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Rants from the Hill: Speaking of Wild Horses

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Michael Branch | Dec 02, 2013 09:35 AM

“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.”


sweetpea: Look, guy with rude name, I’m just saying that Nature knows what to do and we humans usually just mess that up. Besides, how can it be NATURAL to exterminate nature?

inmycrosshairs: “Well, animals naturally destroy each other all the time through predation. But I don’t think the question is whether wild horses are natural or unnatural. The thing is, they’re out there now and they’re going to starve to death if we don’t do something. I think it would be better to have a mustang hunting season and sell tags. That way you could make a lot of money and still deal with the problem.”

endtaxesnow: “inmycrosshairs is right. We gotta control these animals. Most of them won’t be adopted, and it costs WAY too much to feed them and keep them around for no reason. Just another example of big government overstepping its authority. But instead of hunting them it would be better to privatize this so we can slaughter them commercially and sell the meat. There are lots of hungry people out there who could use the food. Maybe we could use horsemeat to finally get them off food stamps.”

buds420: “You’re all missing the point! Hunting and slaughtering are KILLING, and the only reason the BLM is capturing all these horses is to make more room for the greedy ranchers who are already being subsidized. That’s how all the predators got killed off too. These &%!!$% ranchers in their Cadillacs only care about filthy money and not about animals!”

Ridinandropin: “buds420, it might be time for you to step out of your cubicle and away from your bong and educate yourself about ranching. Ranching outfits are usually small operations of hardworking people who care about the land. Most of them are barely scraping by. Not sure where you’re getting your (bad) info, but when you find a rancher who can afford a Caddy let me know.”

buds420: “I do NOT work in a cubicle. And maybe if the government would quit funding unjust wars and hassling peaceful people for smoking weed they’d have enough money to care for these horses.”

inmycrosshairs: “Look, I’ll kill these horses for you. I mean, they’re basically pests. Why are hunters treated like criminals when potheads like buds here are free to get high as a kite and get gay married?”

sweetpea: “Listen to yourselves!!! Don’t you have any heart at all? Do you want to round up homeless puppies and kittens and kill them too?”

whatthehellanyway: “That’s EXACTLY what we do with our overpopulation of feral pets, peabrain. When you’re done reading Black Beauty and drinking your pink Koolaid, try visiting the real world.”

endtaxesnow: “Why are you all so closed minded about horsemeat? Lots of cultures eat horse. I hear it is delicious. This could be a way of finally getting the government to do something that would actually help people. Instead of forcing Obamacare on us they should be doing the job we sent them to Washington to do and get a good commercial horsemeat industry going. We need to get rid of horses and create jobs. The solution seems pretty simple to me.”

whatthehellanyway: “That’s because YOU are simple, endtaxesnow. Maybe you could get wild horses of the same gender to get stoned and marry each other, thus limiting population growth and avoiding the need to eat them. But if the stoned gay wild horse solution doesn’t work you’ll have to do something, because these horses are no different from starlings or Asian carp.”

sweetpea: “I have a horse, and she isn’t at all like a carp. She’s very, very intelligent.”

whatthehellanyway: “Intelligent? You mean compared to you?”

buds420: “Hey, endtaxesnow, when you’re done slurping up propaganda from Fox ‘news’ why don’t you propose gay marriage to inmycrosshairs. You two can spend your honeymoon killing and eating innocent creatures for fun.”

mylittlepony.jpg
One of many My Little Pony toys in the world. Photograph by Flickr user Lisa Brewster.

inmycrosshairs: “I’m pretty sure endtaxesnow is a man. I’m a woman. And I’m married. To a man.”

buds420: “Seriously? I totally thought you were a dude. Sorry about that, inmycrosshairs.”

whatthehellanyway: “I still think sweetpeabrain and budtoker should hook up.”

ridinandropin: “Is there some reason you people can’t focus on the topic at hand? We were discussing the serious problem of wild horses in Nevada.”

buds420: “There you go again defending ranchers, ridinandropin. The only PROBLEM with wild horses in Nevada is how they’re being treated by a government that is in cahoots with your corrupt buddies in the cattle industry.”

endtaxesnow: “No doubt. Can’t trust the government at all. buds420 may be a baked lefty, but at least he’s got this part right. Pretty soon Obama will be taxing hardworking Americans to take care of freeloading horses that they have every right to eat.”

sweetpea: “I would NEVER eat my horse!!!”

whatthehellanyway: “Did you hear the one about the girl who ate her horse? She was taken to the hospital, but her condition is stable. The doctors prescribed a toothpick, because she still has a bit between her teeth.”

inmycrosshairs: “Yeah, that’s a good one. My husband used to work for a butcher shop, but he got fired. He received an email about a shipment of horsemeat but accidentally marked it as spam.”

endtaxesnow: “Nice one, inmycrosshairs. Did you know you can tell where your horsemeat comes from by examining its DN neigh?

buds420: “You people are sick.”

whatthehellanyway: “Yeah, and I got sick from eating a horse burger. It could have been the mayo neighs, but it was probably the mane ingredient. It gave me the trots.”

sweetpea93: “I can’t believe the awful things you all are saying!!! Maybe YOU should be rounded up by those torturious BLM helicopters and herded into poop-filled corrals.”

inmycrosshairs: “Well, I’ve never been to Nevada or seen a wild mustang or studied the issue at all, but I think it is pretty clear that wild horses are genuine icons of the West, and that it would be best if we hunted them down and ate them.”

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.

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