Horse Debate Misses the Point.

Wild Horses in Nevada © Ken Cole
Wild Horses in Nevada © Ken Cole

Ted Williams, a writer for Fly Rod and Reel Magazine and Audubon has written a piece attacking wild horse advocates and politicians who supported H.R. 1018, the Restore Our American Mustangs Act.

I think it misses the point. I think that an opportunity to do something about livestock damage was missed and the bill will ultimately result in great ecological damage. For whatever reason language to proportionately reduce livestock grazing in horse areas was not included in the bill that passed the House but has no counterpart in the Senate.

I think that everyone knows that high use by non-native horses, invasive livestock, and even native ungulates such as elk is damaging ecologically. That is not my debate with the author. I think that the debate rests in proportionality. Livestock damage is several orders of magnitude higher than horse damage even though there needs to be serious reductions in both populations.

Water trough and spring heavily used by horses.  There are many more springs abused like this not used by horses. © Ken Cole
Water trough and spring heavily used by horses. There are far more springs abused like this not used by horses. © Ken Cole

In an exchange between Williams and myself he states this: “Unlike horses, cows can be managed, moved, brought in in the winter, and they’re a business”. In essence he seems to justifying the damage they cause for these reasons but I don’t see that they are being managed in such a way to benefit anything other than the pocket book of the rancher.

I go on to respond “we need to be talking about proportion since cattle cause 1000 more times damage to the lands, water, wildlife, vegetation and fisheries. By all rights you should be writing about 1000 times more articles about that damage. I don’t think this issue should be ignored but it certainly needs to be put into proportion.”

One of 239 Ecological Illiterates in the U.S. House
Ted Williams for Fly Rod and Reel.


  1. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    I will agree that horses to cause damage to landscapes, but I have to agree that the sheer number of cattle and sheep that are on the range cause much more and I would like to see that end. However, I am not opposed to population control of horses. While it would be too bad to see some of them shot, it may be the only possibility if they cannot be adopted fast enough.

  2. Brian Ertz Avatar

    You’re exactly right Ken, wild horse damage is the red herring. Livestock’s impact to western public landscapes is a thousand times that of horse damage. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be dealt with, but it does make its relative focus pretty rediculous.

  3. Liz Viola Avatar
    Liz Viola

    Of *course* livestock damage is a thousand times worse than that caused by horses. But the ranchers who oppose the bill are not going to admit that; they have a vested interest in keeping those lands open for themselves, for profit. They are also a very strong lobbying group.

  4. Ken Cole Avatar

    This story is starting to attract the support of some of the ecological illiterates outside of the House too:
    Playboy bunnies hop on horse issue

    I understand the celebrity endorsement but this seems a little shallow.

  5. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Ken, if we could Playboy bunnies to support wolf restoration and responsible management maybe that will help? 🙂

  6. Lynne Stone Avatar

    I just read in the Challis Messenger that the Challis BLM is rounding up 400 mustangs during the next several days. I feel very sorry for the horses who will be trapped and taken to corrals, where some of them will eventually be auctioned off, and the rest are doomed to spent their days in a pen. Of course, the Challis BLM has almost never reduced livestock numbers in the eastern White Clouds, where the Challis horse herd lives.

  7. Ken Cole Avatar

    I doubt it pro. I don’t think these two could bring any support to a cause.

  8. Ken Cole Avatar

    Did you listen to what they had to say? They know the barest of details on the issue.

  9. mikepost Avatar

    I think that wolves would indeed benefit from the importation of bunnies into their habitat…

    All that chatter aside, I feel the core issue here is that if overgrazing is the ugly issue everyone says it is, then EVERY critter that engages in such behavior needs to be managed to reduce the impact. Condemning cattle and then defending feral horses makes the position look like the opinion of an uneducated and unsophisticated nut case…just the kind of brush many over-grazers would like to paint grazing reduction proponents with.
    (Yes, Ralph, I agree there is an issue of degree, but it does not carry the day with the general public or the politicians.)

  10. Ryan Avatar

    So basically what your saying is that is that the lesser of 2 evils is still okay.

    With all due respect Brian, its not a red herring.. Look no further than the NWR to see those effects in areas Sans Cattle. But hey lets blame it all on cattle and sheep and dismiss every other issue.. That makes sense. 🙁

  11. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Condemning cattle and then defending feral horses makes the position look like the opinion of an uneducated and unsophisticated nut case.

    Mikepost, that is a good point. Either way we are dealing with an “exotic” species to the ecosystem. I admit that I love seeing wild horses (I am not too far from a decent sized herd) their numbers need to be managed as well and native species should take priority. My main issue, and I think a lot of others’ with cattle and sheep, is that so many cattle and sheep are placed in an area that they hammer it worse than the horses. Also, this goes back to the argument about the horse herds being public whereas the cattle and sheep herds belong to one person.

