Rants from the Hill: Speaking of Wild Horses

 

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Although it is the product of my imagination, the following “conversation” was inspired by actual comments posted in response to several online news stories about the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) recent, controversial roundups of wild horses and burros on public lands in Nevada. Some folks feel passionately that these BLM horse “gathers” are inhumane, while other wild horse advocates go further, arguing that the roundups are unnecessary because horses are a natural part of the western landscape and should thus be left undisturbed. On the other side of the argument are people who see wild horses and burros as introduced, invasive species that damage the range, putting native plants and animals at risk, and risking their own destruction through starvation or dehydration. While palatable solutions are difficult to come by, this “conversation” gives some sense of the quality of current public discourse on a topic that is especially important to those of us who live in the rural Great Basin Desert.

sweetpea: “I think what they’re doing is terrible!!! How can Man be so cruel when these beautiful animals are supposed to run wild and free in Nature?”

ridinandropin: “Wild horses look pretty, but they tear up the range. Their overgrazing is a huge problem, and because they don’t have natural predators their population doubles every four or five years. Roundups are the only way to protect the range and keep herds from massive starvation.”

sweetpea: “ridinandropin, did it ever occur to you that Nature got along fine without us for thousands of years? Those wonderful horses don’t need our ‘help’ at all. This is just another way of interfering with Nature. How would you feel if somebody chased YOU with a helicopter? We should be ashamed!!!”

whatthehellanyway: “Are you serious, sweetpeabrain? Are you saying that people haven’t been living in North America for the last few millennia? And do you know that horses have NOT been around for thousands of years? They were introduced fairly recently (in the 16th c.) by the Spanish. Every one of your My Little Ponies is descended from horses owned by guys named Pedro. Try getting your science from a book other than National Velvet.”

Wild horses in Nevada. Photograph by Flickr user ScottSchrantz.

buds420: “Dude, that Pedro crack is totally racist. Besides, horses HAVE been around for tens of thousands of years. They went extinct here about 11,000 years ago, so really the Europeans were just reintroducing a native species to their home. Those horses belong here.”

whatthehellanyway: “Hey, buds, why don’t you take sweetpeabrain to the prom? You geniuses deserve each other. Please tell me you aren’t saying that an animal that has been absent from an ecosystem for more than ten thousand years is NATIVE when you stick it back in there? Horses are an INVASIVE species and should be EXTERMINATED. That’s the only way to restore what is natural.”


Laurinda Reinhart
Laurinda Reinhart
Dec 04, 2013 01:39 AM
The discussion on the issue of wild horses isn't the only story out there with a plethora of inane comments and personal attacks, though in some cases you can learn much the posted comments. When it comes to wild horses, strong emotions and misinformation on both sides of the issue preclude any intelligent discussion of solutions to the problem at hand. The wild and free roaming horse and burro act was meant to put a halt to the wholesale slaughter of the mustang, but has failed to implement sustainable herd management practices and has in fact shut down not just the 'mustangers' but the ranchers that were doing an admirable job of managing the herds on the lands under their stewardship. A long history of poorly thought out government policies has in fact created the 'range wars' in its past and current forms. We have come full circle with mustangs being rounded up, stock piled in government feed lots at huge tax payer expense and quietly shipped off to slaughter in Canada and Mexico illegally by the very agency assigned to protect them.

No matter if you believe the horse is a returned native or an invasive species, the prairies of the west were once the American Serengeti supporting millions of bison, wild horses and other grazers and an amazing diversity of plants and animals that supported the Native peoples that depended on them. Today our polices seem to support cattle and corn at the expense of everything else. Wild horses have been zeroed out in many of their herd management areas. I don't believe the current policies of multiple use on public lands can be used with regards to cattle and mustangs unless there is a change in thinking with the adoption of a more holistic range management strategy. It is naïve to believe that the horses can be left alone to manage themselves. Predators and man have always played a part for good or ill. What we need now is a plan to support and protect the best of the bloodlines. Growth of the herds can be controlled by darting with fertility drugs, allowing predators back into the natural web of life and baited traps to allow thinning of the herds for adoption to qualified groups and individuals only. Mustangs are a big draw for tourism and those dollars could be used to help cover expenses and expand access and educational programs.

