Wild horses need to stop ruling the range

By Ted Williams

They are icons of America’s past, symbols of our pioneering spirit. Eyes flashing, nostrils flaring, tails obscured by a cloud of dust, they tear across the landscape. I am, of course, referring to feral hogs.

More on feral hogs directly. But first some background on another feral ungulate. Few issues in the West are more incendiary than management of “wild horses.” Advocates proclaim them “natives” that should be “wild and free.”

Opponents submit that these proliferating aliens are harming land and wildlife belonging to all Americans.

The federal management goal for these horses on public lands is 27,000. Yet the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency charged with tending them, estimates the current population at 64,604. The Journal of Wildlife Management reports 300,000 on all lands — public, private and tribal. Federal law precludes effective feral-horse management. Unmanaged populations increase by 20 percent annually.

No less prolific are feral hogs. They’re “wild and free,” too. Having grown up with horses and hogs, I can attest that hogs are more intelligent than horses. And while feral hogs are destructive of native ecosystems, they’re no more so than feral horses. So why are there no feral-hog support groups protesting their culling on public lands?

Happily for native wildlife, there has yet to be a Wild Hog Annie. “Wild Horse Annie” was the Nevada woman whose campaign to save “wild horses” inspired animal lovers across America to write impassioned letters to senators and congressmen, demanding that feral equines be protected forever.

The result was the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which mandated the BLM to manage these animals so as “to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance.” That task is impossible. No invasive species can thrive or even exist in “natural ecological balance.”

So we spend $160 million a year rounding up feral horses and placing them on perpetual welfare, with almost 50,000 permanently held in corrals or pastures. That’s more than half the $300 million we spend on all 1,618 endangered and threatened species native to the United States.

Horses and burros are the only ungulates in North America with solid hooves and meshing upper and lower teeth. Most native vegetation can’t deal with that. Yet in some areas BLM range management goals call for 15 or 20 horses when its own science tells it that 100 is the threshold for genetic viability. Why aren’t these marginal herds zeroed out?

“Feral horses are worse than cows,” declares retired BLM biologist Erick Campbell. “When the grass between shrubs is gone, a cow is out of luck, but a horse will stomp that plant to death to get that last blade. When cows run out of forage the cowboys move them, but horses are out there all year. BLM exacerbates the problem by hauling water to them.”

And this from Dave Pulliam, former Nevada Department of Wildlife habitat chief: “Horses will stand over a spring and run off other animals. In desert country, seeps and springs are the most important habitats for a whole myriad of species — sagebrush obligate birds, mule deer, bighorns, pronghorns, everything. And horses absolutely beat springs into mud holes. But our wildlife constituents don’t get as vociferous as the horse lovers.”

“Vociferous” is an apt adjective. Feral-horse groups confound the media, bully the environmental community, terrify Congress, beat up BLM and spew junk science. They are also well-funded and adept at manipulating people who have dreamed of owning horses since childhood. And they chant three mantras:

Cows do more damage than feral horses. That’s like saying we should ignore Covid because more people die from heart disease. The only thing wrong with cattle grazing is that it’s not always done right. When it is done right it can benefit native ecosystems by duplicating the range-renewal role of bison. That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy lease land to ranchers.

Feral horses are historical treasures because they descended from animals brought from Spain by the conquistadores. They’re not. They’re mostly mongrels — a morass of domestic breeds that have recently escaped or been discarded.

Feral horses are native because a somewhat similar species was found in North America before it went extinct 10,000 years ago. That’s like calling elephants native because the continent once sustained wooly mammoths.

With feral horses, facts should outweigh sentiment. Yet wise management is an uphill and losing battle. It’s time for science and common sense to prevail.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit that seeks to spur lively conversation about the West. He writes exclusively about fish and wildlife for national publications.

Donald Giannatti via Unsplash, Wild horses Monument Valley, Utah

This column was published in the following newspapers:

09/19/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
09/19/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
09/19/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
09/20/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
09/20/2022 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
09/21/2022 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
09/21/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
09/21/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
09/21/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
09/21/2022 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
09/20/2022 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
09/21/2022 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
09/22/2022 Taos News Taos NM
09/23/2022 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
09/23/2022 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
09/23/2022 Montana Standard Butte MT
09/23/2022 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
09/26/2022 Mountain Journal Bozeman MT
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Anne Duncan
8 days ago

First, the opening paragraph is simply fabulous and makes the point perfectly. I doff my hat to the author.
 
