. The perception of costs is skewed, however, because it focuses on the short-term budget, not the long-term success of non-lethal control. Conversely, lethal control often generates up-front revenue, whether this involves trophy hunting of African elephants, slaughtering kangaroos in Australia to produce hides for foreign markets, or selling licenses in the United States to hunt deer.

The potential effect on hunting license revenues may be one reason state fish and game agencies in the United States resist the use of wildlife contraception—and why representatives from such agencies were conspicuously absent from this year’s fertility conference. Some states are even amending their constitutions to ensure that hunting is declared the preferred method of management—not only protecting revenue but reinforcing a cultural preference for hunting—even over more effective solutions.

In spite of the social, political, economic, and cultural barriers, animal welfare supporters and scientists working on this research are hopeful. Where once wildlife fertility control efforts were confined to the United States, today groups in South Africa, Belgium, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and China have mounted serious research programs aimed at evaluating the potential of wildlife fertility control as a viable alternative to lethal methods. And while some U.S. states are attempting to impede the use of fertility control in wildlife management, others are allowing contraceptive use under experimental permits. Hopefully, the growing body of evidence that wildlife contraception can be an effective and humane way to keep wildlife populations in check will outweigh the notion that killing is the only way to “manage” such populations down to size.