Scapegoats on the range


It is clear to me that it is time for HCN to do a meaningful update on the wild horses and burros (HCN, 4/12/10). There is solid science that supports wild equids as having evolved on this continent and nowhere else. On Feb. 12, 2009, Jay F. Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., and Patricia M. Fazio, Ph.D., testified before Congress about the wild vs. feral argument. Please see their statement, "Wild Horses as Native North American Wildlife."

This issue is about more than just wild horses. In the larger sense, it's a democracy issue: agency abuse of power, lack of transparency and accountability, fiscal irresponsibility and mismanagement at the expense of the taxpayer, the huge federal subsidies being doled out to special industry groups at the expense of everything else, and we the "amorphous public" trying to have a voice in what rightfully belongs to us, what we pay for and how it is managed.

The wild horses and burros, in spite of their evolutionary importance and historical contribution to this continent, are the scapegoats for everything that is wrong on the Western ranges. The wild horses and burros share their range with livestock that outnumber them 200 to 1. The lack of scientifically sound habitat assessments and census monitoring has resulted in wild horse and burro herds being reduced to and managed at below what wildlife biologists deem to be genetically viable.

We are asking for a moratorium on all wild horse and burro roundups until congressional hearings can be held to bring about the necessary legislation and enforcement safeguards to protect the animals, protect their rangeland from commercial degradation, and mandate that sensible, fiscally responsible management practices are put into place.

Lyn McCormick, High Noon Horse Farm
Fort Collins, Colorado

Anonymous says:
May 11, 2010 12:07 AM
Wonderful letter by Ms. McCormick. Too often people just pile on the anti-wild horse/burro band wagon without any thought.
Anonymous says:
May 11, 2010 02:21 PM
      "'s a democracy issue: agency abuse of power, lack of transparency and accountability, fiscal irresponsibility and mismanagement at the expense of the taxpayer..."

Well said Lynn. Thank you
Anonymous says:
May 24, 2010 01:21 PM
I read the recent comment suggesting that there needs to be other missing ecological players to go along with the restored returned native wild equids. I think this commentor chose to resort to ridicule rather than to fairly affirm that North America is a species depauperate continent and needs to be restored by such animals as the wild horses and burros as well as their natural predators such as the wolf and the puma. He fails to recognize the great importance of soil restoration through equid feces as well as seeding. In fact this can and will greatly enhance the ecosystem. If people would get their heads on straight and learn to live with such magnificent presences as the wild horses and burros, this could happen.
This would do wonders for America!
Anonymous says:
May 24, 2010 02:41 PM
Bear with me, this is an emotionally laden issue for many so I'm going to lay out the major problems I have with the horse and burro advocacy.

1) Feral burros were never native to North America; they are from North Africa. They do directly compete with desert bighorn sheep with deleterious impacts on both browse and, more importantly, watering holes. There is no valid ecological argument for maintaining any feral burro populations. They are however, 'cute' which is why some folks are impassioned about them. Lumping them with horses dilutes the validity of the 'native species' argument that advocates now make about horses.

2) The horses that currently run free on western rangelands are not direct descendants of the horses that went extinct some 7,000ish years ago. They are manipulated bloodlines bred for hundreds if not thousands of years for specific traits. The argument that they are a native species is not that different than the argument that domestic dogs are a native species because they share the vast majority of their DNA with wolves. Indeed, I've only seen one article that proclaims the mitochondrial DNA of modern horses is similar enough to ancient horses that they should be considered the same species. Curiously enough it was from folks who are wild horse advocates, not independent genetic scientists. It's not my specific area to repudiate the findings so I'll just mention that it raises the skeptic meter a little when advocates find results that support what they want to see happen.

3) When wild horses were here in North America there were also short-faced bears, dire wolves and sabre-toothed lions -- predators of immense power capable of taking adult horses. They no doubt kept a cap on horse (and other species) populations until they went extinct about the same time as the native horse. Current predators (mountain lions) are not generally able to take horses except as foals -- they just aren't big enough to deal with modern adult horses for the most part.

4) Every animal in the landscape of functioning ecosystems is regulated either top-down (by predators) or bottom-up (by prey). Human analogues, like cows, are regulated by harvest. It's arguable about how well regulated they are but cattle are harvested each year. Horses are an exception in that there is no hunting season on them and no viable large predators. Turning them loose on the landscape without regulation will result in degraded range and less available forage for other wild species from prairie dogs to deer (there is some overlap for graze from a variety of species). Herbivores in particular, in that absence of predators, will continue to expand their populations to the point where they seriously damage the vegetation. We've seen this in countless populations. They lack the ability to self-regulate their population numbers.

No landscape is static nor has it ever been. Fluxes of animals alter the landscape and the vegetation responds as do all of the associated animal, invertebrate, microbial, etc... species. Maintaining horse populations on the landscape without management is no better than allowing unmanaged cows, or deer, or dogs. Yet that is precisely what horse advocates so vociferously seem to proclaim. It's a romantic view of the horse on the landscape, not an ecological one.

By the way, just to perhaps give a bit of credibility to my arguments, I am a PhD. ecologist working in the west and I've been teaching about wildlife management for almost 20 years.
Anonymous says:
May 24, 2010 06:35 PM
I am replying to the wildlife biologist. I also am a wildlife biologist, but find your arguments very slanted and really bending over backward to accomodate the establishment. You put a negative spin on the findings of paleontological science and lack a positive vision of what can happen here in North America, if people so decide to get behind a life saving plan. Your ignoring of points concerning the equids' post gastric digestive system as opposed to the ruminant digestive system (most all large herbivores presently in N. Am.) and its potential to enhance the ecosystem and complement the life forms here is particularly specious. This is a soil builder and seed disperser par excellence and is very fit to the vast semi-arid areas of the West where it fits in as a preventer of catastrophic fire. Additionally your flat out attack on the burro fails to consider that the origin of the burro branch of the horse family according to the fossil record is plainly in North America and there were very burro like species found here not long ago, i.e. several thousand years. In general your comments are very dismissive and display as much bias as they do knowledge.
Anonymous says:
May 26, 2010 02:03 PM
Advocates for any good cause seemed to be critized for "emotion". Love, empathy, and compassion. These all stem from "emotion". It would seem that most of the world's woes stem from the lack of it.