Environmental and Wild Horse Advocates Agree: Livestock are the Problem on Western Ranges
By Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project and Val Cecama-Hogsett, Citizens Against Equine Slaughter
When Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project (WWP) and Val Cecama-Hogsett of Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES) met at a law conference in the spring of 2016, they had differing views of wild horses but they also had one clear common goal: to change the reality of the damage being done by livestock overgrazing the arid lands in the West.
Western Watersheds Project has long-advocated for the reduction and cessation of public lands livestock grazing to benefit ecological function and wildlife. WWP has no formal position on the origin of free-roaming horses, but supports science-based management of public lands and prioritize some threats more than others. Some of our members love wild horses and want to see them flourish, while others are opposed to them and consider them a pest. But all of our members agree that we want public lands to be restored to landscapes replete with native vegetation, native wildlife and healthy streams and rivers, as set forth in our mission.
In contrast, CAES firmly believes wild horses are a returned native species, because they never lost their very hierarchical harem family structure, retained inwardly-curling ears, and lack other signs of domestication. CAES’s position is that today’s wild horses evolved here in North America, and only here. Hence, although bred in captivity like many other wild animals, it never was fully domesticated and is an essential part of the western landscape.
So how can environmental groups like WWP and wild horse advocates like CAES work together to advocate for wildlife habitat on public lands? We look to remedy the biggest cause of landscape degradation in the West today: domestic livestock grazing, primarily by cattle and sheep.
These privately owned domestic livestock evolved in habitats far different from the American West, and are poorly adapted to the climate and vegetation found there. As a result, they are hard on the land – pounding fragile soils, eliminating native bunchgrasses, and spreading the invasive weed cheatgrass, the cause of unnatural range fires that wipe out the sagebrush that grouse and other native wildlife need to survive.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issues about 17,600 permits for grazing on public lands in eleven western states, leased at the far-below-market-rate of $1.87 per cow and calf pair. This compares to grazing fees that average more than $20 per cow-calf pair on private pastures. These fees don’t even cover the cost of maintaining the grazing program, and the American taxpayer heavily subsidizes the cost-deficit that the program accrues, while the corporations grazing and selling their livestock rake in the profits. But the taxpayers lose more than money; they lose healthy habitats, healthy watersheds, and healthy wildlife.
In addition to the nearly free use of the land, the livestock industry gets many additional subsidies and services, and even a special taxpayer-funded agency misleadingly named “Wildlife Services” to kill predators of their livestock. Thus, not only do endangered wildlife like the sage grouse suffer from habitat degradation caused by livestock, but predators like wolves, bears, mountain lions and coyotes are slaughtered to make public lands safe for privately-owned cattle and sheep.
In contrast to the vast herds of livestock, wild horses are a bit of a rarity. Cattle outnumber wild horses by more than 37 to 1 on western lands, and horses are entirely absent in many parts of the West. Still, despite this small fraction, land management agencies and politicians often blame horses for land health problems to distract the public from the real problem: the chronic damage the ranching industry and its vast number of livestock are causing.
The American wild horse is, like it or not, a federally protected species, but their populations are disappearing despite the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, put in place to protect them. In order to appease the livestock industry, the BLM’s current wild horse program relies on costly horse gathers using helicopters and motor vehicles, then pens horses in often-inhumane conditions awaiting adoption. The majority of the animals never get adopted, and instead are shipped off to distant private lands, which the federal government leases at taxpayer expense. Here’s the kicker: Leasing private lands can cost as much as $30 to $50 per horse; on the public lands from which they are removed, ranchers pay $1.87 per month for the livestock equivalent of one horse. Why displace livestock from distant pastures, often in wetter climates well-suited to cattle, and incur wasteful government spending on gathers, transportation, and pasture rentals for horses? It would be far cheaper to pay livestock ranchers to take cattle off western public lands instead, and to reduce grazing intensity to sustainable and ecologically healthy levels.
The new budget proposed by the Secretary of Interior will only make conditions worse. The wild horse program is slated for a $10 million budget cut, paired with new funding for slaughter of wild horses that aren’t adopted. In the same budget, environmental reviews of grazing leases is replaced by an even greater reliance on loopholes to allow grazing to be reauthorized under the same old terms, regardless of new science and new policy that is supposed to protect wildlife habitat. At the same time, there will be less money to fight cheatgrass, which is spread by livestock and is an ever-increasing ecological crisis.
Western Watersheds Project and Citizens Against Equine Slaughter have their differences, but are working together toward their common goal of decreasing the heavy footprint of livestock grazing on western public lands.
Erik Molvar is Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project (WWP), an environmental conservation organization, and Val Cecama-Hogsett is Board Member of Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES), a domestic and wild horse advocacy group.
Greta Anderson is a plant nerd, a desert rat, and a fan of wildness. She is the Deputy Director of Western Watersheds Project and lives on the land of the Tohono O'Odham and Yaqui people in what is now called Arizona. Greta's opinions and world views are not necessarily reflected in the posts of other authors on this blog.