  12. mikepost Avatar

    …but the rub is that all kinds of uneducated folks will defend the feral horses from even the slightest population control. Cattle at least can be regulated when the political will is there and are subject to market forces. Stop buying beef and the cows will go away. No such force applies to the feral horse. Case in point, with the current suppressed wholesale milk prices, over 100,000 dairy cows have been culled from the dairy herds this year. That has a substantial evironmental impact.

  13. Ken Cole Avatar

    I’m not saying that the lesser of two evils is okay and I’m not dismissing horses as an issue. In fact I believe that wild horses need to be reduced or eliminated on public lands. That being said, horses are the lesser of two evils but the bigger evil needs to be addressed as aggressively as horses appear to be.

    The horse advocates make a good point though. The BLM does blame horses for livestock damage. Before the BLM does anything about livestock damage they target the horses and ignore the livestock. It’s true that the only places that I have ever seen wild horses are places with very little water and forage but livestock graze those same places with equal or greater consequences. The livestock also graze those same kinds of places that don’t have horses and are responsible for all of the damage.

    I’m just saying that all of the same things that are said about wild horses could be said about livestock but they aren’t represented in most media. Justifying the damage that livestock cause by saying that “it is a business” or that it is “a way of life” permeates the coverage of the issue. If you look at nearly every conflict involving wildlife (native or not) and livestock, the custom and culture argument always rears its head in media coverage and blatant lies go unchallenged. Could you imagine the same vitriol against livestock as is used against horses in the posted column and responses? I don’t think so.

  14. Ken Cole Avatar

    Ralph has not commented here nor did he write the post. I did.

  15. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Mikepost, the argument you make about the public being against population control of any sort is right on the money. Cows don’t have the romantic appeal that horses have.

  16. Ryan Avatar


    Yes you are, I read your posts on Willams blog and this one. You are willing to pass over one problem to deal with your crusade to end livestock on public lands. Would it be better to have that land inhabited by Feral horses than cattle?

  17. Ken Cole Avatar

    No, it would not be better and I don’t think I ever said that. I am swayed more and more by arguments against wild horses but I still think that there needs to be an effort that is just as focused on removal of livestock from public lands as there is for removal of horses. The damage done by livestock is beyond unacceptable.

    I guess my opinion is evolving on this issue the more I learn. Even if you removed wild horses things would still not be good in arid lands because there would still be cattle.

  18. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Ken, have there been studies on land with wild horses that don’t have cattle or sheep on them? I would be interested to see the results of those that compare the impact. The issue of wild horses is an intriguing one to me.

  19. Ryan Avatar


    Look at the impacts on Sheldon NWR, Hart Mountain NWR, and a few in AZ and NM. They are not a good thing.


    If anything there is more effort to remove cattle and sheep from public lands than horses. Horses get a pass because of the Horse Mafia in most cases.

  20. Ken Cole Avatar

    The horses don’t get a pass from the BLM who wants to zero out horse populations in some areas while maintaining or increasing grazing. The permitted use may not change in response to horse removal but permitted use far exceeds what ranchers actually use. The actual use will likely increase if horses are removed so the damage will continue.

  21. JB Avatar

    I am no expert on wild horses, but it seems the sheer number of livestock on public lands means their effects must be many times the effects of wild horses; however, I’m not sure what these effects are, nor if they can be considered “ecological damage”?

    I find Mike’s hypocrisy argument compelling, but I don’t necessarily agree with the underlying premise of this post (i.e. all change to ecosystems is bad). Mike, are you aware of any papers that compare the effects of wild horses with native ungulates? It seems to me that this should be the baseline for judging whether (and the extent to which) these species are problematic.

    In judging whether we should take action to curb the effects of wild horses it seems their detrimental impact (assuming they have one) should be weighed against the impact of species. We should prioritize our efforts based upon where we get the biggest bang for our buck.

    P.S. I wonder how long a species needs to be present to be considered “native” flora/fauna?

  22. mikepost Avatar

    JB, no I do not have any such data. Wild horse country (at least in my area) tends to be marginal for grazers generally with isolated and critically important water sources. I think that is why their impact is so great. We have an area in SE California that is high desert and there are few ungulates there, plenty of feral horses and burros, and lots of pictographs of ancient big horn sheep that can’t be found there anymore.

    You raise an interesting issue with “how long before a species becomes native”. By that standard, the cow has been here a lot longer than the red fox, the starling, the chukar, etc, etc. Further is the issue of man introduced species different from migration, natural or accidental even if the impacts are equal????

  23. JB Avatar

    Thanks, Mike. Perhaps I can dig something up online; I’ll take a look.

