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Of Horses, Humans, and Mountain Lions, Part I

This is post 1 of 2 in "Of Horses, Humans, and Mountain Lions."

Wild horses and burros are icons of the American West, but their management evokes profound ethical questions about animal protection, landscape protection, and the complicated terrain where the two sometimes conflict. In this 2-part series, Kim Crumbo advocates the recovery of native predators as a more ecological approach to wild horse management. All posts in this series…

Closeup of a beautiful young tan horse with a white stripe on its face
Our stories intertwine. Photo: Karen Arnold

People generally like horses.

The horse, so closely linked to humankind, bestows immense cultural value as a symbol of grace, beauty, companionship, and courage. Our stories intertwine.

Horses have been our faithful companions for millennia, but as beasts of burden and the warrior’s mount, they have also suffered greatly at our hands. History and literature are replete with grotesque examples of animal cruelty.

One tragic example is the estimated 8 million horses and countless mules and donkeys who perished in the First World War. They were used to transport ammunition and supplies to the front and many died, not only from the horrors of shellfire, but also in terrible weather and appalling conditions. Similarly, more than a million horses are believed to have been killed during the U.S. American Civil War.

Newspaper clipping showing soldiers mounted on horses in a village street
An estimated 8 million horses died in World War I. Photo: Library of Congress

More recently, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims, with credible evidence, that an appalling 130,000 American horses were slaughtered in Mexico and Canada in 2015. They attribute this atrocity to irresponsible breeding associated with the rodeo, racing, and show industries, which produce more animals than they can care for in a humane manner. The last horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. closed their doors about a decade ago.

Most of us have no trouble arguing for the humane treatment of horses who “belong” to humans—but what of today’s so-called wild horses?

Most of us have no trouble arguing for the humane treatment of horses who “belong” to humans—but what of today’s so-called wild horses, who long ago escaped the confines of the fenced pasture or barn and now range freely across huge areas of the American West?

Currently, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and, to a lesser extent, U.S. Forest Service, manage approximately 70,000 wild horses and 8,500 burros on roughly 31.6 million acres in 10 western states—with controls taking place across 177 Herd Management Areas. These creatures, every bit as sentient as people’s pet horses or the iconic Clydesdales advertising “This Bud’s for you,” evoke profound ethical questions about animal protection, landscape protection, and the complicated terrain where the two sometimes conflict.

Numerous horses run in a wide open grassland with snowy mountains in the background
The BLM and US Forest Service manage approximately 70,000 wild horses and 8,500 burros. Photo: BLM

Are Wild Horses Really Wild—or Native?

Horses originated in North America, but disappeared from our continent around 13,000–11,000 years ago. Today’s free-ranging horses (also called mustangs) are descendants of European and Asian domestic horses brought back to the continent in ships. There is some debate as to whether mustangs should be considered native and therefore “wild,” versus “feral”—in a wild state after escape from captivity. In any event, federal law requires the government to protect these animals at-large.

The protective legislation was hard-won. By the mid-20th century, horse and burro populations had increased to levels that competed with other uses—most often, livestock grazing. During the 1950s, Velma B. Johnston, later known as “Wild Horse Annie,” became alarmed by the ruthless manner in which ranchers and hunters rounded up wild horses on western wildlands for commercial purposes, usually involving their slaughter. In 1959, congress passed the Wild Horse Annie Act, which prohibited the use of motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses and burros on all public lands.

A white horse running fast against a blurred grassland background
A wild horse runs on public lands in Wyoming. Photo: BLM

The Wild Horse Annie Act, however, did not include Annie’s recommendation for provisions to protect, manage, and control wild horses and burros. Further public concern and pressures lead to the widespread realization that wild horses and burros—symbols of the pioneer spirit of the West—were fast disappearing. The resulting Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 provides specific protections to “all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands of the United States,” and makes it a crime for anyone to harass or kill them on federal land.

Although stipulating that free-ranging horses and burros are “an integral part of the natural system of the public lands,” the 1971 Act constrains their range to “their known territorial limits” in 1971. Congress intended that agencies would manage the animals at “the minimal feasible level” while achieving and maintaining “a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands”—by protecting wildlife habitat, preventing range deterioration…and more often than not, allow grazing of livestock.

Horses and Cows at Home on the Range

There is no doubt that grazing, browsing, and trampling by domestic herbivores, such as horses and cows, damage arid environments. It’s also worth noting that, while mustangs are entirely absent in many parts of the West, vast herds of domestic livestock graze on 155 million acres of public land, compared to the 36.6 million acres available to wild horses (and often shared by livestock.) Cows outnumber wild horses by more than 37 to 1 on western lands, and, by some estimates, consume 55 times more forage. In other words, domestic livestock are a much more significant cause of habitat loss on public lands than wild horses.