52 Responses to Environmental and Wild Horse Advocates Agree: Livestock are the Problem on Western Ranges
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All horses in the Americas today descended from domestic stock. They are livestock as much as are cows but under less management constraints. They cause more damage per head than managed cows. Ranchers often blame feral horses for the bad range conditions caused by their cows, the horses serving as a convenient scapegoat. Without the horses they can’t make that claim. The contention in this piece that feral horse “..populations are disappearing..” is to the best of my knowledge inaccurate. In fact they are steadily increasing and are far above management goals in most Herd Management Units.It is inconsistent to claim a concern for the health of the land while ignoring a large highly competitive introduced species that competes with native species and damages their habitat. All livestock needs to be removed from our fragile arid public lands including feral horses, cows, burros and pigs.
Ted, clearly you missed the point of this article, that shows that livestock outnumber wild horses by 37 to 1, so it’s obvious by just this fact that livestock are the cause for degradation of our public lands. The BLM has never, ever, been able to produce any study proving that wild horses are the cause for the damage. In fact, research has shown time and time again that the manner in which livestock graze differs greatly from wild horses, and due to this difference, cattle and sheep do far more damage. To say “to the best of my knowledge” shows that you should do more research on wild horse herds and their numbers. They are in fact rapidly disappearing, and most are far below the numbers they need to maintain genetic viability. Don’t buy into the BLM’s tired excuse that wild horses are overpopulated. There is zero proof of that, and research shows the opposite. Here is an excellent article written by Vickery Eckhoff with links to different data that you should read: https://vickeryeckhoff.com/
I agree that public land needs to be preserved, but wild horses are the least of the problem. Limit the cattle and the welfare ranchers and that would take care of the issue.
While livestock are the cause of most of the damage on public lands there are areas where there are no managed livestock and feral horses are causing all the damage. You are correct that cows and horses graze differently and horses are more damaging and can graze more intensely because they have both upper and lower teeth. They also cause more damage per head because they are out there 24-7-365, at least the cows come off the range for part of the year and their pastures are usually rested periodically. There is no question that feral horse populations are increasing in almost all areas where they exist. If these exact same animals were owned by a rancher and run on a cattle and horse allotment year round, WWP would be hollering for them to be removed.
They are wild horses–not feral. Please research the difference. My dather raised cattle and I saw daily the damage they did on his farm and can still see it on other farms. Cattle cause erosion, defecate in water causingf E.coli andf algae pollution and ober-graze as they stay in one place. Horses are symbiotic to ecosystems and restore the land by spreading seeds , and they roam as they graze. You need to learn more so please do not listen to BLM propaganda.
Correction that should be father .
Thanks for posting this
Trying to better understand this issue
As usual, wildlife news is a great source
Hi – I think you will find that recent research disagrees with your statement – it is very likely that there was continuity of the evolved equine species during the time that they were considered “extinct” . There is evidence that Spanish horses escaped/were released and interbred, but genetic profiles reveal they had descended from the original stock anyway – so wild horses are NOT “feral”, but reintroduced native at the very least.
As for BLM ESTIMATED numbers – BLM quote reproduction rates far higher than Mother Nature can manage with an 11 month gestation, and deny any mortality – despite up to 50% foals die during their first year of life, and up to about 25% of adults in any one year…. That range observers rarely see wild horses is highly suggestive of inaccurate – quite possibly over-inflated estimated numbers from BLM.
I see you also believe BLM claims that horses damage the land with their hooves and grazing methods – even a brief review of the facts concerned and recently published independent research findings reveals inconsistencies and untruths in these BLM statements.
The wild horses evolved to live symbiotically with these rangelands – they benefit the land and other species,and natural predators both exist and limit their ACTUAL numbers.
“was continuity of the evolved equine species during the time that they were considered “extinct””
I believe an article appear recently about this in “The journal of alternative history”.
37 cows for every 1 Wild Horse and the BLM and Cattle Ranchers say the Wild Horses are the problem!
The COWS are the problem!
Know how many wolves we have left in Nevada? NONE!
The BLM and the Cattle Ranchers have killed them ALL.
Wild Horses belong in the Wild. Their natural predators-Wolves and Coyotes and Cougars-belong in the Wild.
Domestic Beef Cows do not!
We the People are paying with our taxes to wipe out our own Wild Lands and Wild Animals!
Know what we call this in Nevada?
Save our Wild Horses in the Wild!
Thank You NevadaNy, you said it so well. I agree 100%!!
Dear Mr. Chu: You have a lot of science to learn my friend. I have made it easy for lazy people and have compiled all of the best science about the native species status of American wild horses in one place here: https://www.horsetalk.co.nz/2017/10/23/three-great-myths-america-wild-horses/
This is an excellent article. Shared.
