We’ve put fences on highways, developed infrastructure, introduced exotic plants, and forever changed the ecology of these landscapes. What we can do is plan for the future and manage the land using the best available science to provide habitat, conserve biodiversity, and control exotic plants that we’ve introduced.
A lot of wildlife biologists, ecologists, and conservation organizations blame wild horses for rang eland damage. It’s undeniable that historic unregulated livestock grazing contributed to erosion and overgrazing, and we still occasionally see some of those legacy effects today.
There are three main grazing categories that we manage: big game such as elk, deer, and pronghorn; wild horses and burros, and livestock. But the intensity, the population size of the big game animals, is managed through predators such as coyotes and mountain lions or through culls and permitted hunting licenses.
Eventually, that landscape reaches a threshold where native high-forage-value plants lose the ability to compete with unpalatable, undesirable, or nonnative species. In the case of cheat grass, that has the consequence of creating an unnatural fire cycle than can forever change the ecology of the land.
If we don’t change our management practices tackling this problem, and we continue to lose acreage to cheat grass monocultures, we could experience fires that are millions of acres, even tens of millions of acres, in size, every single year in the Great Basin. This would affect air quality in Salt Lake City, Reno, Boise and other communities, drastically reduce forage availability, and be the potential nail in the coffin for some local populations of endangered or threatened species.
Wild horses and burros could begin starving by the tens of thousands along with the mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and other native wildlife. During the process, all available forage will be under extreme grazing pressure and the ecology of the landscape could be damaged for generations.
The photos were hard to look at: starving foals suckling from mothers who were just skin and bone; horses with their ribs and hips protruding, too weak to be rounded up. The BLM conducted an emergency roundup of more than 200 animals, and vets made the decision to euthanize 30 desperately weak individuals.
There isn’t a lot of agreement between different interest groups regarding public lands grazing and the wild horse and burro issue. Wild horse activists often claim “welfare ranchers” have caused tremendous ecological damage, shouldn’t receive government subsidies, that wild horses should receive forage priority on public lands, and that public lands ranchers are costing taxpayers a huge amount of money.
Proponents of public land ranching claim that managed grazing is an efficient way to eradicate invasive plants, feeds humans, and stimulates rural economies. Meanwhile, many wildlife organizations question why livestock are at the center of a public lands grazing battle when native animals like bison, bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, wolves, and grizzlies still have lots of room to expand to their historic ranges since being nearly eliminated a century ago.
In 2013, the most recent year I could acquire forage allocation data, the BLM gave out nearly 1.1 million livestock AUM's to ranchers in the Herd Management Areas that were shared with wild horses. In other areas, especially where horses are up to 10 times over appropriate management level, all or most of the forage has already been taken away from livestock permit holders.
Bison, the undisputed native large herbivore in North America, are nonexistent on these same lands. Every wild horse advocate, rancher, ecologist, BLM employee, biologist, and citizen I’ve interviewed about the complex issue agrees on only one thing: that natural regulation, thousands of horses starving to death, and the destruction of millions of acres of public lands is the very worst scenario possible.
But managing excess wild horses is an emotional subject that politicians, public figures, and even the press avoid. Some organizations have filed lawsuits or launched campaigns to sway public opinion toward prohibiting management solutions, including population control, euthanasia, sale, roundups, slaughter, or culls.
Ben Masters is a filmmaker, writer, and horse hand who splits his time between Bozeman, Montana, and Austin, Texas. This four-part series and short film presents his experiences, research, and interviews on the controversial wild horse issue in the United States.
When the U.S. Forest Service proposed removing a herd from Arizona’s Salt River wildlife refuge, a Change.org protest helped stop it, invoking the natural beauty that horses offer visitors. North America’s wild horses are the feral descendants of animals brought by Europeans in the past few hundred years.
As wild horse populations surge past the 47,000 now thundering across 31.6 million acres of public land, they threaten the survival of native species, exacerbating the impacts of climate change and habitat fragmentation. Because our culture values them, wild horses have benefited from protection and reprieves from culling that would have been employed for virtually any other destructive animal, native or introduced.
But maybe, if those who protest feral horse control understood the damage to native species, the deterioration in water quality, and the economic cost, they would not be so ardent. But that prehistoric species of horse, and the ecosystems and climate conditions in which it occurred more than 10,000 years ago, has little in common with today’s feral herds.
While the loss of the North American megafauna at our hands was tragic, unleashing feral horses in the West only exacerbates our species’ negative impacts on the environment. With little controlling their populations, wild horses will increase in number and permanently degrade sensitive riparian areas, like the Salt River, across the West.