I think it is sad that the talk of slaughter and charges of cruelty are only aimed at horses while a blind eye is turned to the inherent cruelties inflicted upon the livestock that Americans do eat such as cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens. Do they not deserve an honorable end as much as horses? I commend Temple Grandin for her work in improving conditions at slaughter facilities, though much still needs to be done.

the Wild horse issue is very complex and I've only attempted to scratch the surface here. I pray that saner minds can find a sustainable and compassionate solutions to the issues that plague not just range management but our world. We are all connected.
Geraldine Ahrens
Geraldine Ahrens Subscriber
Dec 04, 2013 10:11 AM
Laurinda, After racing the thread from all of the others, it is refreshing to read a well thought out comment.
The comments above show how easily hotbed issues such as these deteriorate into name calling and rude comments. Would that more people could 'discuss' issues and understand that yes….we are all connected.
Nancie McCormish
Nancie McCormish
Dec 05, 2013 10:40 PM
Laurinda, well written and concise observations here, thank you. To them I will only add three comments. First, the frustration of many who have grave concerns about our government's managing of wild horses leads inevitably to the downward-spiraling dialogue we are all too familiar with as a society in other realms. It's always easier to point fingers than to create better solutions. Worse, when better solutions are proposed they often disappear into the ether, which further fuels indignation.

Second, I can assure you many people concerned about the fate of wild horses in America are also concerned about animals specifically raised for food, it is a false assumption you make there congregating people into one category which simply isn't true. What is true, though, is wild horses are not bred and born with the intent the become food for other than their natural predators. They are not raised as domestic livestock are, nor are they temperamentally suited to anything we now call "humane" slaughtering practices, as Temple Grandin advises.

Third, if wild horses roam naturally in ecosystems which retain their natural predators, they do self-stabilize over time. There is much misinformation circulating about this but even the NAS study done for the BLM and delivered last January announced the practice of rounding up and removing wild horses and burros in order to reduce their populations actually INCREASES their reproductive rates, as is a natural response to environmental conditions. It must be mentioned as well that their legal herd sizes and homeland acreages have been drastically reduced in the past 40 years, as have their chances for genetically viable survival, to favor private, for-profit interests extracting wealth from our public lands.
Harold Boyce
Harold Boyce
Dec 06, 2013 11:50 AM
One of the problems is the conflict industry which has been borne from govenrment policy, laws, and acts. There are people who make money from this conflict. My wife worked for such a group. They thrive by selling a product that doesn't really exist. This particular group brings in $300k to $400k yearly, but only about 10% of that actually goes to help horses. The rest gets invested and bled off by board members for doing "work." The work is often make beleive needs with the sole purpose of moving money from the non-profit in to the pockets of board members. The problem has been looked at by some of the best PR people in the world, and they have arrived at the conclusion that there is no solution. There is no solution if people are making money off the problem.
Harold Boyce
Harold Boyce
Dec 06, 2013 11:51 AM
One of the problems is the conflict industry which has been borne from govenrment policy, laws, and acts. There are people who make money from this conflict. My wife worked for such a group. They thrive by selling a product that doesn't really exist. This particular group brings in $300k to $400k yearly, but only about 10% of that actually goes to help horses. The rest gets invested and bled off by board members for doing "work." The work is often make beleive needs with the sole purpose of moving money from the non-profit in to the pockets of board members. The problem has been looked at by some of the best PR people in the world, and they have arrived at the conclusion that there is no solution. There is no solution if people are making money off the problem.
Harold Boyce
Harold Boyce
Dec 06, 2013 11:59 AM
Hey Nancie, not to mimic the article, but horses don't have natural predators in North America. For that to be, they would have had to evolve here, not arrive here after 9000 years of breeding by humans. The horses that left North America originally had toes. Read your last paragraph, I think you will find some contradictions in what you wrote. Rounding up horses does not cause them to breed more any more so than predation would. The populations do not stabilize, which is why we have entire watersheds being destroyed by horses. And speaking of cruelty, imagine what it must be like for native animals whose habitat has been destroyed.
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Dec 09, 2013 09:02 AM
If horses were not majestic, wild symbols and subjects of fawning literature, I doubt this wild horse debacle would be as controversial. In the absence of natural predation, these animals need to be managed as many parts of the country manage their surplus deer populations that eats up nearly all the ground vegetation and cause the whole ecosystem to suffer. Much easier said than done, as we all know.
Nancie McCormish
Nancie McCormish
Dec 31, 2013 05:40 PM
Um Harold, not to disparage you but all horses originated in the Americas (not disputed by any credible science) and they do, in fact, have natural predators. They are prey animals, sir, who are preyed on by mountain lions, wolves, on occasion coyotes (watched one kill a healthy foal when I was young) and bears.
Per the last paragraph, I stand by my words. The PNAS study the BLM itself initiated was released in 2013 with precisely that information, that there is a measurable compensatory population increase in when too many animals are removed, as is the case throughout most of the BLMs remaining managed herds. Further, you state zero evidence supporting your proposition that horse herds are not breeding any faster in response to massive roundups and removals than to natural predation... which if you re-read it you must consider preposterous at best. No natural predators would indiscriminately remove thousands of healthy adult horses of all ages, and foals, in the space of a few days. And, had you done a bit more research, there are documented herds which have self-stabilized over time when natural predators are left in place and the herds are not unnaturally depleted. These natural predators are consistently killed to favor other vested interests, not the "natural ecological balance" the law insists upon.