If some don’t approve of cattle and sheep grazing on public lands, I can respect that opinion even if I don’t agree. However, I lose that respect when they choose to argue that highly regulated and managed species should be removed for an unmanaged non-native species that is extremely detrimental to rangeland health.
Remove all the sheep and cattle today and it does nothing to solve the real issues which are horses are unmanaged, their grazing habits are much more detrimental to the range (I’m reminded every day with these two horses in my pasture behind my house as I try to keep it productive), their population increases 15 – 20% per year (not going extinct), and every four to five years you will double the numbers.
You can’t claim to have the horses best interest at heart nor that you are an environmentalist if you are advocating for letting these feral horses self regulate (die a horrific death of starvation and dehydration) and destroy all the BLM lands. If left unchecked and all cattle and sheep are removed from all BLM lands,the horses alone will exceed the carrying capacity of ALL BLM lands in less than 10 years.
I enjoy these horses as much as the next person when we can see healthy horses on healthy rangelands. But I sure hope reality sets in for these groups before excess horses cause our lands to become desertified and thousands of horses and wildlife suffer the consequences.
Sue, please explain how you conclude wild horses are “unmanaged” when they have in fact been managed (literally to death) by paid professionals for over 40 years now. The “all or nothing” polarizing arguments get none of us anywhere, nor do the “invasive species” arguments, when it is inarguable horses are native here, the only question if if this ocntinent was completely empty of them when the Spaniards arrived. There was no accurate census then, either, so I challenge you to investigate the fossil record further. There are radiocarbon dated horse fossils from 11,000 YBP to around 700 YBP now known.
Regardless, there are two facts to consider. One, it is indisputable that domestic cattle and sheep are not native (read: invasive), and two: that wild horses were in fact given protection and priority to forage in their legal areas by unanimous act of Congress. If livestock grazing permit holders want similar social support for cattle and sheep, they are welcome to seek the support of the greater American public to try and achieve the same results the 1970s grassroots effort did for our wild horses and burros. The “thriving natural ecological balance” decreed by Congress specifically included wild horses and burros, and explicitly excluded cattle and sheep.
Nobody is arguing for a NO management option, but rather the need for thoughtful, science-based, on-range management as concurs with our laws and the public trust. This is NOT the case today, and the endless roundups and removals only exacerbate the problem without leading to any sustainable range management systems that include wild horses and burros.
For instance, consider that the cost of keeping one wild horse in an off-range pen for is somewhere around $4/DAY (excluding costs of roundup, shipping, vetting, gelding, branding, sorting, identifiying in a database etc.) while a permit holder can graze 5 sheep or a cow/calf pair weighing around 1,400 lbs. for $1.87/MONTH. Add to that what you pay for wildlife services (predator control), matching funds for range “improvements” among other costs and then ask yourself when you last noticed you got a huge discount on beef or lamb at your grocery store? The small amount of America’s meat supply raised on public lands would scarcely be missed should the permit program be disbanded, and at least some portion of it is exported. We’d all be better off if livestock were kept in the holding pens returning $4/day/head to taxpayers, and our wild horses remained in the wild, costing us next to nothing (especially if citizen volunteers can assist in any approved contraceptive darting programs).
It’s also not really a useful comparison with your backyard horses, since by nature wild horses will roam and forage over dozens of miles per day unless they are artifically confined to smaller areas by… managers. My domestic horses eat grass like corn on the cob, left to right, nonstop mowing, but I’ve trailed wild herds and watched whole bands never cease walking, taking only one bite off a clump of bunchgrass and then on to the next. They seem to naturally “leave a lot in the bank” if allowed to, though of course in areas reduced in size and increasing in populations leads to very predictable results. Since 1971 the legal acres where wild horses are allowed to exist have been decreased by around 22 million acres, or nearly cut in half. This is a management problem, not a horse problem, and killing them off to “solve the problem” is just a form of “blame the victim.” And sadly, removals are well understood to lead to compensatory reproduction, essentially creating more of what managers purport to be reducing.
That said, it is also clear our rangelands are still transitioning from the overgrazing by livestock interests in the 1800s up until the Taylor Grazing Act was penned.
There are no simple solutions but even if all wild horses and burros were forever extinguised in America, the public rangelands will still hold far too many non-native cattle and sheep unless and until saner grazing policies are enacted and enforced. Considering that a single permit can hold 10,000 sheep and may only be monitored once every ten years, there is plenty of room to improve the management of all these species.
You are ignoring the fact that the Wild Horse program includes management such aspZP birth control and Adoption programs.
There are over 2 million privately-owned cattle and probably around 50k horses,if that, which is few compared to elk or deer.
Look at it this way, HMAs were established for Wild horses, cattle are only “permitted” under FLPMA.
Cattle can be removed to provide for wild horses. Legally, they are a key to cattle removal. Why do you think the Cattlemen want them gone?
You are ignoring the fact that the Wild Horse program includes management such aspZP birth control and Adoption programs.
