Saddle Sores

Matt Slaby

Saddle Sores

Feral horses are out of control in the American West, laying waste to vast tracts of wildlife habitat and imperiling native species. What's worse, the public seems determined to keep it that way.

By Ted Williams
Published: January-February 2011

The blizzard I'd driven through 18 hours earlier had left southwestern Wyoming shrouded in fog, grounding the two helicopters that would herd "wild horses" into the mouth of a big funnel trap of rock outcroppings, cloth fences, and metal gates fashioned by the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) contractor, Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc. At noon I could see the sun's outline, and 15 minutes later the high desert was clear, revealing its adobe-colored rock strata and gray, brown, and purple canyons, buttes, and mesas that stretched 40 miles to a cloud bank still hanging over Colorado.

In the sunlight and freshening wind the habitat's fragility became more apparent. I hiked across badlands of shale and polished stones, over sparse shrubs, thin, widely spaced clumps of grasses and forbs, and dry dirt that crumbled and sailed aloft. Ancient, scraggly junipers dotted the hills. Pronghorns and mule deer browsed the valleys. Less than seven inches of precipitation a year isn't unusual here, and that precipitation may come in two rainstorms, so it doesn't do much good. A week earlier nearby Sandy Creek had been a raging torrent. On this day it was cracked mud.

A helicopter appeared on the southern horizon--a black speck, rising and falling like a hoverfly. An hour later I saw dust rising from the first band of horses. Finally, white and black ears and manes topped a sage-lined ridge. The BLM's controversial October 2010 roundup, or "gather," as it prefers, was under way on its 1,618,624-acre Adobe Town-Salt Wells horse management complex.

 

The Obama administration has dared to tell the truth about feral horses. In October 2009 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that horses were "out of control" and creating a "huge problem." In what came to be called the Salazar Initiative, he proposed aggressive action, including, but not limited to, transplanting horses to large preserves in the Midwest and East. But when Salazar floated the idea at a June 14, 2010, public meeting in Denver, he got eaten alive by literally hundreds of feral-horse groups, which called his proposed reserves "Salazoos." Save for a few non-controversial, ineffective, and ongoing strategies like skewing sex ratios by releasing more stallions, he abandoned his initiative.

Because horses are the only ungulates in North America with solid hooves and meshing teeth, they are particularly destructive of native vegetation. Audubon Wyoming director and Rocky Mountain regional vice president Brian Rutledge worries especially about sage grouse and the whole sagebrush ecosystem. "Sage grouse [endangered in fact if not by official decree] fed the eastward movement of the Native Americans and the westward movement of European Americans," he says. "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 its decisions without information."

A feral horse is a far greater threat to native ecosystems than a cow. When grass between shrubs is gone cows move on; horses stomp the shrubs into the dirt to get the last blade. What's more, when cattle deplete forage they're moved to new allotments, and they're taken off the range in winter. But horses pound vegetation all year. And because horses live on range incapable of consistently sustaining them they sometimes starve and, in the process, cause the starvation of such sensitive desert creatures as sage grouse, bighorn sheep, Gila monsters, pronghorns, and desert tortoises. Not only will horses beat springs and seeps into mud holes, they'll stand over them, running off wild ungulates, people, and even sage grouse.

The feral-horse lobby dismisses these facts as fiction concocted by the BLM on behalf of the cattle industry. For example, Ginger Kathrens, founder and director of the Cloud Foundation (which takes its name from a feral horse she calls Cloud), contends that the BLM is purposefully concealing the reality that feral horses are good for what ails the earth. "We call them 'the green horses' because they have so many benefits to the land," she told Friends of Animals, which, along with her foundation, sponsored a "March for Mustangs" in Washington, D.C., last March 25.

The BLM won't let horse numbers on the Adobe Town-Salt Wells complex get much lower than its bottom-line AML (appropriate management level) of 861. It does, however, let numbers get much higher--the population had ballooned to about 2,500. AMLs are created with a little data and a lot of guesswork. They're supposed to take into consideration the needs of wildlife, yet in lots of cases the BLM has no way of knowing what those needs are, as I discovered when BLM supervisory range management specialist Andy Warren led me on an inspection of Adobe Town habitat. Warren pointed out lots of less nutritious forage like saltgrass and wheatgrass. Horses, cattle, sheep, and wildlife will eat it, but they prefer grasses like basin wildrye, Indian ricegrass, needle and thread, and bottlebush squirreltail--species fading from the scene at least in part because of overgrazing by horses and livestock.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