And one last thing I must add, your argument that "entire watersheds" are being destroyed by horses is a standard talking point which also falls apart on investigation. Horses are not evident in sufficient populations in any one place to produce the results you describe, and in virtually all cases which show environmental degradation there are domestic livestock grazing the same areas which outnumber them, typically by at least 50 to 1. Need I remind you these are non-native species, which we heavily subsidize to favor private, for-profit enterprises, and then pay again to roundup, remove, and warehouse wild horses and burros which are by law supposed to be minimally managed in their legally designated homelands, not in pens in Oklahoma or Kansas.

So whatever your personal opinion of wild horses and burros, they are in fact a protected, originally native species in America. Cattle and sheep are not. We pay to remove predators, reduce areas legally designated for horses and burros through fencing, add in over a million cattle and sheep then blame horses for the combined impact of all these practices. It's easy to look for a scapegoat but it reflects poorly on one's critical thinking skills to do so. That we pay through the nose in every direction for this unsustainable situation reflects poorly on us all. Surely we can do better than this. Eradicating all the wild equines without recognizing how few there are and the broad impacts of all our other "management" decisions is pure folly.
Ronn Brourman
Ronn Brourman
Jan 01, 2014 09:30 PM
Mr. Branch alludes to the only “palatable solution” being that the wild horses are somehow overpopulated and causing ecological damage. This is simply inaccurate. Even Branch’s word selection is spun, referring to roundups as “gathers,” as if the wild horses are being gently gathered so that they can be lightly escorted off of our public lands. His portrayal would have you believe these practices somehow “rescue” our public lands from imminent destruction by a handful of scattered herds. Anyone familiar with what roundups entail realizes that they are conducted by helicopter, which terrifies the wild horses, often stampeding them for more than ten miles, and that a number of horses are injured or killed in this horrendous process, especially among the foals whose presence or death are not typically inventoried.

We all know the BLM is allowing privately owned livestock, the oil and natural gas drilling and mining industries to profit from our public lands. For example, the BLM allows private livestock enterprises to graze millions of cattle and sheep on our public lands at the far-below market monthly rate of $1.35 for one cow/calf unit.

The only palatable solution this nation needs is to vote for politicians who will reverse the US Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) and the US Forest Service’s (USFS) policies of rounding up the wild horses and burros from America’s federal public lands based on these overpopulation and ecological damage distortions. As at least one noted wildlife ecologist attests, the wild horses provide key ecological benefits by enriching the soil, reseeding plants and trees, and reducing the risk of fires.

What’s at stake here is in effect a government challenge to the public’s demand that we protect wild horses and burros as a legally designated national treasure. Many knowledgeable people, including ecologists, estimate that there are fewer than 26,000 wild horses remaining on our public lands, and the BLM and USFS continue to conduct roundups and removals. Currently over 50,000 wild horses and burros have been permanently removed and are being held in BLM and USFS holding facilities. Over one hundred herds have been completely eliminated already, and those remaining have been reduced below genetic viability through removals and sterilization.

If the citizens of this great country allow this travesty to continue, there will soon be no remaining biologically viable herds left in America. The permanent loss of our innocent wild horses and burros would diminish the lives of generations of Americans and others around the world whose spirits are today enriched by knowing these magnificent creatures are roaming wild and free.

It is critical that well-informed and genuinely compassionate citizens step forward and speak up when this type of opinion is written or spoken in the media or even in casual conversations. Public opinion can shape the decisions, policies and practices of our government. The destiny of America’s wild horses and burros depends on you.
Laura Bell
Laura Bell
Apr 22, 2014 03:11 PM

O.K., so the rancher Cliven Bundy may/probably is in the wrong regarding not paying his grazing fees in terms of other ranchers do pay their grazing fees for their grazing allotments on the federal/public Open Range at the rate of $1.35 animal unit month (AUM), so if he doesn't have to pay, why should they? Going further, why can't I simply turn out my livestock on the Open Range we live-out surrounded by seeing as it's my land as a tax-paying citizens? The reason is because there are rules and laws that we are supposed to abide by, and if we think the laws are bad ones, then we need to work through legislation to change them.
 So only recognizing the state as having jurisdiction over him paying fees when that is NOT how it works because it is federal land (and this defense unfortunately did not work for the Dann Sisters and their livestock either), and we don't get to selectively choose what laws or rules to follow, is obviously not flying either......so if we do decide to ignore the laws on the books, we will suffer the consequences, and once again, if we feel they are bad laws, we should apply our time and efforts, along with like-minded people, and work through legislation to change them legally.

