Section Menu

Of Horses, Humans, and Mountain Lions, Part II

This is post 2 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…

The free-ranging life of wild horses and burros is not without its natural hazards. Weather especially can be cruel, and often lethal. The threat of drought and thirst often looms on the horizon. Injury, even minor injury, can lead to infection, suffering, and death. Predation is not a major worry for wild horses and burros at present—but there are long-term costs for one less worry.

A thin, gray burro stands in a dry landscape with mountains and a bright blue sky in the background
Drought and thirst often loom on the horizon for wild horses and burros. Photo: BLM

Do Wild Horses Need Mountain Lions?

North American horses evolved in the presence of abundant, large, and fierce carnivores, including the “American” lions, sabertooth cats, cheetahs, and short-faced bears, all of whom helped to keep the many huge, hungry herbivores (mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths) in check.

A large cat-like creature with long fangs stands on a cliff overlooking a valley
North American horses evolved with sabertooth cats. Image: Charles R. Knight (Public domain)

Thanks to these and other formidable predators, early horses became the swift, agile, and social creatures we know today. Researchers have surmised that it was the slow but cunning, exotic, early human hunters—not four-legged predators—who wiped out horses and much of the other Pleistocene wildlife in North America. But somewhere along the way, Asian and European horse and human descendants learned how to persist, coexist and, depending on varying circumstances and perspectives, mutually benefit.

The loss of apex mammalian predators can precipitate ecological chain reactions that lead to profound habitat degradation and species loss.

North America’s surviving apex predators are large-bodied carnivores who occupy the highest trophic level. When abundant enough to be ecologically effective, these keystone species help to regulate prey populations and thus maintain native habitats and the diversity of other native species. Conversely, scientists have discovered that the loss of apex mammalian predators can precipitate ecological chain reactions that lead to profound habitat degradation and species loss.

Mountain lions, also called cougars, pumas, and panthers, are apex predators widely distributed through the American West—though their range, like that of the other native large carnivores, was greatly reduced by European settlers. Cougars don’t commonly prey on free-ranging horses and burros in North America, primarily because they are heavily hunted themselves. There is evidence, however, that a non-hunted cougar population can potentially limit wild horses through the predation of foals.

A large tan cat walks on a white, pebbly shore near water.
Mountain lions are apex predators in the American West. Photo: National Park Service

In the Montgomery Pass Wild Horse Territory on the California/Nevada border, there has been essentially no lion hunting for the past 30 years. This region serves as a unique refuge for both wild horses and cougars. As such, it appears that the Territory’s un-hunted lion population hovers around what we might arguably call an ecologically effective level and significantly contributes to the control of the wild horse population.

Studies have shown that ecologically effective populations of apex predators limit population irruptions of both native and introduced species and can provide better outcomes than lethal management. Therefore, the preservation or recovery of large predators—which, like wild horses, require extensive refugia—presents a significant conservation need for maintaining the resiliency of wildland ecosystems, especially in the face of a rapidly changing climate. According to a 2015 paper published by Adrian Wallach and colleagues in Oikos:

The recovery of apex predators offers an alternative response to introduced species that can simultaneously reduce the harm they cause, reduce the harm society feels compelled to cause them, and capitalize on their values. This approach is not without its challenges: society remains apprehensive towards both large predators and non-native organisms and both are subjected to eradications efforts. Nevertheless considering rapid environmental change, some species will need to move to survive, and resident ecosystems will need large predators in order to adapt. Overall, to achieve better outcomes for the biodiversity we will have to transition our efforts away from killing introduced species and towards promoting ecological mechanisms that enable coexistence.

Interestingly, within the Montgomery Pass Wild Horse Territory, wild horses eventually learned to avoid the high, rugged terrain optimal for cougar predation, preferring the open lowlands where cougars were less effective. In other words, the horses figured out how to evade mountain lions. As scientists noted, the clever horses will now “require more active management to assure habitat well-being.” By active management, they mean continued horse round-ups and contraceptive measures. I would argue that there is another, albeit contentious, option necessary for the resolution of wild horse management.

