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.
Eight years ago the BLM analyzed the area's copious horse droppings, finding high shrub content. That meant horses were competing more than imagined with deer and pronghorns. But that was during a drought. "We redid the study in 2007 and 2008, when conditions were better, thinking we'd see a change back to more grasses," said Warren. "We didn't. Horses still select for about 50 to 75 percent shrubs." The AML, hatched back in 1994, has never been amended to take this into account.
The mantra from feral-horse activists is that horses are being removed to make room for more cattle. But here the reverse is happening. Cattle and sheep are being taken off public land for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its degraded condition. "If we were taking normal full use of horses and livestock, we'd have about one-third sheep, one-third cattle, and one-third horses," Warren said. "Now it's something like 60 percent horses, 20 percent sheep, and 20 percent cattle."
By the time you read this the gather will have evened that ratio. But not for long. It was only eight years ago that the BLM removed 2,400 horses, and its failure to maintain proper AML populations here and on 14 other horse management areas in Wyoming got it sued by the state's attorney general. The result was a 2003 consent decree for prompt, effective action, but with the BLM's finite resources there's no such thing. There's no quantifiable data on impacts to wildlife in the gather area. Some people say they see less. Numbers of elk and mule deer are thought to be at management objectives. Pronghorns, which mix more with horses, are under. The only thing above objective is horses.
That worries Steve DeCecco, regional wildlife supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "In southwest Wyoming there's an overabundance of horses," he told me. "What's alarming to us is that we've also had many years of drought, and habitat has taken a hit. Our pronghorn populations south of Interstate 80 are below objective. Some of those areas have traditionally provided trophy hunting, attracting people from all over the country. They're just not productive anymore, and they overlap with important sage grouse core areas that we've identified as needing extra attention so we can avoid listing [under the Endangered Species Act]."
Feral horses--a.k.a., "mustangs," from the Spanish mestengo for "stray animals"--are, as their many advocates note, "wild and free" and "icons of the West." When their ribs aren't protruding because of disease or malnourishment they are, by popular standards, "beautiful," as celebrated horse photographer Carol Walker establishes in her book Wild Hoofbeats: America's Vanishing Wild Horses. They are not, however, "vanishing." Because Americans prevailed on Congress to outlaw effective management 40 years ago, feral-horse numbers are increasing 20 percent to 30 percent annually. With alien species and feral livestock (mustangs are both), "wild and free" is catastrophic for people, wildlife, and the feral aliens themselves.
But some horse lovers--especially those in the East--can't grasp this. Consider the response to my first piece on feral horses ("Horse Sense," Incite, September-October 2006), in which I let wildlife professionals do the talking. Nothing I have written in 31 years of reporting for Audubon has elicited more hate mail. Although I presented scientific data from states blighted by feral horses (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming), feral-horse activists divined that I was "grossly misinformed," "vitriolic," "an apologist" for the cattle industry, "a raging lunatic," and consumed by "hatred of horses." But biologists, botanists, and other wildlife advocates were unanimous in thanking Audubon for daring to publish facts most of the public doesn't want to know.
What has changed since 2006? I put that question to Tice Supplee, director of bird conservation for Audubon Arizona. "The horse people are winning," she said. She reminded me that I'd reported how the Animal Welfare Institute, In Defense of Animals, and the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Wild Burros had convinced a federal judge to temporarily enjoin the Forest Service from rounding up 400 domestic horses that had recently escaped from an Indian reservation and were nuking elk habitat in Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The plaintiffs contended that the horses might have Spanish blood and were therefore potential historical artifacts that should remain on the landscape. Shortly after my article appeared, the Conquistador Equine Rescue and Advocacy Program sued the Forest Service, and, to borrow Supplee's word, it "caved." The agency agreed to set up a "management plan" for the escaped horses and not to reduce their numbers until that plan was completed--possibly in 2012. The horse management area the animals currently crowd and degrade was established almost four decades ago because seven other horses were seen on it. The Forest Service even knew what rancher had abandoned them.