When horses go wild

Un­re­stricted herds are ru­in­ing the West’s frag­ile land­scape

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Sharon O’Toole

Imag­ine the ter­ror of the young woman as she wheeled her horse around, grop­ing for her lasso. She faced the wild stal­lion and whooped, snap­ping the rope. He stomped and trot­ted off. The woman and her young niece were gath­er­ing cat­tle, on their pri­vate ranch­land. The wild horse shouldn’t have been there. She was break­ing the law by “ha­rass­ing” the horse. To live in wild horse coun­try is to have sto­ries. The wild horse de­bate is one of strong di­vides and even stronger opin­ions.

This is­sue, which dom­i­nates the Western United States as more than 70,000 ex­cess horses dam­age the land­scape, will be front and cen­ter in Washington when the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee de­bates the In­te­rior ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill. Part of that dis­cus­sion con­cerns the con­trol of the wild horse pop­u­la­tion through “sale with­out re­stric­tion,” in­clud­ing slaugh­ter.

How did we come to have an un­sus­tain­able num­ber of wild horses and bur­ros sup­ported by tax­pay­ers to the tune of $80.4 mil­lion this year?

Since the 1970s, the govern­ment has had rules in place to try to man­age the pop­u­la­tion. The Wild Free-Roam­ing Horses and Burro Act of 1971 cre­ated Horse Man­age­ment Ar­eas (HMAs). The Bureau of Land Man­age­ment (BLM) was tasked “to de­ter­mine the ar­eas where horses and bur­ros were found roam­ing and to man­age them ‘in a man­ner that is de­signed to achieve and main­tain a thriv­ing nat­u­ral eco­log­i­cal bal­ance on the pub­lic lands.’ ” In 1971, 17,300 feral horses and 8,045 bur­ros roamed the range.

Tar­get horse pop­u­la­tions were based on sus­tain­abil­ity, and “mul­ti­ple use” man­dates for graz­ing, wildlife and healthy range­land. Ex­cess horses were to be gath­ered and healthy horses adopted.

How­ever, adop­tions (2,912 in 2016) hardly im­pact the grow­ing herds, and horse ad­vo­cates have con­vinced Congress to for­bid sale for slaugh­ter. Horse herds in­crease by about 20 per­cent each year, dou­bling every 4-5 years, creat­ing the un­sus­tain­able “per­fect storm” we face today. The sen­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 40 states don’t have wild horses, but they do have con­stituents who lobby for un­fet­tered horse “rights.”

Horse ad­vo­cates ar­gue that horses are na­tive, even though modern horses ar­rived on Span­ish ships, along with cat­tle, sheep, pigs and chick­ens. They char­ac­ter­ize fam­i­lies like mine as greedy “mil­lion­aire and bil­lion­aire ranch­ers.” We see our­selves as hard­work­ing food pro­duc­ers and land stew­ards, who are feed­ing Amer­i­cans.

Horse ad­vo­cates are painted as crazy wingnuts spout­ing wild rhetoric and death threats. They are usu­ally an­i­mal and out­door lovers who may not re­al­ize the col­lat­eral dam­age of their quest to save wild horses.

In the end, it doesn’t mat­ter. North Amer­ica is ir­re­vo­ca­bly changed, and we must find a sus­tain­able path.

Wild horses are in­deed glo­ri­ous, and an im­por­tant part of our na­tion’s story.

Do­mes­tic or wild — horses are, in fact, hard on frag­ile ecosys­tems, in­clud­ing the near-en­dan­gered sage grouse. Most un­gu­lates — cat­tle, sheep, goats, elk, deer, an­te­lope — have only lower teeth and a hard up­per palate. They are cloven-hooved, aer­at­ing the soil, and have mul­ti­ple stom­achs for ef­fi­cient di­ges­tion. Horses, with their large, heavy hooves, top and bot­tom teeth and sin­gle stom­achs are more im­pact­ful.

“If we don’t man­age the horses, we know we’ll lose the sage brush habi­tat and all the com­men­su­rate species,” says Na­tional Audubon So­ci­ety’s Brian Rut­ledge. “Horses are a ter­mi­nal threat to greater sage grouse be­cause they de­stroy the habi­tat and the ob­li­gate species to that habi­tat.” Those species can­not sur­vive “a lu­di­crous num­ber of horses.”

The facts, ac­cord­ing to the Pub­lic Lands Coun­cil’s Ethan Lane, are th­ese: 40 per­cent of western cat­tle and 50 per­cent of sheep live part of their lives on pub­lic lands. While graz­ing fees seem low, pub­lic lands ranch­ers save the govern­ment $760 mil­lion in land man­age­ment through prac­tices such as wa­ter devel­op­ment and weed con­trol, and add $1.5 bil­lion to the U.S. econ­omy. They man­age th­ese live­stock, which do not graze year-round.

Some horse ad­vo­cates do work

Do­mes­tic or wild — horses are, in fact, hard on frag­ile ecosys­tems, in­clud­ing the nearen­dan­gered sage grouse.

to­ward so­lu­tions. The Sand Wash Ad­vo­cate Team north of Craig, Colo., trains peo­ple to mon­i­tor horses in the Sand Wash Horse Man­age­ment Area, ad­min­is­ter PZP birth con­trol, co­op­er­ate with the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment on pro­jects, and pro­mote adop­tion of horses.

Den­nis Car­pen­ter, BLM dis­trict man­ager for the Rawlins, Wyo., field of­fice, says, “It is hard to man­age if the only tools in the tool­box are gath­ers and PZP.” Horse pop­u­la­tions in his dis­trict’s HMAs are four times over the ob­jec­tive, with no au­tho­rized gath­ers in sight. PZP is only ad­min­is­tered to 1 per­cent of wild horses, and has limited ef­fect.

Congress should sup­port the sale of wild horses with­out re­stric­tion. The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, in which tax­pay­ers sup­port at least 70,000 ex­cess horses, leaves us with no end in sight — not in num­bers, not in fund­ing, not in eco­log­i­cal dam­age. We des­per­ately need a real so­lu­tion to save the ma­jes­tic Western land­scape. Sharon S. O’Toole is a rancher near Sav­ery, Wyo., and writes about ru­ral, nat­u­ral re­source and con­ser­va­tion is­sues.


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