Anyone who has actually lived

Anyone who has actually lived with wild horses knows how TRUE this article is. I own 15 acres in Northern Nevada and am surrounded by the glaring evidence of damage horses do to the ecosystem. We have plenty of what my newsroom called "horse crazies," who pressure local and federal officals to protect this invasive alien. But they have never come upon a horse, lured into a neighborhood by idiots ILLEGALLY feeding them, dying in a median--or someone being Careflighted out after his vehicle smashed into a horse. We had a mortally injured horse, lured into the path of a car, wandering in our neighborhood for 4 days before it died. I have called the Ag Dept on people feeding horses in suburban neighborhoods, unwittingly endangering the animals AND residents. Oh, and as for the argument, "They've always been here," there is a REASON horses died out in the New World. Why not also bring back mastodons and saber-toothed tigers? In the millions of years sonce the orginal N. American horses died out, an entirely new ecosystem has evolved--one in which horses have no part. Let this "vanishing part of the Old West" (which breed like flies)die out--or get sent to the slaughterhouses!

You've got to be kidding.

The North American horse died out only 11 thousand years ago, several thousand years after humans arrived. The horse evolved right here in North America over a 50 million year period and did just fine through a huge range of climatic changes until humans with a late stone age tool kit showed up and slaughtered them all for food.

If you ever get a chance to visit the La Brea tarpits, you'll learn what every school kid in Southern California already knows.

Oh yeah! One more thing!

And another thing, you call that disgusting picture of a helicopter chasing down horses "a gather"? I know a great idea! You go out in the desert and let a helicopter chase you for miles and see if you still think of it as "a gather". Don't try to down play with little soothing words what is done to these beautiful creatures. Call it for what it is! A greedy round up in the scorching heat that lasts for miles, where horses are hurt and legs are broken and they are run until they are exhausted. An allover swoop that traumatizes them.
Then you get some gopher to write an article for you that shows your ignorance, though you thought you would get one over on us because you thought we were the ignorant ones, and all along, you are working for the cattle industry and the government and any other person with money in their pockets! Do you get my point? You never fooled anyone with your little caption, "a gather". My opinion of the "World Audubon Society" has gone down to levels that are below the meter line.

Will no longer support the Audubon

I will no longer support the Audubon because this article clearly shows that they are sadly misinformed. Wild horses are part of the ecosystem and in nature God has made each animal play an important part. So for your ignorance you no longer have my support.

The wild horses ARE part of

The wild horses ARE part of the ecosystem!

cattle and horses

To argue cow vs horse is to miss the important point that BOTH are detrimental. We should work to remove both. I have nothing against the cattle industry, but they should carry their own weight; buy land and keep their for-profit hooves on that land that they own. Perhaps then they will have more respect for the land than they do when the raise their cash crop on land that *I* own. As for horses being "native" they died out on their own. For a reason. Before human interaction. To say they are "reintroduced" is to try to equate them to some endangered species that conservationists have worked hard to bring back as an integral part of an ecosystem. But the ecosystem of which they were a part tens of thousands of years ago does not exist. Whales have been found in Wyoming - should we "reintroduce" those, as well?

BLM is little more than a government handout to businesses, large and small. It is logical that we start by kicking out the largest first, and work to eventually kick out the small ones, too. Then we can all be proud of saving that land for future generations.

And while we're at it, let's get the hooves off barrier islands, too. They cause even more damage there.

pitiful press

I thought Audubon would present factual information, not bias and scorn packaged as journalism.

America's wild horses are not feral, they are a reintroduced native species. The horse originated in North America, nowhere else. Ross MacPhee, curator of the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said the mustangs are classified as Equus caballus, which “evolved from more primitive forebears” in North America. “There is therefore no question that it is `native’ within any reasonable meaning of that word – much more so than bison, for example, whose immediate ancestry is Asian,” MacPhee said. “Yes, it disappeared from our shores for a few thousand years, but that has no bearing scientifically on whether it is historically `native.” Bighorn sheep evolved in Asia and migrated here recently compared to the horse yet you refer to them as sensitive desert creatures and consider them native. That seems to happen with species that hunters prefer.

