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.
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.
When I asked the Conquistador Equine Rescue and Advocacy Program's president, Pat Haight, how she knows the escaped horses have Spanish blood, she said: "Because [U.S. Cavalry] General Crook's trail follows [conquistador] Coronado's trail, and some of the old timers up there have talked to their grandfathers about it. I'm not going to get into a debate over it with you. I have Spanish horses, and I know their colors." Not only are the genetics of these and other feral horses unknown, they are irrelevant. Alien is alien. Asian bittersweet, for example, is wild and free and beautiful, but we don't preserve it on the landscape as an "icon of colonial America" simply because it has infested our continent since 1736.
It's not as if the feral-horse activists weren't winning before 2006. With the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 Congress banned lethal control. In addition, it placed all unrestrained, unclaimed horses and burros under the care of the federal government, primarily the BLM, and gave it the task of managing an alien species so as "to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance." That task is, of course, impossible. No alien species can thrive or even exist in "natural ecological balance." And, in our predator-impoverished land, even native ungulates can't be managed without lethal control.
In 2004, with feral horses proliferating in the wild and in BLM holding facilities, Congress amended the act, stipulating that excess horses "shall be made available for sale without limitation" and directing the agency to euthanize animals more than 10 years old or that had been unsuccessfully offered for adoption at least three times. But intimidated by the feral-horse lobby, the BLM declined to euthanize and all but blocked purchases by making customers sign a "statement of intent" that they wouldn't sell the animals for slaughter. Therefore the "BLM is not in compliance with the act," charges a scathing, 88-page report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2008.
Even if the BLM dared to obey the law, it lacks the money and manpower to control feral horses. In 2007 the agency spent $38.8 million rounding up and holding horses; in 2010 it spent $63.9 million; and for 2011 it has budgeted $75.7 million with an additional $42.5 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy more holding facilities. This doesn't include most costs of removing or excluding feral horses from lands managed by states, private entities, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service. Currently the BLM is maintaining 34,500 feral horses and burros on welfare and supposedly managing 37,800 others in the wild. (Feral horses vastly outnumber feral burros.) No one knows how many animals exist on other lands, public and private.
Increasing the cost is the need for more BLM staffers at gathers to cater to and control observers, most of whom are in their faces about imagined horse abuse. The agency has even taken to providing port-o-potties. The estimated cost for the Adobe Town-Salt Wells gather alone had been $700,000, but the final figure will be well above that. By contrast our federal government, via its endangered species program, spends an average of $86,673 a year on each of 2,071 wild species believed to face imminent or possible extinction.
"It is interesting that we have a law requiring us to manage a non-indigenous species across the American landscape," remarks Dwight Fielder, the BLM's chief of fish, wildlife, and plant conservation. "Not only is this having a huge impact on the landscape, it's having a huge impact on our budget. It's just not a sustainable proposition. And of course some of the horse activists are extremely vocal and highly emotional." Indeed they are.
Although the BLM has repeatedly vowed never to euthanize excess horses, the mere possibility that it could do so was enough to send the feral-horse lobby screaming to Congress. In July 2009 the House obligingly passed the Restore Our American Mustangs (ROAM) Act. The bill, now before the Senate, would set up 19 million additional acres on which feral horses can explode and would revoke the BLM's unused authority to destroy old, sick, or unadoptable horses.
Even if the BLM wanted to sell horses for slaughter, it couldn't. In 2007 the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia ordered the last horse-slaughter plant closed. "Keep America's horses in the stable and off the table" was the battle cry of the political action committee called HOOFPAC. So now, instead of getting something back on their investments, people who own ailing domestic horses or adopted mustangs often must pay to have them put down, then hauled to a landfill because they've been shot full of poison by the euthanizing veterinarian. The result is that more and more horses are being turned loose on public land.
This and the sagging economy, which has discouraged people from committing to the major expense of feral-horse adoptions, have obliged the agency to pay for more gathers and build more long-term holding facilities (up from one in 1988 to 11 in 2008 to 17 in 2011). Gathers are almost always done with helicopters, which--according to the horse activists--terrify the animals so that they stampede, killing themselves. Less than one percent die, many from hideous preexisting maladies. But these days there isn't a gather anywhere that isn't protested. "Join a protest or start your own!" instructs the Cloud Foundation's website, which offered a list of nine protests planned for October 2010 alone. At this writing, litigation by feral-horse activists has delayed gathers planned for 2010 in Nevada's Calico horse management complex, Nevada's Tuscarora area, and California's Twin Peaks area.