We are not making a prediction about some distant future: The herds are increasing at a fast clip, and the native iota has already suffered greatly. By shunning our responsibility to control feral horse herds like those found in the Salt River, we are delaying the inevitable, passing the difficult decisions down to the next generation, who will have to do the dirty work we refused, and without the chance to save the native species we abandoned.
The Forest Service’s only mistake was waiting this long to attempt removal; anyone who truly values nature, the deserts, and their native species will support the relocation of feral horses from the Salt River Basin and everywhere else they are causing damage. Global warming is partly the effect of livestock production: grass-fed animals produce a digestive gas known as enteric methane, which contributes to the greenhouse effect, said William Martin-Rosset, PhD, head of equine nutrition research at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Saint-Genès-Champanelle.
But it’s not all bad news: The compounds and minerals in equine manure can provide an excellent source of organic fertilizer as well as renewable energy, establishing the horse as a worthwhile contributor to sustainable development and a healthy planet, he said at the 2013 French Equine Research Day, held Feb. 28 in Paris. Martin-Rosset and colleagues investigated equine enteric methane release, as well as horses production of nitrogen, calcium, potassium, and other potentially harmful minerals through urine and feces.
“Our work reveals that equips are only weak contributors to global warming due to their anatomy and digestive physiology,” Martin-Rosset said. This allows a more efficient use of the rich nitrogen found in the manure, and it prevents soil contamination by unwanted seeds and pathogens.
However, mechanization can only really work with straw manure, as other kinds of bedding (i.e., wood shavings) would not produce as efficient results, he added. Despite these benefits, Martin-Rosset cautioned that research is needed to explore the polluting effects of equine medications, remnants of which are also excreted into the manure.
It stipulates that horses can only be removed from public lands if it is proven that they are overpopulating or are causing habitat destruction. Cows have no upper front teeth, only a thick pad: they graze by wrapping their long tongues around grass and pulling on it.
Back in the 1950s, it was primarily out of concern over brush fires that Story County, Nevada, passed the first wild horse protection law in the nation. The fact that horses wander much farther from water sources than many ruminant grazers adds to their efficacy as fire presenters.
A team of Russian scientists, part of a cooperative venture with the United States, came in 2001 to study the effects of grazing animals on riparian areas in Nevada. They tested streams for nutrients and examined the desert and Sierra to learn techniques to improve the environment of their homeland.
Areas extensively used by cattle had fewer nutrients in the water and showed signs of bank erosion and other damage, concluded the study. Horses have proven useful to other species they share the range with: in winter months, they have the instinct to break through even deep crusted snow where the grass cannot be seen.
After wild horses were all removed from the Park to increase big horn sheep population, bighorn sheep mortality actuality skyrocketed: mountain lions, wild horse predators, compensated the loss of one of their prey species by increasing their predation on other species. Wild horses should not be used as scapegoats for range degradation that is in fact primarily caused by private livestock: for instance, environmentalists have determined that in Nevada, home of the vast majority of America's remaining wild horses, the herds have little impact on the ecosystem compared with the hundreds of thousands of cattle that also roam the Nevada range.
The Western Watersheds Project acknowledges that “the main cause of degradation of public lands in the arid west is livestock use and not wild horses.” It stipulates that horses can only be removed from public lands if it is proven that they are overpopulating or are causing habitat destruction.
It further mandates that the government “maintain specific ranges on public lands as sanctuaries for their protection and preservation.” Cows have no upper front teeth, only a thick pad: they graze by wrapping their long tongues around grass and pulling on it.
This unique digestive system greatly aids in the building up of the absorptive, nutrient-rich humus component of soils. Back in the 1950s, it was primarily out of concern over brush fires that Story County, Nevada, passed the first wild horse protection law in the nation.
The fact that horses wander much farther from water sources than many ruminant grazers adds to their efficacy as fire presenters. A team of Russian scientists, part of a cooperative venture with the United States, came in 2001 to study the effects of grazing animals on riparian areas in Nevada.
They tested streams for nutrients and examined the desert and Sierra to learn techniques to improve the environment of their homeland. Areas extensively used by cattle had fewer nutrients in the water and showed signs of bank erosion and other damage, concluded the study.
Horses have proven useful to other species they share the range with: in winter months, they have the instinct to break through even deep crusted snow where the grass cannot be seen. After wild horses were all removed from the Park to increase big horn sheep population, bighorn sheep mortality actuality skyrocketed: mountain lions, wild horse predators, compensated the loss of one of their prey species by increasing their predation on other species.