Second, I don’t live in the western U.S., but I’ve attended meetings regarding horse trails on public land. I know there are rational, polite, civic-minded horse people, partly because a few of them are my friends. Unfortunately, in my experience, they are sometimes not the ones who show up at public meetings that try to rationally discuss the reality that horses can cause damage to natural areas. And horse damage doesn’t only happen out west.
 
Third, I just read a story about new research that indicates bison are significantly better for grassland biodiversity than cattle. But the important thing, still true, is that properly-managed cattle are bovine Aldo Leopolds compared to feral western horses.
 
As someone old enough to have done some conservation work by 1971, I’ve seen some dubious laws from that era modified or discarded. It’s past time to do that with the Wild Free-Roaming Ignorance Act.
 

Lindsay Mann
7 days ago

BLM own scientific data, obtained by PEER via FOI, shows that the main problem regarding rangeland health is actually livestock (cattle and sheep). Wild horses are mentioned but not very much, and where livestock also graze. Check out Tippet Pass in Nevada. Livestock overgrazing on land that is desert. And weep.

I agree with wild horse management, via pzp, on range management, if necessary. But not scapegoating them. That’s plain wrong.

Ted Williams
6 days ago
Reply to  Lindsay Mann

Whenever the subject is damage to wildlife habitat done by feral horses the first thing out of the mouths of feral-horse lovers is “cattle are worse.” As I reported, that’s like saying we shouldn’t worry about Covid because heart disease kills more people. PZP, by the way, is grossly ineffective. It has proven useless for controlling feral horses. And please don’t attempt to defend PZP by quoting junk science from Kirkpatrick.

Erik Molvar
7 days ago

Cattle grazing cannot duplicate the natural grazing of bison, because cattle do not range farther from water than 2 miles, and avoid steep terrain (concentrating in streamside areas and near springs, where the biodiversity costs are greatest), while bison spread their grazing impacts evenly across a very large area. Wild horses do this as well. Horses evolved to the current species – Equus caballus ferus – here in North America, while woolly mammoths, which disappeared at the same time (5,700 YBP) are a completely different species from African and Indian elephants. In the final analysis, wild horses have a tiny fraction of the ecological impact of domestic cattle and sheep, both due to the fact that they evolved in arid steppes (not boggy forests like cattle) and because they are so radically outnumbered and by cattle in the arid West. Mr. Williams’ essay showcases inductive reasoning – the anti-scientific method of starting with a conclusion and then cobbling together support for that conclusion. A little fact-checking goes a long way, and prevents embarrassing gaffes like these. But Williams has been working diligently to perpetuate myths like the ones in his essay for several decades, to scapegoat wild horses for damage caused by livestock, so I suppose no one should be surprised.

Ted Williams
6 days ago
Reply to  Erik Molvar

Mr. Molvar needs to do some fact checking himself. Cattle can indeed duplicate the role of bison in many situations. That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy lease land to ranchers. And, as I reported, the feral horse support groups (of which Molvar’s Western Watersheds Project is a loud and typically ill-informed part) chant the mantra: “Cattle are worse.” As I also reported, that’s like saying we shouldn’t worry about Covid because heart disease kills more people. Molvar’s Western Watersheds Project spews junk science to justify keeping feral horses nuking wildlife habitat owned by all Americans. The mission of Molvar’s Western Watersheds Project is to kick all cattle off all public land. This would force ranchers to sell to developers. Over-grazed land can heal. Housing developments and shopping malls cannot. The best thing Western Watersheds Project could do for native wildlife would be to shut down.