"A feral horse is a far greater threat to native ecosystems than a cow." That is an outright lie and downplays the fact that cows are on public lands in numbers 42 times greater than the equid population. Apparently you aren't listening to the conservation scientists who have said for decades that cattle are the problem on the public lands. It also seems that you fail to understand that the 1971 Act that gave the wild horses & burros their territory made horses the principle in those protected areas, so in those areas the livestock should be removed first if there is a resource conflict. The 1971 act gave the horses 54M acres of public land which has been reduced to 31M acres by BLM. By your reasoning, 75,000 horses (includes the horses in holding) is too much for 31M acres to bear, yet 3M livestock on 160M acres is not much of a problem for existing wildlife? In Adobe Town & Salt Wells, even 2500 horses is not too many for 1.6M acres. Did the BLM mention how much they spend on predator control to protect the livestock of the welfare ranchers? Those natural predators, left in place, could help naturally maintain equid populations. But BLM is there for the ranchers and DOI, not science, law, or even common sense.

The condition of the land should determine overpopulation. The ALM is an arbitrary number that has very little to do with actual range conditions. BLM has increased authorized livestock grazing levels after removing horses. Dr. Patricia Muir, Director of Oregon State University's Environmental Sciences Undergraduate Program: "This emphasis by the BLM on grazing use over other uses is typical: of the range improvement monies that BLM can account for since 1980, 96.5% were used to benefit livestock. Major challenges to BLM's and Forest Service's management practices are actually coming from the courts rather than from changed legislation… For example, a coalition of environmentalists and others brought suit against the BLM over grazing in five canyons in Utah, and a Federal judge stopped grazing on those allotments. The judge decided that BLM had violated and even defied federal law in administering the grazing permits there. Grazing was banned there until an approved environmental impact statement is completed, and it is demonstrated that grazing is in the best interests of the canyons and the public. The same kind of thing happened in the Stanley Basin in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in ID, where a suit brought by a coalition of fishermen and environmentalists was successful in requiring that 2/3 of the cattle be removed from the area."

2009 Elk - 950,000 (only in the 10 states with wild horse & burro AMLs)
2009 Pronghorn Antelope - 780,808 min (only in the 10 states with wild horse & burro AMLs)
2008 Bighorn Sheep - 70,000
2009 Wild Horse & Burro AML - 26,831

Wyoming:
WY Wild Horse AML (2008): 3,725 (0.4%)
WY Bighorn Sheep (2000): 6,483 (0.6%)
WY Elk (2009): 95,000 (9.4%)
WY Pronghorn Antelope (2006): 300,000 (29.8%)
WY Mule Deer (2005): 480,000 (47.6%)
WY Livestock Authorized Use/Cattle (2009): 122,706 (12.2%) *
WY Livestock Actual Use/Cattle (2009): 57,115 (6.1%) *
* Calculated using BLMs 2009 WY Livestock Authorization Rpt of annual forage as represented by AUMs and divided by 12 to represent the potential head of cattle as expressed through year-round grazing.

There are BLM offices and contractors that do care about the horses so I hope that is what you observed. However, if you aren't experienced with equines you may not recognize subtler forms of abusive handling or if you are biased, you may ignore it completely. If you've watched the many many videos of the choppers who come extremely close the horses, run them quite hard in both cold & hot weather, or even hit the horses & burros with their skids you would understand the reason so many horse lovers are concerned about these wild horses being treated like they are brainless livestock.

former Audubon admirer

'Horse Sense'

I ABSOLUTELY LOVE YOU!!! YOU WERE ARTICULATE IN YOUR COMMENTS TO THE POINTS THAT MATTER MOST. I ESPECIALLY ENJOYED YOUR BREAKDOWN OF EACH ANIMAL(S) ALOTTED SQUARE FOOTAGE!!! I JUST RE-SIGNED INTO AUDOBON TO FIND A RESPONSE I HAD WRITTEN ABOUT THIS SIMILAR SUBJECT, HAVE NOT LOCATED IT AS OF YET. JUST READING ALONG, AND FOUND YOUR OUTSTANDING ARTICLE. BRAVO!!! I WILL NEVER PURCHASE AN ISSUE, AND HOPE TO NEVER RUN ACROSS THIS THING THAT CALLS ITSELF TED WILLIAMS. E MAIL ME IF POSSIBLE, I WOULD ENJOY A CONVERSATION ON THIS WRETCHED SUBJECT, AMONGST A L L OF THE NEW DISGSTING THINGS THAT ARE BEING DONE TO THESE MAJAESTIC CREATURES. THEY WERE HERE FIRST, BUILD THIS 'COUNTRY' ON T H E I R BACKS, WITH THEIR BLOOD AND SWEAT. IT SICKENS ME TO THINK THAT SOME USELESS EATER WILL BE CONSUMING SOME BEAUTIFUL, INTELLIGENT, AND VERY USEFUL ANIMAL. SICK SICK SICK...I LIVE IN N NV, AND SEE HERDS ALONG OUR HIGHWAYS AT TIMES. SOMETIMES THEY D O GET HIT BY AUTOS. BUT THEY GET BY, JUST FINE THANK YOU VERY MUCH. THEY E V E N LOOK AS THOUGH THEY HAVE A FEW POUNDS ON THEM!! GEE!! IT LOOKS LIKE THEY'RE EATING PRETTY DARN GOOD!! EVEN IF IT IS SAGEBRUSH!! THE ENTIRE ARGUEMENT IS EVOLVED AROUND THE CATTLE RANCHER, WHOM PAYS THE FABULOUS BLM 25.00 A HEAD, TO ALLOW THEIR COW TO GRAZE ON BLM LAND. THIS FACT, ALONG WITH ANOTHER TRUMPED UP SUBJECT, WATER RIGHTS...PLEASE. HAVE ANY OF THESE PAPER TIGERS, SUCH AS THIS WILLIAMS THING, EVER BEEN TO THE NORTHERN NEVADA REGION? I THINK NOT!! IF HE HAD, HE WOULD SEE THAT THERE IS NOTHING HERE!! THE HORSES GET BY, SOMETIMES WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS, BUT THEY MAKE IT. GOD BLESS 'EM!!! AND L E A V E THEM THE **** ALONE!!!!!!!! CHRIS POSEY