There are over 2 million privately-owned cattle and probably around 50k horses,if that, which is few compared to elk or deer.
Look at it this way, HMAs were established for Wild horses, cattle are only “permitted” under FLPMA.
Cattle can be removed to provide for wild horses. Legally, they are a key to cattle removal. Why do you think the Cattlemen want them gone?
The word you use that strikes me hardest is the word feral. Feral means nothing. It is an entirely human concept little understood and usually misused, particularly when it comes to horses.
Feral began to be used in the 1970’s to describe horses that the Spanish returned ahead of schedule to their homeland. When glaciation re-occurs, they would have returned on their own if past history is to be your guide. At the species level, the modern horse Equus caballus is found to have originated in North America 1.75 mybp. Scientists have found great variation in both size and morphology in the various locations and levels of sediment indication that the horse has had a very wide range of habitats due to its emergence during the period when forests had turned into grasslands. So it is utterly ridicules to describe the horse as unfit for Western grasslands when paleontology and geology reveal that N. America was the place, and grasslands were the horse dominated ecosystems that co-evolved together. I encourage people who are deeply interested in this topic and understanding it to study the evolution of the teeth of Caballus. The upper and lower molars of horse, burro, zebra, are each distinct. Therefore, it was possible for early paleontologists to identify the type of horse using only the tooth. In recent years, ancient and modern DNA have proven that the modern horse was a single species whose range extended from Eurasia across North America. Unfortunately for the horse, the first scientists to take a firm and evidentiary defense of the horse as a native N. American species was British biologist Dr. T. H. Huxley. Dr. Huxley also lectured about the formation of coal on our continent and the value it held for our current (1876) and future wealth. There are many US paleontologists whose work and collections are barely mentioned though well documented in the history of US and world paleontology of the horse and other mammals. In fact, they are so well documented in records held by our own US government that it is nearly impossible to imagine how this confusion occurred in the first place.
Please check your facts.
Ted, you are overlooking some very inconvenient truths in your comments.
First, the fossil record shows N. America is the ancestral homeland of all equids, and whatever your personal opionions their DNA has been declared by credible scientists as essentially indistinguishable from post-Pleistocene to today. It is true some are descended from domestic stock, but that is of little consequence since federal law indicates any unbranded estray horse is to be considered “wild” anyway. Those living in legal horse areas are the only ones protected, however, and are not “livestock” as are introduced non-native cattle and sheep.
Next, you fail to mention that the legal horse areas described in 1971 have been cut nearly in half (by around 22 million acres), and the BLM “management” is aimed at keeping their estimated total populations at what was then guesstimated for the entire defined acreage. No accurate census was undertaken then and remains a sort of Holy Grail today — meaning very few accurate counts are known or published, but a lot of modeling calculations inform management decisions. Unfortunately, in the well known matter of “garbage in = garbage out” these models have been shown to include biologically impossible reproduction rates, though they continue to be used. In fact, the arbitrary AML figures the BLM establishes are not based in science and fool people like you into thinking that wild horses in the wild are “overpopulating” since they exceed these often fabricated numbers. Nobody knows for certain but estimates range from around 18,000 to over 70,000 roaming in ten states. Even at the high end, consider that Colorado’s Elk herd is managed for a population of around 300,000, and in about one quarter of the state. How are so few wild horses perceived as such an enormous threat? Consider the source of your information, and follow the money.
I agree with you about livestock not belonging on public lands, especially as so few gain the advantage of cheap forage and then compete in a supposedly free market with livestock producers who have no access to permits. The difference is substantial in an industry where the net profit per cow/year is generally far less than $100. I also agree about feral pigs — who by some estimates now number over 6 MILLION and have been found in all but two states, one of those being Hawaii. They reproduce rapidly (females are sexually active as early as 3 months, can have two litters each year of up to 14 piglets), can reproduce for over a dozen years, are highly adaptive and highly destructive. Compare this with a wild mare, who is not sexually active until typically age two, has only one foal per year, and will abort under significant stress. Males live most of their lives in bachelor bands and most do not reproduce, only the dominant harem stallion breeds until he is dethroned.
Further, it is well established that most herds are “managed” in reducing acreages shared with far greater numbers of livestock in the prime forage productivity season, and that the wild horse herd populations are generally just at or below well establish genetic viability thresholds.
Your claim wild horses “cause more damage than managed cows” is curious, since wild horses and cattle are subject to the same management oversight by the BLM, and thus it falls on their shoulders to explain the resulting impacts from both species. It is also well known that cattle in particular (being non-native) homestead in riparian areas unless driven or lured out regulary, which is difficult at best to accomplish with the typical minimal, low-paid oversight provided. Wild horses, in contrast, if not artificially confined, will freely roam dozens of miles per day and tend not to linger at waterholes unless forced to by management decisions and lack of access to any other water.