Cows wander an arid landscape with mountains in the distance
Livestock, like these cows in Utah, vastly outnumber wild horses and burros on public lands. Photo: BLM

The BLM’s task to maintain a thriving natural ecological balance within its management boundaries is complicated by ecological degradation from horse and cattle grazing; habitat fragmentation due to fences, roads, and other development; and the absence of native predators. BLM therefore attempts to control herd numbers at “appropriate management levels” by removing animals in controversial roundups, more euphemistically called “gathers.” These $80-million-a-year operations include helicopters chasing thousands of horses over rugged terrain, often resulting in serious injuries to and deaths of mares, stallions, and foals. Captured, often traumatized horses are either adopted or sent off to live out their lives in holding pastures.

Horses running in an arid grassland with a helicopter chasing them from behind
Wild horses are often injured or killed in round-ups like this one in the Cedar Mountains of Utah. Photo: BLM

Contraceptive vaccines have been used to help limit wild horse reproduction for more than 20 years. Meanwhile, between 5,000 and 10,000 animals are offered up each year for adoption, and since 1973, the BLM’s adoption program has relocated about 100,000 wild horses and burros to private care. In 2012, more than 45,000 animals were kept in holding facilities, with holding costs consuming about half the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s reported budget.

A small, fuzzy burro with long ears likes in the hay in a corral
A young wild burro awaits adoption. Photo: BLM

The short- and long-term effects of roundups, relocation, and confinement on previously free-roaming horses and burros is little understood. Although some privately managed sanctuaries provide what appears to be adequate care, including shelter, food, and open space, the fate of adopted animals varies between good, bad, and unknown.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act also authorizes the destruction of old, sick, or lame animals, and allows unadopted animals to be “destroyed in the most humane and cost-efficient manner possible—as if this were even possible. Fortunately, the actual slaughter of healthy, unadopted animals has been restricted in most years either by a moratorium instituted by the director of BLM or by the annual congressional appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior. Of course, under the current administration and Congress, the rules could change.

Dozens of horses stand in fenced-in corrals
Each year, between 5,000 and 10,000 wild horses and burros are offered up for adoption. Photo: BLM

Stepping back, there is a sad irony here. Federal control of horses and burros results in markedly improved habitat conditions, thus improving the physical health of those animals who are spared. Healthy horses then produce more offspring, significantly increasing the total number of animals.

As the National Academy of Sciences explained in a 2013 report, the existing policy’s focus on moving “extra” wild horses to corralled land is “likely to keep the population at a size that maximizes population growth rates, which in turn maximizes the number of animals that must be removed to holding facilities.” Since horse populations continue to grow at 15 to 20 percent each year, the BLM’s program only exacerbates an expensive, counterproductive effort to manage wild horses at the minimal feasible level.

In Part II: Do Wild Horses Need Mountain Lions?

(to be continued)

More posts from Of Horses, Humans, and Mountain Lions

  1. Of Horses, Humans, and Mountain Lions, Part I, November 21, 2018
  2. Of Horses, Humans, and Mountain Lions, Part II, November 29, 2018

2 thoughts on “Of Horses, Humans, and Mountain Lions, Part II

  1. The BLM has reportedly decided not to engage in efforts at contraception to control feral horse and burro populations after all, citing exorbitant cost as a major issue, and will instead put greater effort into its adoption program: https://www.hcn.org/articles/latest-blm-abandons-plan-to-surgically-sterilize-wild-horses?utm_source=wcn1&utm_medium=email

    Now might be a good time for conservation organizations to unite in proposing the natural remedy of healthy cougar and wolf populations. The difficulty, of course, will be in getting state wildlife management agencies to support such a proposal. Still, maybe a pilot project could be designed that can be shared with interested agencies and those they serve. If enough safeguards are guaranteed, it might be possible to attract interest.

    Kirk Robinson
    Western Wildlife Conservancy

    1. Kirk, I don’t see how abandoning contraception will contribute to resolution of problems with the current wild horse management problem. The adoption effort is important, but it’s not particularly cost effective. As Ellie Phipps, vice president of the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), pointed out, “advocates and even some local bureau offices have shown, there are effective methods to reduce fertility in wild horses. Using dart guns, small teams of workers can effectively control large populations of wild horses without having to permanently corral them.”

      While we should continue to offer state wildlife management agencies viable, in this case feasible alternatives, additional scientific conformation of the value of carnivores would be valuable. We’ve suggested replicating the Montgomery Pass studies by establishing cougar refugia of sufficient size supporting ecologically effective lion populations within wild Horse Management Areas. That would mean NO hunting of cougars, contraception as suggested by AWHC, and an effective and monitored adoption effort, at least for the life of the long-term study.

      We also need to depend upon our allies and other kindred souls for help, and when necessary demonstrate “overwhelming” support for scientifically credible, compassionate solutions–if you get my drift.
      Kim

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