National Forest Service rangers in New Mexico's Jicarilla Wild Horse Territory (part of the Carson National Forest, near the Colorado border) are expecting some high-tech help to aid their efforts to capture and relocate the growing number of wild horses overpopulating the area and threatening to cut off the food supply. Sandia National Laboratories researchers Casey Giron and Josh Jacob are designing a sensor system that can better detect the location of wild horses so they can be more easily trapped and relocated.

Although Jicarilla has enough grass and foliage to feed as many as 105 horses, according to a 2004 National Forest Service assessment, more than 425 of the animals are crowded into the territory and have thinned out the food supply. The Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service routinely round up wild horses in overpopulated areas and offer them up for adoption to prevent them from starving. This fall they plan to relocate 93 horses from Carson National Forest.

Rustling up that many horses isn't easy. Once the rangers find a group of horses, they have to build a corral and bait it with salt, minerals and hay—and hope the horses come. The horses often shy away from the corrals, because they sense people are nearby (in fact, the trappers watch the corral via surveillance camera from a trailer located 50 to 100 yards (45.7 to 91.4 meters) away and remotely close the gate after horses wander in). The use of heat or air-conditioning in the trailer is even more likely to drive off the animals, which makes for uncomfortable monitoring conditions inside the trailer in extreme weather.

Giron and Jacob are building a system that not only allows the trappers to monitor the corral and work the gate from as far away as five miles, but it  also alerts the trappers when horses approach the corral, negating the need for them to watch the video screens for hours or even days. The system includes shoebox-size waterproof plastic containers  each with a radio transmitter, electronics processor, and externally connected seismic sensors, which should be able to detect the stomping of an animal the size of a horse. When an animal approaches and the seismic sensors are activated, the camera turns on and sends an image via the radio transmitter to the trapper, who can then shut the gate from afar. The researchers are planning to add the capability for a thermo-imaging video camera as well as a photovoltaic solar panel that would charge the batteries, making the unit self-sufficient.

After capture the Jicarilla horses are brought to a ranch, where they're branded, checked by a veterinarian and prepared for adoption. For further information about horse adoptoin, see the Carson National Forest site.

(Images courtesy of Sandia Corp., a Lockheed Martin company)