It is true wild horses reproduce, but it is also true foals especially suffer high mortality rates in their first year, and that is is far cheaper to manage reproduction on the range than to have taxpayers continue to foot the bill for subsidized grazing, grazing and water “improvements” which are heavily subsidized for livestock producers, wildlife services which kills millions of livestock predators (and innocent other animals)annually, and the admittedly inefficient and ineffective wild horse and burro program, which even so costs each taxpayer around 25 cents ANNUALLY.
The law mandated wild horses and burros be managed at the “minimum feasible” level, which was and remains on the range, not the costly, unsustainable and unethical sytem of roundups, removals, warehousing, and now, fiscally irresponsible sale to slaughter for an export market. The cost of this approach should get everyone’s attention, as it further degrades what our citizens demanded and Congress unanimously provided in 1971, replacing it with crony capitalism at its worst and darkest. Wild horses at best will bring about $10 per mature adult (10 cents a pound)and sale to slaughter equals commodification of a public resource for private export market profiteering.
Your comments suggest 43 years of costly paid profession management somehow equivocates to “ignoring” public lands issues, which is also far from true. Admittedly, there are problems, but you naively imply if our entire continent was emptied of managers somehow we would revert to the Eden Manifest Destiny once promised. The waste of the West is very real, and includes a lot more than a few thousand wild horses can be blamed for.
Additionally, other countries have recognized wild horses as useful tools to restore damaged ecosystems. Why we don’t here is more related to politics than to biology. They evolved in this country in these ecosystems and as such Congress did recognize them as “part of a thriving natural ecological balance.” Wild horses have a right and a role here, and we have the obligation to decipher this intelligently and direct our managers towards improving that balance.
We can and must do better than the simplistic calculus of species vilification then extermination, for our American born wild horses and for ourselves. I am working on providing better and more sustainable approaches every day, how about you?
The horse is of North American origin and long-standing evolution and contributes so much that is positive to the ecosystem here. The horse is not a ruminant but a post-gastric, or caecal digester, and is more mobile. It builds healthy soils and seeds more plants successfully in its more broad movements. It is a real revitalizer of ecosytems where they belong. See my book The Wild Horse Conspiracy and my website by the same name. Also my petition Stop the Excessive Roundups on Move On dot org and let’s get on to restoring these magnificent horses to their natural state where they have a legal right and let’s not tamper with their reproductive systems in a very invasive and disruptive way that causes them much pain etc.
Dated but good article re: the controversy:
I know I’ve mentioned in some previous post, the fact that I have a petrified tooth, from an ice age horse (it was verified) I found it in Texas, in an old, dried up riverbed.
Horses were a native species to what most of us like to call America. And if their way of life has gotten a little to much for some humans, ranchers come to mind? After we used and abused them over the last century or two – how many were caught for wars & ranch life?
We need to respect the fact that while “reintroduced” they’ve “managed” to hang in there… IN their native lands, despite all odds – like public lands grazing by invasive species (cattle & sheep come to mind 🙂
In the 2016 Denver Post article – What area in Nevada is board member talking about visiting last year? Supposedly has 3,000 wild horses & all these invasive plants AND horse carcases near the water hole?
Wild horses eat the blunder of introduced, extremely flammable and invasive cheatgrass. That alone should be enough to keep them.
The public is going to have to ask themselves why it is that we allow livestock to dominate the landscape. There are 98.4 million cattle in the US, up 2% from 2014, and it is going to keep rising from there. (from USDA Cattle Inventory July 1, 2015).
The public wants our wild horses on the landscape, by law.
If cows are worse than horses, that does not make them good.
There’s a simple way to reduce the amount of suffering feral horses will experience now and in the future. It is to have no feral horses. We have 10 million horses owned and cared for by people in N America. That’s already too many.
Arguing with wild horse lovers is nearly useless for changing their minds – the point is to influence fence sitters, whose romance has not made them blind to the plight of feral horses or their bad effects. A lover’s a liar, to himself he lies.
Wow. You sound like you’ve sat in some extreme environmentalist’s class. The horse belongs here in the American West as part of the ecosystem that God selected for horse for many of millions of years. However, God intended for the horse to survive during times of climate extremes when He remade the Earth. He gave the horse speed on land and able to swim through water because he did not want the horse to perish, but to be a companion and helper to man and for man to lookout for horse. It is a great blessing that in this wide open lands, thousands of horses can manage themselves as they did when they were the most dominate animal in North America. Living within the social fabric of a herd, wild horses do beautifully without human intervention. Thankfully, they do equally well, worse, or better under the management by humans. These animals share 70% of our DNA, more than any other mammal other than primates. They will help us survive attacks on our electronic grid and help us attain power if our other systems go down as a result of cyber or other warfare. We’re fools to discard the blessings nature has provided us.
No wild horses? The people want them on the landscape. What kind of world would we have it we lived in a world without aesthetics and romance, art and history? I don’t want a world like that. It’s too cold-blooded for me and many others. Killing off another creature when they are no more use to us.
