The group Friends of Animals spent 22 minutes Thursday morning in the lobby of the Bureau of Land Management Montana-Dakotas state office protesting the agency’s proposal to gather 25 adoptable young horses from the Pryor Mountain wild horse herd.
With an audible boost from of a pair of bullhorns, members from Connecticut to California made comments, demanded a meeting with Jim Sparks, manager of the Billings field office, and then delivered a certificate of sorts — the “Worst Federal Agency Award” asserting that the agency has “assaulted and violated wild horses in the Pryor Mountain Range.”
After the group departed the office and had gathered outside, about eight Billings police squad cars arrived, and Lt. Mark Cady — alerted by police from Federal Protective Services — spoke to the group’s president, Priscilla Feral.
Cady said he told Feral that the group has the right to protest and that police were there to keep them safe. He said Billings police were on hand “on a law-enforcement assist.”
The relatively large response was based on a report that there were up to 30 protesters present, Cady said.
BLM spokesman Al Nash said when Friends of Animals called about two weeks ago, agency officials offered to have a small group meet with Sparks to voice their concerns. “They chose not to meet with Jim,” Nash said.
The group was in a public space in a public building, Nash said, but by employing a bullhorn indoors “they began to become disruptive. This is a workplace where we do the public’s business, and so at the point where they disrupt our ability to do our work, the FPS was contacted, and they contacted the Billings police.”
Nash confirmed that the group’s comments — and its award — were delivered to Sparks, who had no comment, Nash said.
Later Thursday, the group said it planned to head to the Science and Conservation Center, which is housed on the grounds of ZooMontana. The center, an entity spun off from ZooMontana in 1998, produces a wildlife contraceptive called porcine zona pellucida, or PZP. Friends of Animals asserts that PZP can damage treated mares, can increase mortality in foals post-PZP effectiveness and interferes with herd cohesion.
Jay Kirkpatrick, Science and Conservation Center director, called the protesters “a radical animal rights group from New York. Their whole thesis is no (land) management whatsoever.”
Kirkpatrick called PZP “so safe it is boring” and said it’s being used in 35 wild horse projects in the U.S., Canada and Europe as well as in 20 game parks. In all, PZP is used on 85 animal species, including zoo animals.
While the protesters call PZP a pesticide, that’s only because it’s now regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, Kirkpatrick said, and that agency has placed it and a few other wildlife contraceptives in that category.
Both inside and outside the BLM office Thursday, Friends of Animals protesters punctuated their speeches with chants, including, “Leave Pryor horses free. Say no to PZP” and “BLM lies, horses die.”
The BLM said in a news release that the gather is designed to help manage for “the appropriate number of wild horses so that rangelands and horses can be healthy and productive for years to come.” At 170, the current wild horse population exceeds the “established appropriate management level of 90-120 horses,” according to the BLM.
“As an American,” said one Friends of Animals supporter, Jan Schultz of Placerville, Calif., “I’m demanding that you re-evaluate your program and figure out a way to let the horses act naturally. Go back to a minimum management position, and we’ll all be happy.”
According to Feral, the group was in Billings “to let the public know that the red warning flags of extinction are flying on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range — years of PZP plus yanking the youngest from the rangeland equals extinction.”
The group concluded its written comment to the BLM with this quote from conservationist Aldo Leopold: “‘There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.’ Friends of Animals cannot.”
Edita Birnkrant, Friends of Animals campaign director, said the group planned to spend time in the Pryor Mountains on Friday before heading home.
The comment period on the 2015 Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Gather environmental assessment ends Saturday. Comments can be mailed or hand-delivered to the Billings Field Office, 5001 Southgate Drive, Billings, MT 59101.