Too much of a good thing: wild horses on public lands

I grew up with a dozen horses on Colorado’s eastern plains. In winter, I busted hay bales to feed them and, under a star-strewn sky, I chopped holes in iced-over water tanks so the animals could drink. When I left for college we sold the string, but I’ve always believed that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. Now I ride whenever I can, especially into remote hunting camps. But I’ve come to question so-called wild horses on our public lands.

Sure, they look great. Manes flying. Tails outstretched as herds gambol across open spaces, but in the process they endanger native plants, introduce invasive species, hug rare water holes that other mammals need, and continue to multiply. What kind of symbol is this for the American West?

Unlike mule deer, elk or mountain lions, wild horses aren’t really wild. They are feral. Set loose. Perhaps a few rare specimens represent the genetics of Moorish ponies brought over from Spain five centuries ago, but most so-called wild horses were simply abandoned. Owners continue to release domestic horses onto public lands, especially when the economy turns or hay prices rise.

Thanks to the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act (1971), herds on public lands are protected. As they should be. But what the act never considered was equine fertility.

One of the icons of the West, enshrined in myth, is now scientifically being re-examined. Three decades after the law was passed, we know a lot more about ecosystem balance and the carrying capacity of animals on public lands. Factor in drought, and ecological conditions are getting desperate.

According to a December 2010 report by the Office of the Inspector General, the number of wild horses and burros adopted out decreased from 6,644 in 2004 to only 2,960 in 2010, yet the herd size doubles every four years, and “each year the number of wild horses and burros the Bureau of Land Management manages increases as does the level of public interest and scrutiny.”

Where the animals grazed in 1971 are designated herd management areas or HMAs, covering 32 million acres in 10 Western states. On that ground the BLM controls 180 HMAs, which in Colorado includes the Spring Creek herd in the Disappointment Valley, the Piceance Basin/East Douglas Creek herd west of Meeker and the Little Book Cliffs herd northeast of Grand Junction.

More than 30,000 head of feral horses from Bureau of Land Management land are in “long-term holding facilities” where animals no longer inhabit desert and sagebrush landscapes but instead have been shipped east. You and I as taxpayers are footing the bill for their final years. Call it donkey welfare.

Though the Wild Horse and Burro Act does not apply to the National Park Service, the Park Service has a few horsey headaches of its own. At Mesa Verde National Park, feral trespass horses have run into the park from the south and Ute Mountain Ute land. One attempt to fence them out actually fenced them in. Roughly 100 in-bred horses continue to damage rare and threatened plants and to pollute sacred springs known and revered by Pueblo Indian tribes.

I’m an environmentalist, but also a pragmatist. We simply have too many feral horses and burros threatening ecological balance. So, by default we now practice equine birth control. Volunteers shoot mares with contraceptive darts that after a few years lose their potency. Then it’s time to pull the trigger again.

For wild horse lovers, that strategy far exceeds the bruising benefits of helicopter roundups, now called “gathers” by the BLM, which can run animals into dense oak brush or box canyons and can certainly produce panic and fatigue horses as they are crowded into corrals.

The OIG admits, “The risk that horses or burros will be injured or killed is an unavoidable consequence of gathering. Injuries and broken bones can and do result from the effort to herd, capture, and transport the animals.”

After the gathers, it’s off to pleasant pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma or South Dakota at a total taxpayer cost for the horse and burro program of $66 million annually and climbing. It’s time to stop and smell the sagebrush. We need laws that allow federal agencies to sell or auction feral horses and burros to be re-cycled into food products. The French love horsemeat. Let them eat it.

I grew up with horses. I’ve placed my head against their warm flanks after currying them down. I love their smells and their soft lips, the way they blow on an apple before they eat it, and I’ve enjoyed the comfort of sitting a saddle knowing that a good horse will find its way home no matter how dark the trail. I also believe you can have too much of a good thing, and we have too many feral horses on public land.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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