Unwittingly, Roch Hart says he found himself at the nexus of the controversy over how humans take on the problem of managing the roughly 150 free-roaming horses in open spaces near Placitas.
Not only does he manage the 20,000-acre Diamond Tail Ranch north of Placitas where more than 100 other wild horses roam the rugged landscape, but the startup company he co-founded has developed a tool that they believe can help manage the wild horse populations in Placitas and wherever else wild horse populations have become an issue.
Hart says the system is designed to deliver contraceptives and vaccines in the most humane and unobtrusive way possible. The machine also can inject a microchip into the horse’s shoulder that can be used to monitor its health and location.
And it doesn’t have to be horses.
“We were just looking at horses, and then came to realize this could be adjusted to kangaroos, it could be adjusted to zebras. There are so many different applications for it,” Hart said of what they’re calling the Remote Wildlife Vaccine Delivery System.
Developed by the company he formed with four others, Wildlife Protection Management, Hart says the vaccine delivery system is a groundbreaking innovation that taps into new technology.
They know it works, because the system is in operation on the ranch.
“We’ve got the hard data,” says Hart, a retired police detective.
Hart says they’ve vaccinated about 60 of the approximately 130 horses on the ranch. All of them have received microchips, as well, which Hart says serves to keep track of which horses have been vaccinated and when – and allows them to monitor the horse’s health by registering its temperature.
The sprawling ranch, owned by a partnership out of Texas, abuts San Felipe Pueblo to the north and extends to within about 3 miles of NM 14 to the west. Hart says it may be the largest privately owned ranch between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Investors have contributed about $200,000 to the startup, Hart said, and Wildlife Protection Management recently opened up a We Funder campaign to draw additional funds. The company has also worked with New Mexico State University on some aspects of product development. It was recognized by the National Science Foundation with an award as a technology startup company.
But Hart said while their vaccine delivery system has been well received by some government agencies that could utilize the device, he’s been frustrated by government bureaucracy and the “reluctance to accept common sense” by others.
“I should have started with feral pigs,” Hart said, partially in jest.
Maybe then, the apparatus they invented and patented in 2019 would have gained more traction by now.
The public sentiment about feral pigs is the same everywhere: nobody wants them around. Feral horses are different, he said. Wild horses are viewed as majestic creatures whose wild spirit is celebrated.
But too many horses create problems. Hart said it takes about 70 acres of land to feed one wild horse. As with overgrazing cattle, too many horses consume the vegetation and damage the land, subjecting the horses to starvation within their own habitat.
That’s one of the reasons people in the Placitas area have taken to feeding the horses themselves, drawing more of them into residential neighborhoods and onto roads.
At the beginning of this month, a controversial new county ordinance went into effect that prohibits people from feeding free-roaming horses in an effort to keep the horses off roadways in their search of food. The county passed the new law – over the objection of those who argued the ordinance infringed on property rights, individual freedoms and was downright inhumane – as a safety measure. Two horses were struck by vehicles on NM 165 and had to be put down by sheriff’s deputies earlier this year.
The county also said the law was necessary because the county would be subject to increased liability if it can be shown it was aware of a safety problem and failed to act.
But the controversy over how the herds of horses roaming the Placitas landscape are managed is nothing new. Locals say highly charged and emotional conflicts over how to best tend to the horses have gone on for years.
Sandoval County says it is not out to remove the horses from the area, as some have claimed. But it does want to keep the horse population to a number that keeps horses healthy and preserves the land. With that in mind several years ago the county contracted with Mount Taylor Mustangs to administer a fertility control program to help keep the horses from overpopulating.
Estimates are that there are about 150 wild horses roaming the area.
The Remote Wildlife Vaccine Delivery System is located in an isolated part of the Diamond Tail Ranch. It is accessed by a dirt road that traverses the edge of the northern end of Sandia Mountain, down a rocky slope, along a winding trail and across several arroyos and washouts to a spot next to a watering station.
Hart explained how the system worked, starting with what he said was the innovative breakthrough that makes operating the system from a remote location possible.
The challenge was how to connect the contraption to the internet using solar power.
“We had it tied into our old system, then started working with Starlink. We didn’t realize that would be such a big innovation,” he said.
From his cellphone, Hart opened the lid to a container full of alfalfa, the bait used to attract horses to the vaccine delivery system. He can just as easily use it to shoot a dart.
Horses can approach the feeding bin on three sides. The device is designed so when a horse steps up to the bin, they are aligned to receive a dart containing medication in their triceps on one side, or the microchip on the other side. Cameras are positioned so someone monitoring the machine can see when to administer the dart.
“It will deliver a vaccine in less than a second,” he said, noting that the darts are tethered to the machine, so don’t stay stuck in the horses.
The horses are startled by the injection, he said, and back away from the machine. But they are at no real risk of injury.
The darts containing the vaccines are kept in a compartment that Hart says keeps them at between 32 and 42 degrees even if it’s 100 outside. The device keeps a record of what’s been dispensed and to which horse.
“This is all really cool technology. It’s really gotten good,” Hart said. “And the cost savings is insane.”
Hart said it could cost from $1,000 up to $3,000 to vaccinate one horse. “I can do it for a fraction of that cost.”
Cost savings is just one of the benefits, Hart says. It’s easily assembled and portable, can be utilized anytime of year, and human contact with the animals is not required. It also doesn’t require the horses to be rounded up by helicopter or any other means that may injure the horse. He can do it all remotely, thanks to the Starlink connection.
He’s gotten spotty reception, however, from government agencies he’s approached with the vaccine delivery system. Some officials love it and see its value, he says, but others almost seem to be “looking for excuses” to reject the idea.
That frustrates him.
“The technology is there; it just needs to be utilized,” he said.
Hart says he hasn’t spoken to anyone in Sandoval County government about his vaccine delivery system – other than the Assessor’s Office. He was hoping to negotiate an agricultural easement for the Diamond Tail Ranch in exchange for the county’s use of the apparatus, but he was told there are strict criteria for obtaining that designation.
“They tell us we need to be running cattle to get an agricultural exemption,” he said. “But if we can show there’s true innovation being done? That there’s research and science being done? That we’re putting money into something that is the most humane system for achieving their goals…”
Hart said he’d be happy to talk to County Manager Wayne Johnson or Deputy County Manager John Garcia about the vaccine delivery system. He knows the county is contracted with a non-profit group to conduct a fertility program. He also knows what a controversial issue free-roaming horses in and around Placitas has been, creating divisions and hostilities within the community.
Hart says he loves the horses and he loves the land and he understands that others do too, in their own way. He just wishes there would be more consideration given to common sense.
“It doesn’t have to be an ‘Us versus Them’ thing,” he said. “It should be about identifying what’s the best solution.”