Wild horses are not hard on the landscape because there are so few of them. They actually do a lot of good, left to their own and not (again, like so many other creatures we’ve walled off or corralled off) confined to small spaces as they are migratory, and the people want them here. There are nearly 100 million cattle, and only number in the tens of thousands. The Western states like WA, OR and WY have about a million cattle each. CA has about 5 million. Texas 10 million. Montana and CO, about 2.5 million each. Idaho, 2 million. WI about 3 and a half million. And on and on it goes. And these figures are from 2015 so probably are lower that what is actually out there (as they say about wolves).
Ranchers who want to turn all of the nation’s lands that aren’t already being occupied for some human purpose into ranchland to feed our multitudes isn’t the entire story or all of the facts.
Sorry, ‘our wild horses only number in the tens of thousands’ that should read.
The public’s wishes should be respected on this.
Look, if combining forces leads to reducing numbers of cattle on the range, I’m all for it. Beyond that, if horse advocates are willing to support the cost of caring for the animals, and not the tax payer, then I can be supportive of having some horses on the landscape. If horse advocates cannot or will not accept limits to horses and management of their numbers, and actively work against scientific standards to determine the lands holding capacity for horses that would allow for native grazers (e.g. Bison, elk, and antelope) to flourish, then they will lose support of folks that could and should be their allies.
Well some taxpayers want to support them, so their voice should be heard. I’d want my taxpayer money to support wild horses as opposed to wolf gunnery. If only we had the choice.
I don’t think wild horses affect bison elk and antelope much at all, but cattle displaced them all, and much worse, result in their execution.
I am not anti-science or anti-human progress, but I don’t support those things to the exclusion and detriment of other creatures we are supposed to share the planet with.
We already have taken way more than our share.
Emotion and romance have become qualities that people want to distance themselves from in our modern world. But we have dual natures; our sensitive sides counteract our warlike, greedy sides, and redeem humanity. That should not be discouraged.
I understand the passion of horse advocates. I do. And I don’t disagree that cattle are the main problem. I would love to get to the point where cattle are mostly removed from public lands and we could actually get to the point of seriously debating if/how many horses should be allowed on public lands. And do some real science to determine their impact on the landscape and other species. I don’t foresee that happening in my lifetime, unfortunately.
Real science has been done, but not very much of it has been done since the 1990’s in this country. Congress decided 60 some years ago to protect wild horses as living monuments to our history and culture. They did not give livestock the same species specific protection. Cows are primarily food animals and the Western lands do not produce enough of the right kind of grass for them to grow at the rate of horses raised in the East and Midwest where grass is plentiful and it requires only 50 t0 60 acres to fatten them up for market instead of hundreds to thousands of acres as in the West.We don’t raise horses for food. They do not require the same kind of grasses. They do very well on cheatgrass and other wild grasses that many species do not eat. In the East horses and cattle often are seen grazing together or they are managed by alternating pastures. Species specialists find these animals do not choose the same grasses during the same seasons and are thus, complimentary grazers, rather than competitive ones. Horses and cows evolved very differently, but the intent of nature may have been to allow them to survive in the same ecosystems as they do in the East. Unlike cattle who favor bathing in algae covered ponds on the hottest days of summer, horses prefer wind–wind that helps with pesky flies and keeps them cool. These conditions are found in the West and along the coastal areas, both places where horses have done well on their own.
horses prefer wind–wind that helps with pesky flies and keeps them cool.
What could be more beautiful than that. These animals are one of the emblematic of the West and the cultures of this nation.
If we value science on this blog, which I hope we do, please provide links to support the contention that horses eat forage that other grazers (other than cattle) don’t eat, that they do not forage around riparian zones, and that they don’t bathe in water.
I have accepted having some horses (and donkeys for that matter) on the range for their historic value. I would like to see horse advocates be intellectually honest about not having any management done with horses, if that is what they believe, or being willing to accept some management of horse numbers if and when we get to the point that cattle numbers are significantly reduced. I also accept that horses were part of the recent prehistoric North American landscape. So were American Camels, American Lions and a variety of other mammals. See (http://www.amnh.org/science/biodiversity/extinction/IntroFourteenFS.html). But they all died out for reasons that remain unclear. Do we bring their cousins back too to complement the horse on the Western Landscape?
Again, to be clear, I am not anti-horse, but they should not hold a place that is elevated above any other species to maintain a healthy, balanced ecosystem. This discussion is all hypothetical anyway, because as long as cattle dominate the landscape the way they do today, we will not healthy ecosystems.
Curious Patrick, have you watched this documentary on wild horses?
Hey Patrick, good thoughtful comments. Here’s some replies.
First, wild horses and burros have been and are today being managed in restricted (and ever shrinking) legal areas. To imply they are not is disingenuous at best. The arguments center on the lack of accurate population numbers (or realistic reproduction/mortality rates used in modeling), and what form management should take. The law mandates this be the “minimum feasible” which is as far from the current roundup/remove/warehouse in segregated, neutered herds for life as can be imagined. On this I think we can all agree. The law also requires they be managed to maintain a “thriving natural ecological balance” as you also support. That we don’t have that now is not the fault of wild horses but of their paid professional managers.
