The U.S. Congress passed The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 in an effort to protect, manage, and control wild horses and burros on public lands. The Act declared these populations to be "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West" and gave the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and USDA Forest Service responsibility for their management. Through its National Wild Horse and Burro Program, the BLM manages more than 37,000 wild horses and burros roaming on 180 herd management areas across 10 western states. One management priority is ensuring healthy, genetically viable populations for the future.
Wild horses in some herds can be uniquely identified by their overall body color and markings, facial markings, and leg markings, which have been useful for research and management in selected herds. To review data on individual horses, managers rely on a combination of field notes, written descriptions, and photographs. This process can become cumbersome as extensive information is gathered. The BLM wanted a cost-effective way to catalog photographs and information on individual animals and then have this information easily retrieved and manipulated. As part of a cooperative effort between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Fort Collins Science Center (FORT) and the BLM, the Wild Horse Identification and Management System (WHIMS) was developed to meet those needs.
WHIMS, a Microsoft® Office Access™ 2000 application1, employs a database to store and access data on photographs of individual horses. The goal of WHIMS is to provide users with access to the information necessary to identify horses and make herd management decisions. Data include a variety of identifying attributes, such as identification number, color and markings, gender, harem association, and range location. Once the database is built, information on individual animals or the entire herd is quickly accessible to horse managers.
To prototype the original system, information was catalogued on two wild horse populations, one in the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range in Montana and Wyoming and the other in the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range in Colorado. Early reference to horses in the general region of the Pryor Mountains has been associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Blood typing indicates that these horses are closely related to the old-type European Spanish horse first brought to America by the conquistadors. The Little Book Cliffs population resides in an area that encompasses rugged canyons and plateaus. This rugged terrain makes viewing and photographing individual horses and their markings difficult. Because of the unique and varied issues addressed by the managers of these two herds—genetic conservation of the Pryor Mountain herd and information collection on the Little Book Cliffs herd—WHIMS was considered adequately tested for its ability to assist wild horse managers facing a variety of challenges.
Since the early days of development, WHIMS management information has been expanded to include data on horse contraception, health, genetic sampling, and lineage. This updated version was tested and is now operational at Cape Lookout National Seashore, a National Park Service unit in North Carolina. WHIMS continues to be used at the Pryor Mountain and Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Ranges as well as the McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area in Wyoming.
To build a database for a particular herd, photographs depicting unique features of each individual animal in the herd are archived on CDs or DVDs. Digital images may be derived from digital still cameras or from original 35mm slides that are scanned. Scanning is accomplished with economical hardware or by an outside service, while images from digital cameras can be transferred and written with a CD- or DVD-writer at the local field office. Color and markings are then identified for each horse and entered into the database. Field notes, health records, and genetic history can also be included in the database. Once the data have been entered, the user is able to quickly search for a horse by listing particular markings and then visually confirming identification by its digital image on the computer. Each year, photographs and other information on newborn foals can be added to the image database, and management reports can be generated for birth, mortality, and sex-age distribution in a herd. This straightforward process has reduced the accumulation of binders and paperwork and instead provided staff with easily accessible, comparative information. In addition, it has increased the accuracy of information on individual animals.
Although WHIMS functions primarily as a computer-assisted photo-identification system, its flexibility provides users with many tracking and reporting options. For example, data can be tracked on horse health, contraceptive treatment and success, and genetic samples and lineage of the herd—information commonly used in management decisions. Understanding the genetics of the herd by documenting offspring of individual stallions and mares can be useful in managing smaller herds, and WHIMS helps manage the collection and reporting of this information. Other useful reporting features of WHIMS include providing assistance in identifying horses to be gathered and moved off the range, familiarizing new staff with a herd, and providing supporting documentation for the public or other agencies.
Federal and State land managers, adoption program managers, wild horse conservation organizations, and even individual horse owners can use WHIMS. Summing up her satisfaction with the program, Linda Coates-Markle, former Montana/Dakotas Wild Horse and Burro Program State Lead and WHIMS user, stated, "I see great applicability of WHIMS to other BLM offices as well as those individuals who use data on horses in their day-to-day activities. Its ability to manage the growing catalog of data as well as improve the consistency of horse identification has greatly assisted us in addressing herd management issues in the Pryor Mountains."
1Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.