Wrangling with Wild Horses

 In Blog topics

Photo shows feral horses dead from starvation at a stock pond in Gray Mountain. (Photo: Navajo Nation)

By Ian Nemelka

The common perception of “wild” horses is actually wildly inaccurate. Reinforced by movies like Dreamworks ‘Spirit Stallion of the Cimarron’ and sympathetic, publically funded documentaries, most Americans believe that horses in the West are in danger of complete annihilation. The truth is precisely the opposite. Currently there are over 80,000 feral horses roaming the Western United States on public land. (This population estimate does not include the hundreds of thousands of free-roaming wild horses on tribal lands or the unknown number of horses on public lands that aren’t designated as wild horse areas.) Although the wild mustang has often been considered a symbol of American freedom and independence, it may soon become the universal symbol for bureaucratic mismanagement and species overpopulation.

There is a reason many citizens living in the rural west who are familiar with these creatures refer to them as ‘feral’ instead of ‘wild.’ The American Mustang is actually an invasive species to the United States. There were prehistoric species of similar equine mammals on the continent for millions of years, but went extinct during the last ice age (7,600-10,000 years ago). These precursors, however, are obviously not the same breed Europeans brought with them in the 15th Century. Invasive species do not always pose such a serious threat to the environment, however, when improperly managed, these growing heards can have devastating impacts on the surrounding ecology, agriculture, and grazing pasture.

For quite some time, feral horses helped fill the role of the decimated bison herds in the American West by freely repopulating and grazing. The problem now, however, is that not only have many grazing mammal populations been restored, but they compete with the domesticated herds managed by humans. Throw in dozens of feral horses per square mile, and that is a quick recipe for overgrazed lands. Granted, the domesticated cow is not necessarily a ‘native species’ either. Cow populations, however, have their growth and resources allocation managed accordingly by federal agencies using Animal Unit Month (AUM) allotments. Feral horses have no such limitations, and will eat themselves out of house and home if allowed.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the agency primarily responsible for the land these feral horses occupy, and as such, they are also the agency charged with managing animal populations. The current estimated feral horse population (81,951) exceeds Acceptable Management Levels (ALM) by over 26,000. The BLM have implemented several conventional solutions in order to compensate for this population boom including helicopter roundups, birth control vaccines, and temporary holding corals. These methods are expensive and ineffective, and often benefit one specific industry or contractor. There obviously needs to be a change in policy, but this is a nuanced topic of extreme controversy. One side calls for the culling of the herds for the greater good, the other side affirming the rights of the horses to live freely on the plains. What are land managers to do?

There is a way to improve the quality of life for these horses and improve ecological health of the West, all while maintaining grazing practices. There is a solution that doesn’t involve euthanizing 2 out of every 3 feral horses or simply allowing them to roam free causing wanton destruction to public lands. In order to find this innovative solution Americans need to shift their perception and look at the problem logically. The current strategy is not sustainable. If we truly do care for the environment and the wellbeing of these animals, a balanced approach can not be out of the question. Not to beat a dead horse, but if emotions continue to dominate this debate in place of reason, dead horses are all you are going to get.

Strata is committed to finding humane and innovative solutions to many of the ecological issues which plague the Western United states.