Half a dozen horses in a metal fenced corral
Wild horses await their fate after being rounded-up from the range. Photo: BLM

Mountain lions in the Great Basin would not be able to limit wild horse populations to a sustainable level on their own. Thus, some researchers suggest that reestablishing a more complete suite of native carnivores through the reintroduction of gray wolves, in concert with supporting a naturally evolving mountain lion population, would provide the basis for an ecologically and economically sound, long-term solution. This approach would not only help stabilize wild horse populations, but would also greatly contribute to restoring native grasslands, woodlands, and forests.

Wolves have proven themselves quite capable of preying on horses and, with sufficient numbers, would no doubt be effective predators in wild horse terrain. Although the active reintroduction of wolves to this terrain may exceed present political realities, I think it’s worth pointing out that any wolf entering Nevada or Utah—the states containing the bulk of Herd Management Areas—would be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The Northern Rockies host a viable source population of wolves, and the Southwest could eventually serve a similar role, pending successful litigation to advance the recovery of Mexican wolves.

A brown, black and white wolf runs across the frame, toward the left of the frame. The wolf's front paws are off the ground and his tongue is out. He's running on dry scrubby ground.
With proper conservation, wolves—like this Mexican wolf—could someday contribute to wild horse management. Photo: Jim Clark, USFWS

Merging Science and Ethics

The National Research Council, organized by the National Academy of Sciences, has repeatedly make it clear that decisions regarding the management of free-ranging horses and burros should draw on the best available scientific information. The current program is not economically sustainable or socially acceptable, but allowing horses to suffer malnutrition and starvation is also abhorrent to many. Likewise, the slaughter of “excess” but otherwise healthy animals guarantees public outrage. A satisfactory resolution will take time, resources, and dedication to a combination of strategies grounded in science.

There is a broad spectrum of public opinion regarding how wild horses and burros should be managed, but there is also common ground as to the goal of sustaining healthy horse and burro populations on healthy rangelands. Some people express concern for other species that are adversely affected by horse populations. Others think horses are unfairly restricted and that populations are managed at too low a level to maintain genetically healthy herds. And yet another significant group are concerned about the stress placed on animals during gathers and in holding facilities.

2 brown horses each stand on 2 legs making contact with one another, with dry, snowy mountains in the background
There is common ground as to the goal of sustaining healthy horse and burro populations on healthy rangelands. Photo: BLM

Wherever we fall, there is clearly a problem with wild horse management. I for one believe there are too many animals, cows as well as horses, living within the existing Herd Management Areas—complicating an effective, compassionate, long-term resolution. I should emphasize that slaughter is not acceptable to me, but neither is starvation, as sometimes, if not often, occurs.

The fate of wild horses is a national concern.

The fate of wild horses is a national concern. The National Research Council has repeatedly recommended the we garner a better understanding of the perceptions, values, and preferences regarding horse and burro management.

At the same time, our chief task as conservationists remains to provide a voice for Wild Nature and to enlist the broad-based support of as many people as possible by promoting understanding of the age-old relationship between predator and prey. Any sustainable, long-term approach to managing free-ranging horses requires a serious, scientific evaluation of the role native carnivores should play in this effort. We should also keep in mind that social justice and animal welfare groups are, or should be, our natural allies in conserving Wild Nature.

A white horse runs in a very dry landscape with low mountains in the background
Common decency demands that we act on behalf of wild horses and burros. Photo: BLM

Steven Pinker, the Canadian-American cognitive psychologist and linguist, urges us to treat environmental protection as a problem to be solved rather than to throw up our hands and wallow is despair. We have the knowledge, and hence the responsibility—legal and moral—to solve the serious problems besetting our planet, including the plight of wild horses. Common decency demands that we act. We owe them at least that.

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

Tell us what you think! Note: All comments are moderated before appearing here.