Wild horses need to stop ruling the range

They are icons of America’s past, symbols of our pioneering spirit. With flashing eyes, flaring nostrils, tails covered by a cloud of dust, they race across the landscape. I am of course referring to wild boar.

More about wild boar directly. But first, some background on another feral ungulate. Few issues in the West are more inflammatory than dealing with “wild horses.” Proponents declare them “natives” who should be “wild and free.”

Opponents claim these encroaching aliens are damaging lands and wildlife that belong to all Americans.

The federal management target for these horses on public lands is 27,000. But the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency charged with maintaining it, estimates the current population at 64,604. That Journal of Wildlife Management reports 300,000 in all countries – public, private and tribal. Federal law precludes effective management of wild horses. Unmanaged populations are increasing by 20 percent annually.

Wild boars are no less fertile. They are also “wild and free”. Having grown up around horses and pigs, I can attest that pigs are smarter than horses. And while feral pigs destroy native ecosystems, they are no more so than wild horses. So why aren’t there any wild boar support groups protesting their culling on public lands?

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Luckily for the local 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 wild horses be protected forever.

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

So we spend $160 million a year to round up feral horses and provide them with continued welfare, with almost 50,000 being kept permanently in pens or pastures. That’s more than half of the $300 million we’re spending on all 1,618 endangered and threatened species indigenous in the United States.

Horses and donkeys are the only ungulates in North America with fixed hooves and interlocking upper and lower teeth. Most native plants can’t handle it. Yet in some areas, BLM range management targets call for 15 or 20 horses when own science says 100 is the threshold for genetic viability. Why aren’t these marginal herds zeroed out?

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“Wild horses are worse than cows,” explains retired BLM biologist Erick Campbell. “When the grass has disappeared between the bushes, a cow is out of luck, but a horse will stomp that plant to death to get the last blade. When cows run out of feed, the cowboys kill them, but horses are out there all year round. BLM makes the problem worse by transporting water to them.”

Here’s from Dave Pulliam, former habitat director at the Nevada Department of Wildlife: “Horses will stand over a spring and run away from other animals. In the desert country, lakes and springs are the most important habitats for a whole variety of species – sagebrush, mule deer, bighorns, pronghorn, everything. And horses absolutely bang feathers into mud holes. But our wildlife advocates aren’t getting as vocal as the horse lovers.”

“Loud” is an appropriate adjective. Feral horse groups confuse the media, bully the environmental community, scare Congress, bash 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:

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Cows do more damage than wild horses. That’s like saying we should ignore Covid because more people are dying from heart disease. The only thing wrong with cattle grazing is that it’s not always done right. When done properly, it can benefit native ecosystems by duplicating the bison’s role in range renewal. For this reason, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy lease land to ranchers.

Wild horses are historical treasures because they descended from animals brought from Spain by the conquistadors. You are not. They are mostly mixed breeds – a quagmire of domestic breeds that have recently escaped or been discarded.

Wild horses are native because a somewhat similar species was found in North America before it became extinct 10,000 years ago. That’s like calling elephants native because the continent was once home to woolly mammoths.

With wild horses, facts should prevail over feelings. But wise management is a hard and losing battle. It’s time for science and common sense to prevail.

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

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