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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.