feral horses

I don't know if your analogy of horse behavior compared to a cow is true or not, I have owned horses and workd with them, I assure you they dont eat to the dirt, sheep do, my goats used to, but not the horses. they only do that when they are confined or unable to get to fresh forage and are starving. horses do not stay in a area devoid of vegetation, they are movers, they move over vast areas more than cattle even do.

it is my understanding that cows number into the millions, and horses only arond 50,000 or less. I don't see how 50,000 can cause the death of so many wild animals. i like my beef don't get me wrong, the range is vast enough for everyone and I cant imagine a person who relies on the range for their livlihood would abuse it or mismanage it unless it suffers from the tragedy of the commons.. a person who owns something will take better care than say someone who only temprorarily leases it to get resources before moving on like some mega corporations do.

and as for the sheep they can get to areas cattle and horses cannot. so I don't see how horses are relevant to their survival, now if you speak of hunters poachers and damage to the enviroment due to corporate interests then maybe you might, and I say might, have something. the western areas are so vast and so unpredictable as to climate, weather patterns growth etc, I bet if the horses were not there the animals would still suffer setbacks. it is the nature of well let's just say it nature. I am sure cattle do more damage then horses simply because there are more of them, but not being expert here I don't know for sure, but I don't see why cattle or horses are any less worthy of existing or living off the land then any other animal. let all culling be based on real science and not on emotional rhetroic.

I am also aware of cattle associations interests that deride the horses and are making up or fabricating teh effects of the wild horses to get support from the public to remove them. more and more I get the impression that the real issue on many enviromental issues is not enviromental protection at all but simply a way to get around the united states constitution of due process and just compensation and the like. resource or land grab if you will.

there are real enviromental concerns that are being ignored, like the dumping by the us military of tons of military wastes into the oceans and dumping of trash on thrid world nations by the mega corporations who are in bed with the us government. these seem to be ignored by enviromentalists. the enviromentalists seem to target only the little guy business man, or those who do not have connections with gove or who cant fight back or who are holding lands coveting by others who want to use enviromental concerns to push them off the land using economic sabatage. like the outer banks of nc. forests lands in the west using the spotted owl fiasco to destroy competitors of lumber companies who finance enviromental groups. you all(remember I am not sure who is who) seem to be targeting small enviromental concerns when there is a vast more important issues like corporations polluting vastly in areas out west, like the one area where a corp mined there and left the toxic pollution for the locals to clean up i believe it was wisconsin or minnesota, why are you not all there crying over that? stick to the bigger issues that affect millions of people and animals and deal with the local issues later..

we are as much a part of the earth as animals, and believe me you I love animals too. now if there is a problem with animals that are diminishing into dangerous low levels I say work with people of the area, give them fair hearing, pay them a fair price for the loss of use, use kindness and real concern for all concerns, not the courts using force of the state to push it down people's throats, if your right that a situation is dire then show people something, don't go behind their backs and use lies and fabrications like piping plover fiasco, you do know they breed in teh northern plains and northern east coast don't you? so what is up with the outer banks thing? please don't declare war with people in the name of animals, after all humans have as much right here as the animals. if you care about animals do not exaggerate a problem in order to get support. be honest and realistic and fair to all concerned. thanks.

rosa

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