Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Wildlife vs “Wild” Horses
Wildlife vs “Wild” Horses Submitted by Ted Williams on Fri, 07/10/2015 - 13:33. By Becky Lisle Reminiscent of a spaghetti western, the tale of mustangs in the West is all too often told with the horses as underdogs engaged in an epic battle with domestic stock grazing public lands. Pitting wild—or feral, depending upon whom you ask--horses against “greedy cattle barons” certainly garners sympathy and donations for horse advocacy groups, who are known in conservationist circles as the “horse mafia.” However, the typical spin conveniently omits an elemental piece of the rangeland ecosystem puzzle: native wildlife. In what has been referred to as a “wild horse apocalypse” looming over the west, current on-range mustang populations are estimated to be 14,000 over established appropriate management levels (AML), according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) figures. The true number of horses on the range will most likely never be known. In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences determined that the BLM does not utilize “scientifically valid methodologies to make their estimates, or make an actual, accurate inventory, erring on the side of grossly undercounting horses.” This is not a new or original finding. The same conclusion was reached by the National Research Council in the early 1980s, and by the Government Accountability Office in 2008. Nevertheless, mustang advocacy groups embrace the mantra that horses are being managed to extinction and are seeking protection for the animals as an endangered species. Despite the multiple-use mandate for public lands, the number of cattle and sheep allowed on long-established grazing permits has been drastically reduced and in some cases eliminated due to the West’s on-going drought. In one instance, cattle were completely removed while the mustang population remained at about 1200% of the AML. So what does this mean for native wildlife? Ted Williams is a longtime columnist for the renowned wildlife and conservation magazine, Audubon. He received the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Achievement Award; he won the Federal Wildlife Officers Association Award; he was recognized by the Outdoor Writers Association with their highest honor; and he was named Conservationist of the Year by the Coastal Conservation Association of New York. He contemptuously—and accurately—refers to wild horses as “feral equids.” Despite the determination of mustang advocacy groups to classify the horses as “wild and native” to further their cause, science supports Williams’ terminology. Pre-historic horses did exist on the North American continent, before dying out completely and being absent for thousands of years until a much further evolved equine was introduced by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. Williams stated: “The argument that equids are “native” to this continent because their progenitors were present during the Pleistocene —a mantra from the wild-horse lobby—makes as much sense as claiming that elephants are native because woolly mammoths were here during the same period.” Further, researchers have found that descendants of the Spanish Andalusians only numbered in the hundreds and have long-since been removed. Director of bird conservation for Audubon Arizona, Tice Supplee, refers to the mustang lobby’s Spanish-bloodline propaganda as “revisionist history promoted by horse lovers to give mustangs historic status.” Williams once interviewed retired 30-year BLM biologist, Erick Campbell, who offered his own definition of the pure-mustang-blood platform: “pure, unadulterated BS.” What remains on the range today is what Williams refers to as “mongrels—a genetic morass of breeds issuing mostly from recently escaped or discarded livestock.” Campbell stated, “We managed everything from workhorses to Shetland ponies. Your daughter’s horse gets old or she stops liking it. So you turn it loose. Prior to World War II ranchers were basically managing these herds for sale to the Army. And to keep the quality up the Army would give the ranchers studs to release.” One researcher compared blood samples from 975 free-roaming horses in the Great Basin with samples from 16 domestic horse breeds, and found no discernable differences, concluding that indeed the “wild” horses of the Great Basin originated from Iberian, American saddle horse, and draft-horse breeds--hence the scientific designation of the horses as feral and the consequent stance of prominent wildlife and conservation groups toward them. Semantics aside, the impact of the horses on native wildlife is undeniable. Of the “wild” horses, Campbell stated: “They’re worse than cows,” They do incredible damage. When the grass between the shrubs is gone a cow is out of luck, but a horse or burro will stomp that plant to death to get that one last blade. When cows run out of forage the cowboys move them or take them home, but horses and burros are out there all year. They’re not fenced; they can go anywhere. BLM exacerbates the problem by hauling water to them. Instead of just letting them die, we keep them going. There are even horses in Las Vegas, which is obscene. In the desert! The horse groups have tremendous power with Congress. They only care about horses; they couldn’t give a damn about all the wildlife that’s adversely affected.” There is a great deal of difference between the interactions of horses with native wildlife and the interactions of cattle and native wildlife. Research suggests that the body size, speed, and strength of horses make them socially dominant. In fact, the Nevada Department of Wildlife has received numerous complaints about feral horses running wildlife away from water resources. Horses’ digestive systems and movement patterns affect native wildlife on a broader scale, as well. They are the only ungulate in North America with solid hooves and meshing teeth. According to research, horses are one of the least-selective grazers in North America, utilizing a larger range of plant types and requiring 20 to 65% more forage than would a cow of comparable size. Also, because of the shape of their heads, teeth, and lips, horses can crop plants closer to the ground than cattle do, and impair plant recovery. Horses