    Regarding the native/non-native issue. I’m not sure time can be the sole criteria. It seems to me that cattle are domesticated and privately owned, whereas wild horses are non-domesticated wildlife and so are owned by the state. Further complicating the issue, it is my understanding that some places have had wild herds for over a century whereas in other places herds may contain animals that have been recently abandoned. Does a hundred years of living off the land make a once domesticated species “wild”? Two hundred? More?

    It seems to me the reason wild horses are such a problem is because they don’t fit neatly into our views about what constitutes wildlife.

  24. Brian Ertz Avatar

    to weigh in on your suggestion that we ought prioritize mangement to facilitate most restoration for the dollar I would note the gross disparity in dollars BLM affords horse removal efforts.

    The Challis BLM issued their final EA and FONSI to round-up 400 wild horses in Spar Canyon and Road Creek on the East Fork Salmon River Watershed under full force and effect on July 23. The round-up began the next day.
    The BLM EA states they plan to capture 400 horses in this round-up and remove 300 to holding corrals for possible adoption. All mares captured will be treated with a multiple year injected contraceptive. The remaining horses will be released leaving a total in the Challis herd of about 140 horses.

    The Challis BLM expends more money on one ten day wild horse round-up than they spend on livestock management in 2 years !!

  25. mikepost Avatar

    JB, all wild horses in the US had a domesticated ancestor. Using that argument we could campaign to save wild pigs, goats and other exotic species that have escaped captive enclosures over time. In the end, the current debate still comes down to “cute” versus “ugly”, and there isn’t much science in that.

  26. JB Avatar

    “JB, all wild horses in the US had a domesticated ancestor. Using that argument we could campaign to save wild pigs, goats and other exotic species…”

    Sure could! Though I disagree with your assertion that it just comes down to cute v. ugly. Wild pigs (which I think are ugly) are quickly developing a following among some hunters; and what about all of the exotic fish, some of which are actively introduced by state wildlife agencies? Nobody would accuse them of being cute and cuddly, and they are raised in hatcheries like livestock. [BTW: I dare you to try and tell Midwestern anglers that we need to stop stocking steelhead in Lake Erie because they’re not native and compete with native species.]

    So what is the difference between wild horses and other non-native wildlife that we actively promote? The presence of pheasants is advocated by hunters and the presence of non-native fish by anglers, i.e. the traditional constituents of wildlife management. Wild horses, on the other hand, don’t have the support of these groups.

    It’s all good to assert that we should have science-based management of wildlife. But the types of questions raised by these issues (e.g. when is a previously domesticated species no longer considered domesticated, how long before an non-native species becomes native) are not readily answerable by science.

  27. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson

    If you look at Catlin’s paintings you will see a Plain full of wild horse herds…and they look just like the multiple infrastructure herds of pre whiteman buffalo herds had. And if you look further you will see Catlin’s paintings of wild herds of horses and cattle on the Argentine Pampas. Again they look exactly like multiples of well infrastructured herds of buffalo …and Indian camps. some of those “exotics have been here for hundreds of years. The whole South USA had wild cattle herds for over 200 years (starting in the 1500’s)…without any intervention by whiteman. There was very good ecosystems entact and recorded by early southern settlers. The cows didn’t do the damage then as now. It is just relentless intervention that destroys all now.

    If agencies and biologists would only acknowedge herd families then management would be easy. Families have homes and they protect those homes. Thus the fringes of the territories they stake out become battlegrounds to protect that turf from other extended families. Thus they have in species means to not overpopulate (in other words don’t have to have predators).

    Also any family with good infrastructure has less need to keep populating. Reproduction rate goes down whether there is food available or not.

    By the BLM rounding up 400 horses and then releasing 140 with no regards to herd infrastructure means those horses are going to do everything possible to save their population 9species) and at the same time try to gain in infrastructure.

    Thus BLM is just making the problem worse. Rapid population gains. It is symptom management at its worst.

    The natural world as told by Bob jackson (alias Aj).

  28. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    To most land managers and to a lesser degree, wildlife managers, wildlife only consists of individuals, and to a slight degrees a female or pair with their chicks, fawn, calves, etc.

  29. kt Avatar

    Bob Jackson is right about BLM making the problem worse. That is what they want to do.

    The Challis Horse Round Up – whether you are a horse advocate or not, is animal cruelty – cowboying around terrorizing horses with a helicopter and holding and transporting them in 100 degree heat??? Come on. This is barbaric. NO emergency exists. The REAL emergency in Challis lands right now is the severe damage being caused by BLM authorizing grazing by many thousands of cattle – all camped on riparian areas right now.

    The BLM’s Horse program is full of psycho range cons.


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Ken Cole