 All that being said however, this is an example of a "mom and pop" cattle ranching business who has not been driven out of business by the corporate ranches yet (like what happens when a Walmart comes to town and drives the "mom and pop" markets out of business), he has not sold-out as many ranchers have done and become an employee of a corporation-owned ranch he sold along with his grazing allotment and he now works for them (and did anyone notice how none of the big corporate-owned ranches/ranchers were defending him, but they also were not slamming him either which would cause too much DIVISION in the ranks?) with an attempt by the BLM, under the control of corporate business interests that are trying to control and take-over OUR public land through fencing, to eradicate this rancher, just as they are systematically eradicating OUR federally PROTECTED FREE ROAMING (key words everyone) wild horses and burros off the federal/public Open Range.

 Once the federally protected FREE ROAMING wild horses and burros are eradicated off OUR federal/PUBLIC Open Range, then we will really see the fences go up that will keep all of the PUBLIC, and the non-corporate, small scale "mom and pop" ranchers, miners, etc, off our own land we pay taxes on to maintain, that we pay in subsidies for private business interests to operate their various businesses on (and that is why it is called "corporate-welfare"), and that WE THE PEOPLE are supposed to be able to freely recreate on, whether hiking, biking, riding quads, horse back-riding, and also hunting, fishing, and camping too.

 So before it's too late, perhaps "mom and pop" ranchers, small scale mining businesses, people who like to recreate on OUR PUBLIC Open Range, environmentalists, and wild horse advocates, can UNITE and keep the federally protected FREE ROAMING (no fences allowed all over the Open Range) wild horses and burros primarily managed on the Open Range as mandated by law, and then talk about privatized eco-sanctuaries to take in the "failure to thrive horses", the disabled horses, the very old horses who can't keep up with their bands anymore, (and since there are few natural predators to wild horses anymore, many horses die slow deaths being eaten by coyotes and other savengers because they can't get up, but are still alive), etc, and also can also take in younger horses, train them, and offer them for adoption for more money because they are actually trained to an extent. Training seminars could also be offered for a fee, and people could become certified in wild horse training methods, perhaps with the help of cowboys, to teach their methodologies, and also trainers with other, and varied, training techniques, and then there would be "something for everyone" learning, and also depending on their background with horses and what they are comfortable with (as any good horseman will tell you, "one size does NOT fit all" with horses and/or humans when teaching/training them). And then their is the education on WHY wild horses and burros need to stay wild for several reasons I won't go into here because it will make this comment lengthier than it already is.... lol.

 The division with what is typically our "opposition" (wild horse advocates vs corporate-owned ranches, (and corporation-owned businesses can operate on the Open Range too, but they should never be allowed to eradicate animals and people and take it over entirely.....we're looking for what we call "Balance on the Range" where everyone and everything gets what they want on the very VAST Open Range in the Western States) and "mom and pop" ranchers, miners, hunters, and others) on the wild horse and burro issue is killing us in terms of OUR opportunity to keep OUR public land, and when we consider how many ways we (wild horse advocates) are also divided within our own ranks with people jockeying to be a "Rescue-Star", pull in donations, being in competition with other wild horse advocates, etc, if we all don't pull our heads out of our butts very soon and unite instead of being divided, we ALL will ultimately LOSE to the mostly corporate-business interest factions that want to take over OUR public land with FENCES, and even though none of us will be able to use the land unless we pay a user fee, we instead will be cited and/or arrested for trespassing, just as we still are forced to pay for corporate businesses to run their businesses on OUR PUBLIC land.

 I would love to have a big meeting where everyone interested in wild horses and burros being primarily managed in the wild, with the utilization of birth control for mares, and privatized eco-sanctuaries for quite a few in order to keep the population, and the environment healthy, "mom and pop"-type ranchers, small scale miners and developers, and recreationalists who simply enjoy utilizing the public land as described above, could meet face-to-face and speak to one another like intelligent, civil human beings, and figure out how we can create a win-win-win-win-win-win........ situation by keeping the only creatures that are PROTECTED as FREE ROAMING (no fences everywhere) on our Open Range so the fences cannot go up everywhere, which will block nearly everyone and every animal from utilizing it for anything, and the corporate business interest factions will reign supreme against the will of we "regular people" who the PUBLIC Open Range actually belongs to.

If we don't all quit going along with the DIVISION-trap all of we "regular people" are falling into, ALL of us will be the losers, but we will ALL still be paying taxes on our public land, and also subsidies to the corporate business interests so they can run their private businesses with OUR money and with no return to us, who will take control through fencing of our public land.
Then who are we going to fight with when we have so much more time on our hands because the public open range isn't ours to use for anything anymore?