Erik Molvar
4 days ago
Reply to  Ted Williams

Here are the facts to check. Cattle do not forage at all like bison, particularly in the arid West, which is made clear in the science (see Van Vuren 2001, Spatial relations of American bison (Bison bison) and
domestic cattle in a montane environment, here: https://www.raco.cat/index.php/ABC/article/download/57579/67547). The USFWS authorizes cattle on National Wildlife Refuges due to political pressure, not some imagined biological benefit; The Nature Conservancy promotes cattle and authorizes grazing on their lands so they can engender the goodwill of ranchers from whom they hope to acquire conservation easements. And conservation easements are a beneficial outcome, because they prevent rural subdivision. Cattle operations, absent easements, do not prevent subdivision; in fact, virtually all of the rural subdivisions in the West originated with working ranches selling open space to real estate developers. A new study by the University of Wyoming demonstrates that of 51 public lands grazing permits bought out, not a single one on the affiliated ranches had their property subdivided (study available here: http://www.uwyo.edu/haub/ruckelshaus-institute/publications/_files/cvc-report.pdf). That’s pretty much the last word on whether we need cattle on public lands to prevent subdivisions; it’s a myth. Finally, the mission of Western Watersheds Project is to protect and restore watersheds and wildlife throughout the West. That’s also online for anyone to see; Williams’ invention of a fake mission for WWP mirrors his invention of “alternative facts” about livestock and wild horses. Which, also, WWP is not an advocate for or against; we just want to see the truth come out. And that truth is that wild horses are scapegoated for ecological damage that is caused by the far more numerous and far more damaging cattle. When you look on public lands alone, converting both wild horses and cattle to Animal Unit Months to correct for the fact that wild horses are on the land yearlong while cattle (in 2/3s of cases) are not, the cattle grazing months outweigh the horse grazing months by 14.5 to 1. Opponents of wild horses, like Ted Williams, should be held to the same standard as everyone else in the debate: If you want to make a factual assertion, show some scientific basis. If you cannot, it can reasonably be assumed that you are presenting an emotional outburst with no factual basis, or worse, trying to fool the public into accepting a false narrative,

Ted Williams
4 days ago
Reply to  Erik Molvar

Molvar has recycled a conspiracy theory, popular with the feral-horse groups, about what motivates USFWS and The Nature Conservancy. What motivates them is the protection and recovery of native wildlife plain and simple. And WWP is most definitely an avid advocate for feral horses on public land. Anyone who doubts this needs only to check the litigation WWP has filed in defense of feral-horse proliferation. Again, Mr. Molvar has mouthed the mantra I reported: Cows are worse than feral horses. So what? Feral horses are still a scourge of native wildlife habitat.

Erik Molvar
3 days ago
Reply to  Ted Williams

There is no “conspiracy theory” here (unless Mr. Williams is being paid to write columns smearing wild horses by the livestock industry or other interest group with an agenda against wild horses). Ted, did you get paid to write this article? And if so, by whom?

Ted Williams
2 days ago
Reply to  Erik Molvar

Another conspiracy theory popular with feral-horse lovers: Freelance writers who report facts feral-horse lovers don’t want to know must be on the take.

Paul D Golden
7 days ago

Mr. Williams, thank you for the very informative article. Yes indeed, wise management in this situation is an uphill and losing battle. What would a person like myself be able to do in this situation to assist in being part of the solution? I would be interested to know how I may help. Again, thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. The article was well written and your rhetoric entertaining and convincing. I hope to hear from you or your representatives soon. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely, Paul Golden

Ted Williams
6 days ago
Reply to  Paul D Golden

Support Writers on the Range and join the National Wildlife Federation.

Jim Rattmann
6 days ago

It would be helpful if the BLM was allowed to sell captured horses to markets where they are wanted for food.

Melissa Freeman
5 hours ago
Reply to  Jim Rattmann

First, Wild Mustangs do not ‘rule the range’.
As to your suggestion, while being rounded and broken up via helicopters, they *are absolutely being sold to buyers who then sell them to foreign food markets; I’d rather they were adopted but this is just one of several motives for clearing our Wild Horses off the ‘Public Lands’ map.
Another is to clear foraging land for the Cattle of the Industry Corps, who deploy the BLM to ‘remove’ them and burros as well.
It is extremely brutal for the most part and many horses, including their foals, are run down by the helicoptors, causing their legs to break. Maybe the real ‘feral hogs’ are the Corporations.
In the end, the Horses are sold to mostly killer buyers and are either kept in small pens or sold to EU for consumption.
What an ignomineous end for a truly great species that played such a significant role in opening up the West!

Ted Williams
3 hours ago

There are no “wild mustangs.” There are only feral, domestic horses. And while they don’t rule the whole range, they rule some of it, enough to nuke wildlife habitat. You have documented my point that the first thing out of feral-horse lovers’ mouths when confronted with facts they don’t want to know is “what about cattle.” What aboutism doesn’t address the real damage done to wildlife habitat by feral horses. The claim that helicopters cause feral horses to break legs is as bogus as the claim that feral horses are “native.” Also bogus is the claim that feral horses are sold and slaughtered, though this would turn a pest into a resource. I have attended helicopter gathers, and the feral horses trot or walk into the corral and immediately begin feeding.

Martha Jamison
5 days ago

Interestingly enough, there is much infighting amongst the vociferous ones!
https://www.facebook.com/groups/384658549138951/?ref=share

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