Wadden: A better way to manage wild horses
The management of feral horses and burros in the West is a complicated issue that tangles economics, ecology and emotion. While ancestors of modern horses originally evolved in North America and are thought to have spread to other continents from here, they went extinct in North America about 10,000 years ago. They are no more native to modern North America than short-faced bears, dire wolves or mastodons.
It is for this reason that I take issue with the thoughtful letter from Rick Karcich in which he refers to “natural predators” controlling wild horse populations. The horses have no natural predators, because the horses are not here naturally. They were introduced to North America from stocks of horses brought from Europe and released beginning at the time of the Conquistadors and continuing through the present, with many “wild” horses still bearing brands from nearby tribes and ranches.
Karcich made some very salient points about the management of horses being influenced by the interests of folks who hold grazing permits on federal lands. I am no fan of the system in place for managing private grazing permits on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands. I agree with him that grazing fees do not fairly compensate taxpayers for the impacts that cattle have on waterways, soil health, native wildlife and recreation resources on their public lands.
However, Karcich’s letter fails to mention the need to manage feral horse and burro populations for the benefit of native wildlife like mule deer, pronghorn, elk and sage grouse — not just for the benefit of cattle grazers.
Horses and burros are larger and more aggressive than native ungulates. They drive native wildlife away from scarce water sources and compete with them for limited grazing resources.
Furthermore, horses did not co-evolve with native predators like mountain lions and are rarely targeted by them. There are effectively no lethal checks on the growth of horse and burro populations — hence the justification for expensive and ineffective efforts to manage their populations through nonlethal means like roundups or darting females with birth control, at a cost to taxpayers of over $100 million per year on BLM land alone. The feral horses are much more similar to cattle in their impacts on native habitat than they are to deer or elk.
This is a problem of federal policy and, unfortunately, the only reasonable solution will require an act of Congress. President Richard Nixon signed the Wild Horse and Burro Act into law in 1971. Among other protections, it prohibits the use of lethal means to control feral horse populations, effectively giving these nonnative animals greater protection than native species listed under the endangered species act (threatened sage grouse are still subject to hunting seasons in several Western states for contrast).
It ties the hands of state wildlife agencies, which manage wildlife populations within their states — even on federal lands — by strictly limiting how feral horses may be managed.
Feral horses are clearly of value to our society. People love to see them on the landscape. They are synonymous with the rugged heritage of the American West, but the way we currently manage them is not humane or sustainable. Because they lack effective natural predators, their populations are out of balance with the habitats that sustain them. This impacts the health of the horses themselves as well as those ecosystems.
The Wild Horse and Burro Act needs to change to allow state agencies to manage feral horse populations as needed, including with lethal means, just as those agencies manage native wildlife populations within their states.
Pete Wadden lives in Gypsum and holds an M.A. in environmental studies and has worked as an adjunct professor of environmental studies and as a land stewardship coordinator in Colorado.