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.
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.