Next, the fossil record shows us that wild horse predate Bison on this continent, so your comment giving preference to Bison is not science based. The fossil record also includes radiocarbon dated bones which range from 11,000 YBP to around 700 YBP, so it is not conclusive that all wild horses were completely extinct here prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. Who was counting them then, for one, and who can show me the last bone from the last dead wild horse? I expect more fossils will be dated in years ahead, but for now the standard dogma is also not completely proven science.
Also, your comment that wild horse advocates are not already paying taxes that support wild horses is curious. All Americans are stakeholders in their care and management; again the arguments are what form that should take, and not centered on “who or if.” I don’t like many things my government pays for, including subsidized livestock grazing, but there are few mechanisms allowed in our current that allow citizens to vote with our wallets. I could support, for instance, a wild horse habitat stamp which people could buy freely, if those funds were not disappeared into the bowels of the BLM but would in truth be used for the purposes intended.
Wild horses of course have to have water, and do swim! However, if given sufficient range they don’t tend to linger in the riparian zones like cattle naturally do. There are videos circulating which show both wild horses and burros will in fact dig to find water in dry areas, which then makes that water accessible to other wildlife… and probably some livestock as well.
As to grazing, horses (and all grazers) will eat whatever they are forced to once confined, or starve to death, but various university studies have shown the overlap between cattle and wild horses is greater in winter in the West, for obvious reasons. It’s also mandated in the law that in their legal areas, wild horses and burros are to be given “principal” rights to the forage there, but most if not all the remaining legal wild horse areas also have been allowed to include grazing livestock. The legal wild horses and burro areas have been reduced by nearly half since 1971 while grazing permits for cattle and sheep grazing (both undeniably nonnatives) far outnumber those allowed for wild horses and burros. Why? There is no significant public benefit from livestock grazing, and substantial negatives. Among these: the few with grazing permits have a distinct advantage in the supposedly “free” market. One university study from 2013 in NM concluded “A positive BLM permit value was realized when the base ranch had about 40% of the acreage on leased lands.” Since that 40% use is in the prime grazing season, that amounts to at least a 40% competitive edge against those who have to pay for private lands grazing — typically about 10X what the BLM charges. In addition, the overall numbers of livestock spending some of their lives grazing public lands is a negligible portion of our overall food production, and some is exported, so the picture is clearly one of the majority paying to prop up a very few, with no net public benefit.
Consider that a cow/calf pair grazing fee in 2017 is $1.87 per moth (1 AUM). Then consider the cost of keeping a single wild horse fed off-range in a pen is between $4-5 A DAY. Additional costs of roundups, processing, transporting, keeping a database etc. are not included here, nor the substantial ecological costs of livestock grazing in many instances. The BLM has always had the authority to reduce, rescind or revoke livestock grazing permits but rarely does so, instead preferring to burden taxpayers with an enormous livestock grazing subsidy (the program goes in the red well over $1M annually), then charging us for an admittedly unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible off-range “management” strategy that produces the worst possible outcomes for our wild horses and burros, our citizens, and our public lands.
It would make a great deal of financial societal sense to start with rescinding the permits for livestock grazing in the designated wild horse and burro areas. It would also clarify how each species interacts with their habitat. This would be easy to do and would go a long way towards clearing the air and helping create better management regimens. The current options seem always to include only “overpopulate/starve/die” or “roundup/remove/warehouse/slaughter.” But there are many in between models which could be constructively entertained.
On-range management using accurate population monitoring and highly selective, humane, science-based culling/contraception seems to me the only logical course. The one we are on today is serving only a few at the expense of the many. Surely we can do better, before it is too late. There is room on the range for America’s iconic wild horses and burros, the question seems to be if there is any left in our public conscience.
One last bit, consider there are “maybe” 50-70,000 wild horses roaming their legal lands in a combined ten Western states as you read this article. It indicates 37,792 AUMS (which is actually twice that many animals) are permitted to graze on 275,000 acres of public lands in ID, which if I calculated correctly indicates about .27 acres per cow/calf pair/month in the desert ecosystem of Craters of the Moon National Monument (a biological impossibility, especially in such a harsh, dry environment — think roast beef!. Also keep in mind that monitoring can sometimes happen only once in a decade, and agency-wide cuts will surely reduce this further.
“The plan, the agency said, allows officials to manage sagebrush landscapes and habitat with a small adjustment to grazing levels without harming the local economy. The Bureau of Land Management administers about 275,000 acres of the 738,000 acres of federal lands in the monument.
Specifically, the plan alters two grazing boundaries and sets the maximum number of AUMs at 37,792. An AUM, or animal unit month, under federal rules is the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month. AUMs are used to calculate grazing fees ranchers pay to the federal government.
