Our national obsession with keeping "wild" horses and burros on public lands that are incapable of supporting them has always struck me as bizarre, especially since it’s the result of our alleged love for them. Ask most any wild horse advocacy group and you’ll be told that wild horses are native wildlife and anyone who wants them off the public land is fronting for the cattle industry.
It’s true that cattle do more damage than free-ranging horses or burros — because there are more of them. But one horse does far more damage than one cow. And though it’s true that a form of horse evolved in North America, it went extinct along with other ice-age megafauna, such as the woolly mammoth. Arguing that the modern horses unleashed by the conquistadores are "native" to the continent because their progenitors were here 10,000 years ago is as absurd as arguing that elephants are native, too, because their progenitors were also here 10,000 years ago.
Unlike native ungulates, and even unlike cattle, horses and burros have meshing incisors and solid hoofs. The native vegetation of the arid West has evolved no defense against them; the animals extinguish the plants, and then starve. Montana writer Judy Blunt describes what happens next in the New York Times of Jan. 4, 2005: "A cloud hangs over the Nevada landscape, caused by 500 half-starved horses pounding the high desert to powder, looking for food, stamping any remaining waterholes into dust. The foals are long dead, left behind as they weakened. Cowboys under contract with the BLM set out to gather the horses and move them, but a phone call redirects them to a worse situation in another area."
In 1972, responding to a letter-writing campaign by passionate but ecologically illiterate horse lovers, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which placed all unrestrained, unclaimed horses and burros under government care and made it a felony to kill, capture, sell or harass one. This law compels the departments of Agriculture and Interior to manage feral horses and burros in such a way as "to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands."
This sounds good, but the mission is impossible. First, the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t begin to have the capacity to manage feral horses and burros. Second, horses and burros are aliens and therefore simply can’t exist anywhere in North America in "natural ecological balance." The Interior Department spends almost $40 million annually to keep horses on perpetual welfare. In contrast, it invests just $74,472 trying to keep the average threatened or endangered species in existence.
The removal-and-adoption program, run by the BLM, doesn’t come close to dealing with the problem. "It’s frustrating to see them spend money in areas that can’t maintain viable horse populations," says Nevada Department of Wildlife habitat bureau chief Dave Pulliam. "We see places where BLM has established a management goal of 15 or 20 horses when their own science indicates that 100 is the threshold for viability. So why aren’t they zeroing out these herds? Sensitive desert species like bighorns, desert tortoises and Gila monsters can’t tolerate horses. And horses will stand over a spring and run off other animals."
"Horses and burros do incredible damage," says Erick Campbell, a biologist who retired from the BLM in 2005. Campbell frequently dealt with wild horse issues during his 30-year career. "When the grass between the shrubs is gone, a cow is out of luck, but a horse or burro will stomp that plant to death to get that one last blade. When cows run out of forage, the cowboys move them or take them home, but horses and burros are out there all year. They’re not fenced; they can go anywhere. BLM exacerbates the problem by hauling water to them."
The Humane Society of the United States is trying to develop practical contraceptives deliverable in the field, but the more radical horse-lovers oppose all control — even this. In 2005, the Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Coalition and the Cloud Foundation (named after a feral horse named Cloud) tried unsuccessfully to stop the BLM from experimenting with chemical contraception in Montana’s Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.
"BLM has used this herd as a science experiment," says Cloud Foundation director Ginger Kathrens. "It’s a situation that can be managed by nature, but they (federal agents) don’t value natural systems." When I asked her how imported horses and burros could be considered natural, she said: "Wild horses are native to North America."
Ted Williams writes the Incite column for Audubon magazine and lives in Grafton, Massachusetts.