America's Vanishing Wild Horses
Once numbering over 2 million, only 1% of America's wild free-roaming horses remain - and not for long, if the government has its way. This colt, Diamond's son, is in imminent danger of losing his "forever" home.
While all eyes are focused on the horrible devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it might be easy to forget about other catastrophic events, like those taking place in the American West. Right now, thousands of wild horses are being rounded up, forever losing their freedom and their families. Many could make the ultimate sacrifice by losing their lives.
The first wild horses I ever saw, eleven years ago, were in what the Crow Indians call the Arrowhead Mountains. White people know this area in southern Montana as the Pryor Mountains, named for Sergeant Pryor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The good sergeant lost all the expedition horses there in 1806 on the return trip of the explorers from the West Coast. They were stolen by the Crow Indians. The Crow Indians deny this, but most experts believe it really was them.
The first wild horse I ever got to know lives right there. Raven was black as coal, dramatic as a warrior, and graceful as a dancer. He and his family taught me what makes a wild horse tick - what motivates their movements up and down their mountain home, what inspires their rich and spontaneous vocalizations, and what underscores their complex behavior.
I have taken the lessons Raven, and later, his spirited son, Cloud, taught me and translated them into films and books. Most importantly, Raven and Cloud, their family and herd taught me what wild horses value most . . . their families and their freedom - attributes we Americans can surely understand and embrace. The wild horses compel me to fight for their right to live free, their right to raise their families, and the right to pass on their proud spirits into the future. I believe we must all work together for their preservation or accept their extermination.
Wild horses today number less than 1% of their population just 100 years ago. Once there were over 2 million - some sources have estimated 3 million. Now less than 27 thousand live free. More wild horses are currently being held in captivity than roam free on the range.
On the alert, Cloud grazes with his roan daughters. On a rebound, after only one foal survived last year, a large number of foals have survived this year probably due to hunters killing 3 mountain lions over the winter. I love the foals, but know that the horses were learning and a balance would have been reached, if we could only allow nature to work.
They occupy only a fraction of their original homelands. Just in the
past quarter century, they have lost millions of acres once known as
wild horse range - never to return home; many have gone to slaughter.
The lucky ones were adopted to people with the skill, patience, and courage to make friends with a wild animal.
How did this happen? How and why did wild horses face the fate of
the bison and the American Indian?
I sum it up in one word - greed. Plain and simple greed. Wild horses were worth more dead than alive.
In the 20th century, they were rounded up and sold for fertilizer, chicken feed, and then dog food, until the early 1970s. Now they are fashionable, expensive dinner entrees in Paris and Tokyo - fetching as much as $20 a pound.
Wild horses were shot because they competed with livestock for grass on public lands in the West. Wild horses are still reviled by many public lands ranchers who hate anything that competes with their cattle and sheep or, God forbid, might prey on their cattle and sheep - like mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, bears, wolves, and even the majestic golden eagle.
For decades our tax dollars have been used to rid public lands of the 'nuisance horses' and the predators who might kill a calf or lamb. Just in 2004, the number of animals killed by tax-funded hunters is staggering: 397 black bears, 359 cougars, over 75,000 coyotes, 3,907 foxes, and 191 wolves.
The official government agency in charge is Wildlife Services, once know as Animal Damage Control. In 2004 government hunters killed more than five animals per minute. In my mind this all boils down to money, and the unwillingness to share our public lands with the wildlife and the Americans who value it.
Red Raven racing to water. To "get rid of wild horses", many of the livestock folks and many BLM employees have very successfully created myths about wild horses in the public's mind. The truth is that wild horses take care of themselves and their numbers instinctively, naturally, and are a vital part of a healthy ecosystem.
In the 1950s, when there may still have been a million mustangs in the wild (I use the term mustang and wild horse interchangeably, by the way - mustang is the anglicized version of the Spanish work 'mesteneo', meaning 'wild one' or 'stray'), a little lady - a middle-aged secretary disfigured by polio, but bold as brass and spirited as the mustangs - campaigned to make a difference for the wild ones. She was Wild Horse Annie; her real name was Velma Johnston. A Congressman back in DC wanted to get her goat, so he taunted her, calling her "Wild Horse Annie." Well, Annie wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. She latched on to that moniker and wore it proudly until her death.
What Annie did was galvanize public attention on the horrible fate
of America's wild horses, and she martialled the support of some of
the most powerful of all Americans - the children. Children by the
thousands campaigned for the protection of wild horses. Only the Vietnam
War generated more mail. She and my friend, Hope Ryden, helped to write
a piece of legislation they believed would preserve wild horses for
all time. Congress passed the act unanimously. It is the Wild Horse
and Burro Act of 1971. It states that
"Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."