utilize higher and steeper ground than cattle do, which directly competes with native deer and bighorn sheep. In Nevada’s Calico Complex Herd Management Area, increasing numbers of horses have resulted in reduced numbers of bighorn sheep lambs. Horse gathers in the complex have been supported by wildlife groups such as the Sierra Club, which “recognizes that habitat simplification, fragmentation, degradation, and elimination pose the greatest threats to the continued well-being of healthy and diverse wildlife and plant ecosystems and biodiversity.” The problem is so significantly affecting bighorn sheep that Nevada Bighorns Unlimited has joined the Nevada Association of Counties, Nevada Farm Bureau Federation, and Crawford Cattle in a lawsuit filed against the BLM by regarding the management of feral horses. In an interview with Ted Williams, Nevada Department of Wildlife habitat bureau chief Dave Pulliam stated, “In desert country, seeps and springs are the most important habitats for a whole myriad of species…and they’re absolutely beat to mud holes. Riparian habitat has disappeared. Water tables have dropped. Horse use is excessive to the point of rendering this habitat unavailable to wildlife.” While the vast majority of feral horses and the associated issues are in Nevada, the problems are not limited to the Silver State, or to BLM managed, publically “owned” horses. The most recent wildlife surveys on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington State, which has thousands of feral horses, show vast swaths of land devoid of any deer and elk; areas where they were plentiful a decade ago. Yakama efforts at reintroducing native sage grouse and pronghorn have been stymied by the aggressive nature of feral horses, the lack of grasses and the total range degradation caused by what is legitimately an invasive species. Since feral horse populations increase by 20% every year, the environmental and ecosystem damage on a growing number of western Indian reservations is increasing in alarming numbers. Feral horses also trample stream beds and lands bereft of vegetation silt in creeks further complicating tribal efforts at restoring salmon runs. By ignoring the damage done to lands the US holds in trust for tribes, the Federal government may well be setting itself up for yet another law suit by tribes insisting that the Trustee act to protect its fiduciary responsibilities. In the Arizona desert, many native animals are dependent upon desert trees for sustenance and shelter. Supplee saw firsthand the habitat destruction caused by feral horses and burros. “They broke off the branches, stripped the bark, and killed the trees,” she said. The Grand Canyon National Park has suffered an ongoing struggle with feral burros. Former park biologist Elaine Leslie said to Williams, “You can find burros or burro evidence in the vast majority of Grand Canyon springs or seeps. They spread exotic grasses, contaminate water, trample wetland species, remove vegetation, and eliminate small mammals, birds, and amphibians.” Wyoming’s Audubon director Brian Rutledge has been greatly concerned about the feral horses’ impact on the sage grouse. He stated, “Sage grouse fed the eastward movement of the Native Americans and the westward movement of European Americans. Now we expect them to tolerate our fragmentation of their ecosystem and the decimation of its plant life by a feral domestic animal. Sadly, we have become a culture that longs to make decisions without information.” The 575,000 acre Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada was established in 1931 to preserve native wildlife, and is the largest remaining intact tract of the Great Basin ecosystem. It has endured great problems caused by “feral equids” despite the past removal of over half the population. In the summer of 2014, gathers began to eventually remove all feral horses and burros from the refuge, with the goal being to have the area clean by 2017. Megan Nagel is a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Portland regional office. She stated, “The once-domestic feral horses and burros, which some people call wild horses and burros, cause significant damage to the refuge’s fragile landscape. If feral horses and burros are not removed from Sheldon, the Service will be unable to restore and conserve habitat conditions for native, fish, wildlife and plants that depend on the refuge. Removing feral horses and burros is critical to conserve and protect the native habitat and wildlife that depend on the refuge.” Nagel also said that studies indicate feral horses and burros have degraded almost half of the streams and 80 percent of the refuge’s springs and other riparian areas, such as wet meadows, ephemeral wetlands, and emergent marshes. “The horses are turning our riparian areas and springs into mud holes…We have Lahontan cutthroats, a federally threatened species, and the horses silt up the creeks and cover up the spawning gravel. They eat the meadows down to dirt,“ said refuge manager, Brian Day. While the Sheldon’s designation as a refuge makes it possible to protect resident native species by removing horses, efforts by wild horse advocates ensure that no such consideration is made for native wildlife in the greater high desert country of Nevada. On the Fish Creek HMA near Eureka, the ongoing, extreme drought has resulted in ranchers’ grazing permits being cut by over 80%, and in February 2015, 424 feral horses were gathered from the area. The gather’s contracted helicopter pilots estimated that there were at least that many left on the range, and 180 were turned back out after the more adoptable animals were sorted off. Then, despite an appeal filed by a rancher with the Interior Board of Land Appeals to keep the rest of the gathered horses off of the already barren range, another 186 were re-released in April due to pressure from the horse mafia. Uncounted, on-range horses notwithstanding, the most recent release brought the official, on-record count to more than double the legally established appropriate management level of 170. As Brian Day stated: “There are a lot of sensible people who like these horses. And then there are the other types who don’t let the truth stand in their way.” Becky Lisle is a freelance writer and 5th generation native Nevadan.