Western Watersheds Project protested the conclusions of the environmental review leading to the BLM’s record of decision. The group contends that cattle grazing isn’t compatible in the monument that contains 700-year-old juniper trees and some of the last undisturbed native vegetation in the Snake River Plain.”
Paul S. Martin, who developed the overkill theory to account for the Pleistocene extinction of North American megafauna, wrote the following in his book Twilight of the Mammoths:
Ignorance of the late-Pleistocene extinctions warps our view of what “state of nature” we should be trying to conserve or restore. In North America, the modern extinction-pruned large mammal fauna, those animals at “home on the range” since European settlement, are not a normal evolutionary assemblage. The fossil record thus suggests, for instance, that we reconsider the impact of wild equids in the New World. Because horses evolved here, flourished for tens of millions of years, and vanished around 13,000 years ago, their arrival with the Spanish in the 1500s was a restoration, not an alien invasion. In evaluating the ecological impacts of wild horses and burros, we need to be aware not just of their presence in the last half millennium, but of the coevolution of equids with the land for tens of millions of years before a relatively brief 10,000-year interruption.
I hate to call cattle a problem also, it’s because we raise them. Cattle and human wealth have been connected since almost the dawn of humanity, so I don’t see it going away any time soon either.
Very well said, Ida.
If horse lovers are willing to support the cost of wild horse management, they can exists or some small number
How many of which species is allowable under that model?
No doubt cows have much greater impact on ecosystems than do horses. Recognizing this should not come with ignoring or dismissing the impacts horses do have.
As a WWP donor, I think it unwise to advocate and fund horse protect without a general consensus within the organization to do so.
I have been a member and donor of WWP for many years. The wild horses are actually symbiotic to ecosystems. Now wild horses are being used in some coutries to restore ecosystems. There used to be 2 million wild horses and millions of bison and grass was stirrup high. Then cattle took over the West.
Scourges? That’s a little much, isn’t it? I wouldn’t trust junk articles from either side of the political spectrum – just the ones based on real science.
The problem I have with ‘get rid of the invasives’ thinking is – just where is the setpoint? (Personally, I’d like to think it was 1492.)
It isn’t possible to recreate some idealized state. We’re going to have to live with the results of our human activities, I think. Killing and poisoning off everything is not only unethical and unrealistic, but unhealthy for our environment. Just because horses were domesticated by man, does not mean they didn’t evolve naturally.
And, the public wants them on the landscape.
And just so there is no confusion, my “+1” was for Patrick’s comment at 6:35 on Aug. 13.
Anything that starts out with the word ‘scourges’ is overly-dramatic hyberbole.
If you want the true picture of damage to the Western lands and livestock industry influence/mismanagement by the BLM, how about the NAS report for carrying weight?
Disappointingly ignored by Sally Jewell, it’s ‘the’ scientific report, and I swear
atby it. I don’t expect much from Republicans and Conservatives, but the Democrats I did expect more from. I’m not sure how to access the full report (there are links), but here’s some key findings by the AWC, and some articles published in the Atlantic:
To be fair, it seems the livestock industry has so much influenced anyone would be overwhelmed.
Influencing university hirings/firings as in George’s thread, politicians.
I wholeheartedly believe that the wild horses and burros have every right to be wild. I am not fond of footing the feed bill for losers who decide that they dont want to pay their grazing fees for 20 years, leaving me and the rest of us to pay it for them. BLM keeps saying “the grazing lands can only sustain xxx amount of horses and burros” Thats because the cattle and sheep eat EVERYTHING!!!
I should NOT have to pay taxes on land that cattle and sheep are destroying because the BLM gives the ranchers a discount price to use it. I cant let my dogs run loose and GRAZE on public land. If you cant feed 50 head of cattle, then you shouldnt have 50 head of cattle, if you cant house them and care for them on YOUR PROPERTY then you shouldnt have them. and if you cant or wont pay your grazing fees then your cattle should be seized and sold to pay back the tax payers you have ripped off for years
It’s terribly, terribly cruel and unfeeling, and beneath human dignity to treat another living thing in this way, especially for money. That horses helped humanity get to their so-called ‘lofty’ position in the world, and then to treat them in this way, is beyond shameful.
Interesting, I had a daily photo that was of the Painted Hills in Oregon, and this was the caption:
“The passage of time has left its mark on central Oregon’s Painted Hills, part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Colorful layers of ash and soil tell a story of an era some 30 million years ago, when the region was a rich flood plain, roamed by horses, camels, and even rhinoceroses. Their fossilized remains can all be found here, attracting paleontologists and tourists alike.”
Some blogs on horses and public lands:
It is so wrong to scapegoat/blame the returned North America native wild horses for ecological damages that people basically are causing. They are actually great bringers/restorers of balance, in America’s public lands and elsewhere, contributing more to soils, seed dispersal, and in many other ways. see my book The Wild Horse Conspiracy, esp. Chapter II