Wild horse and burro plan not a way forward
On Sept. 26, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $35 million for a massive reduction of America’s relatively minor wild horse/burro herds scattered throughout the West. Through an arrogant misinformation blitz, including the film “Horse Rich and Dirt Poor,” traditional wild horse and burro enemies are very near to getting 100 percent of their mean-spirited way, which includes massive sterilization programs that undo the very wildness of the horses and burros that the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act is meant to preserve. All the while, the general public is being ignored. Though millions of Americans cherish these national heritage species, it seems that rank hypocrisy and a love of lies has taken over too many of those in positions of power and authority. We must not allow true honor to slip by the wayside. Just who’s kidding who when our Western public lands’ wild horses and burros only get 2 percent or less of allocated forage on public lands while the rest goes almost entirely to livestock?
Nearly 48 years ago, the 1971 WFHBA was unanimously passed and represented a “giant leap forward,” morally speaking. At long last, we decided to do something truly good for two worthy species that have done so much for us, yet whose truer place is in nature. Over the course of millions of years, these species arose primarily in North America, their cradle of evolution where they established many positive relationships with other species. The WFHBA has an ecological mandate to let the horses and burros become integral components of many public lands’ ecosystems throughout the West. Section 2 (c) gives them the principal resources within year-round habitats where they were dwelling in 1971. Yet from the onset of the program, shameless interests set out to subvert WFHBA’s true purpose.
Throughout 10 western states where their rights are still officially recognized, wild horses have been assigned an Appropriate Management Level between 14,189 and 23,771 for a mean of 18,980; while wild burros have been given an AML between 2,101 and 2,919 for a mean of 2,510. These are extremely low numbers as concerns the long-term viability of the various populations. Almost all the AMLs are in the teens or low to mid hundreds and are genetically non-viable according to IUCN Species Survival Committee’s Equid Specialist Group. Its “Action Plan” recommends 2,500 interbreeding individuals for wild equid population viability. Also, careful examination of just what species are overrunning the public lands show that many times the forage that wild equids consume goes to domestic cattle and sheep — even within their legal areas.
By BLM’s own admission, at least 53.8 million acres of legal BLM Herd Areas were present at WFHBA’s passage, but now it only wants to manage for ca. 26 thousand equids on ca. 26 million acres. BLM is planning to have only one individual equid per 1,000 acres and is trying to fool the public that this is a fair and healthy situation. Earlier assessments put the 1971 figure at ca. 88 million acres. And the number of Herd Areas in the Western states was ca. 350 as determined by where they were found in 1971. Yet every year this number diminishes and is now only 177 Herd Management Areas. Ironically, what was originally the term for land where wild equids had legal rights, i.e. Herd Areas, has now been twisted to mean an area where BLM has decided not to have any wild equids at all.
The mean national AML for wild horses and burros (“mandarins and oranges” lumped) is 21,490 equids, which is dwarfed by the several million cattle and sheep monopolizing our cherished public lands. To make matters worse, this lopsidedness is most intensely present within the many BLM-USDI Herd Areas/Herd Management Areas and US Forest Service-USDA Territories where, in spite of the wild horses and wild burros possessing legal rights to receive the principal resources, the glutton’s share (average 85%) is being given to public lands’ ranchers, most quite wealthy and subsidized.
The mere token AMLs ignore wild equids’ valuable contributions to ecosystems as returned natives:
Their caecal digestive systems contribute vital humus via droppings, which build nutrient-rich, moisture-retaining soils that increase biodiversity and restore aquifers;
Their round, blunt hooves do not cut as deeply into moist soils as do the sharp, cloven hooves of cattle and sheep; their hoof prints often plant seeds at perfect depths for germination;
Their possession of upper and lower incisors permit them to carefully prune plants in contrast to cattle and sheep who lack upper incisors and often rip out roots;
Horses’ semi-nomadic lifestyle allows for natural rest-rotation within the ecosystem throughout the year; their “patchiness” of foraging leaves areas where plants set seed;
They reduce dry, flammable vegetation that significantly reduces catastrophic wildfires; and they also reduce the ladder-like lower branches on shelter trees, thus, preventing “crown fires.” These are often magnanimous junipers and edible-nut-providing pinyon pines — thousands of which are being eliminated by BLM to provide more grass for livestock but to many species’ detriment;
They balance ecosystems overwhelmed by ruminants, yet help ruminants lead healthier lives by restoring soils and watersheds and dispersing a greater variety of intact seeds; and
Naturally-living horses and burros input a higher vibration to the life community, resuscitating an inherent harmony in their relations to diverse plants, animals, micro-organisms, air, water, soil, bedrock, and even people. They are ancient presences; and there is something uniquely beautiful and inspiring about them — most fully realized when they live freely and naturally.
Craig C. Downer is a Minden resident and wildlife ecologist.