The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign may not be exaggerating when it reports that the BLM received more than 10,000 letters opposing the Adobe Town-Salt Wells gather. Carol Walker, who lobbies against management of feral horses when she isn't photographing them, hand-delivered 3,516 of those letters to the agency's office in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
I met Ms. Walker at the gather. She repeatedly expressed concern that "there'd be no horses left in Adobe Town." This was hardly the case, as BLM staffers kept assuring her. While most captured horses would be trucked to holding facilities in Canon City, Colorado, and Rock Springs, dozens would be released. None would be surgically sterilized, but the mares would be injected with the anti-fertility drug porcine zona pellucida (PZP), which doesn't always work and, even when it does, wears off after about three years. Unlike Kathrens, who wrote the foreword to her book, Walker doesn't oppose PZP. But she does oppose gathers.
What struck me most about the horses I saw rounded up was their nonchalance. Horse activist propaganda notwithstanding, they didn't "stampede." Mostly they trotted. The helicopters, piloted by experienced cowboys who work on the ground as well, hovered a mile or so behind. Occasionally a horse would snort or whinny, but they clearly weren't "terrified." Their domestic genes became even clearer in the holding pen, where they calmly drank and ate. Of the 97 captured that day, not one sustained even minor injury.
Such facts are rarely reported because the media gets most of its information from the feral-horse lobby. Consider these rantings presented as news by Nevada's KLAS-TV's "chief investigative reporter," George Knapp: "The way it looks, BLM has decided to turn the mustangs into . . . a classified, off-limits, shadowy mystery, something no one in the government can talk about and no one in the civilian world can access." That's because: "Every time a band of horses nearly collapses after being driven in terror by roaring helicopter blades over miles of rough terrain, BLM gets pummeled." Knapp has even tried to tie Nevada gathers to the Gulf oil disaster by suggesting that the BLM's real motive for controlling feral horses is to free up land for a pipeline that will supply British Petroleum with natural gas. His source: Ginger Kathrens.
Consider also this fiction, tirelessly spun by Kathrens and then reported as news by the Billings Gazette: "The Pryor [Mountain] horses are direct descendants of the mounts used by Spanish Conquistadors." As with all feral horses, these are mongrels, descended from livestock owned by everyone who ever dumped or lost horses in the West from 1540 to 2010.
I did see a fair and balanced media response to my 2006 Audubon piece--from Felicity Barringer of The New York Times. More typical was NBC's Today Show, which dispatched a film crew to my house. I spent an afternoon quoting scientific literature and explaining what feral horses do to wildlife. With that NBC sent another crew to Montana to interview Dick Walton and Clayton McCracken--two wilderness advocates who had expressed alarm about gross damage by feral horses to the Pryor Mountains. According to Walton, the interviewer "had no apparent interest in the Pryors or what [Walton] had to say about them" and continually tried to bait him into advocating lethal control so as to present a convenient foil for Kathrens, who wants more, not fewer, feral horses on public land. When the Today Show piece aired it included not a word Walton, McCracken, or I had uttered and, as Walton accurately puts it, "was very much a romantic Cloud/Ginger spot including inaccurate and misleading info and certainly not indicating the real problem of damage to the land."
What will our federal government and Congress do about feral horses, which Salazar correctly observes are "out of control" and creating a "huge problem"? When BLM director Bob Abbey was pushing the Salazar Initiative, he issued this statement: "Everything is on the table for discussion except two things: (1) the euthanasia of excess healthy horses for which there is no adoption demand and (2) the unrestricted sale of unadopted animals." In other words, he intends to continue defying the directive Congress gave his agency with its amended Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.
Michael Hutchins, who as the director and CEO of the Wildlife Society represents 10,000 wildlife professionals, told me this when I asked for his predictions: "I don't think taking horses off public land and sticking them in corrals is sustainable. The cost just keeps going up and up and up. And when money is limited, how you spend it becomes an ethical issue. I think we need to give [surgical] sterilization a try, but that's going to take many, many years. And what if it doesn't work? Do we need to go back to considering lethal control? We have to be realistic. Are we going to continue to let horses degrade the American West? Just as with the feral-cat problem you wrote about, these are the decisions our government is going to have to make if it wants to protect native habitats and wildlife. If it's not going to make these decisions, I don't have a lot of hope for the future."
If there are rays of hope, they lie in the tough stands being taken by groups like the Wildlife Society, the alarm sounded by the GAO in its 2008 report, and the fact that the ROAM bill appears stalled in the Senate. The word in Washington is that the Salazar Initiative was merely a strategy for derailing that legislation. If so, maybe our Interior Secretary struck the only blow for horse-blighted wildlife that America's current mindset allows. And maybe he'll do more in the future.