Like mother, like daughter. Mares like Sitka, Cloud’s seasoned 16-year old, are darted with the experimental, unpredictable, and unnatural birth control drug PZP with its resulting problems. In nature, birth rates and herd numbers can be naturally controlled by seasonal variations, forage availability, predator activity, and natural catastrophes such as lightning strikes.
Management of wild horses was placed in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management, known as the BLM. The agency was organized in 1946, when the Grazing Service was merged with the General Land Office to form the Bureau of Land Management within the Department of the Interior. The BLM largely managed livestock - cattle and sheep on public lands. Many employees of the BLM were livestock folks - many still are. They believed that wild horses were largely a pain in the neck. I believe that this is still the prevailing attitude.
To "get rid of wild horses", they have very successfully created myths about wild horses in the public's mind. Some of the reasons given for removing them from their homes: They are starving and need to be rescued. They are overpopulated. They are overgrazing our public lands. They are feral. They are not native. They are exotics.
Let me address these myths.
#1. The Myth of Starvation.
All wildlife experience die-offs. Starvation occurs among all species from time to time. After all, death is part of life. Some species may even crash and rebuild from nearly nothing. Such is the case of the dynamic relationship of the lynx and the snowshoe hare. Having said this, I have NEVER seen a starving wild horse in the wild. I have seen starving horses - in corrals, pens, and paddocks.
This does not mean that wild horses never starve. When the old wild horses' teeth give out they are unable to properly process their food. There's no one around to give them Purina Senior and soften their food. And so they die. There was a 20-year-old stallion in the Pryors whom I found dead down in the red desert. I examined his teeth that were worn to nubbins. He was a former band stallion and he lived out his life in freedom. You can't say that about many wild horses.
But the livestock industry and the BLM have used the myth of starvation to play on our emotions.
The logical next step is what? Rescue. Of course! We must rescue them and take care of them. And we must round them up to rescue them.
Diamond and the Palomino band in the fog. This is the wild horse society, easily ripped apart by round ups. In an instant the family is separated and all is lost for the band stallion. It might have taken him a lifetime to win his mares and build his family unit, and it is shattered when the helicopter swoops in.
Let me tell you that, in my experience, the safest place for a wild horse is in the wild. Once captured, they are adopted by mostly well meaning people who have no idea what they are getting into. They have a wild animal on their hands - a tiger by the tail. And many are ill-equipped to handle this wild animal. So what do they do? They keep it for a year and sell it. Sadly, many wild horses have been sold at auction, purchased by the pound by killer buyers and trucked to slaughterhouses in Dallas or Illinois. Our American mustangs end up as dinner in fancy restaurants in Europe.
Myth #2. They're overpopulated. They reproduce like rabbits and are eating themselves out of house and home. Now, how unbelievable is this? There are millions of head of cattle on our public lands and a few thousand wild horses spread over 10 western states. It is plain to see where damage occurs and by what species, and it is not the wild horse.
Myth #3. The wild horse is a feral non-native.
Ranchers and BLM like to call our American wild horses 'feral', meaning 'once domesticated'. Implied in this is that they got loose or were released from Farmer John's pasture just last week. How long does it take to be given the recognition of being wild? Regardless of how many hundreds of years mustangs have lived free, apart from man, independent of any help from humans, they are labeled as 'feral'.
The 'feral' label goes hand in hand with the "fact" that they are 'not native'. Feral and not native - get rid of them.
Well, the "facts" have changed as our science has grown more sophisticated. These new discoveries are very important to the future survival of the American Mustang. The wild horse probably went extinct in North America some 10,000 years ago. Some believe that pockets remained and bred with the returned wild horses but, to date, this has not been proven. Many people believed the animals that died out 8-10,000 years ago were very different than the horses we know today. But, through mitochondrial DNA analysis of fossil finds, the history of Equus on our continent and around the world is being rewritten. And these discoveries have been made just in the past 10 years.
Wild horses are often blamed for destruction of the land. On the contrary, they naturally support the ecosystem. But the BLM is not known for watching or studying nature at work. Instead, the focus is on rounding them up. As noted animal advocate Andrea Lococo has stated it, "BLM seems 'hell-bent' on getting rid of as many wild horses as it can, before new legislation can stop the slaughter." Senator Conrad Burns' sneaky rider on an appropriations bill last year allows wild horses over 10 to be legally sold to slaughter. Cloud is now 10 years old.
I remember speaking with a paleontologist about 8 years ago when I was working on the "Ultimate Guide: Horses” for the Discovery Channel. She'd gotten a call to come look at something that placer miners had uncovered in a placer mine in the Yukon. They said it was the remains of a horse. She flew from Whitehorse to this remote location. She said she could smell rotting flesh and excrement when she neared the pit. Initially she didn't think too much about the well preserved, brownish-red horse freeze-dried in the permafrost layer. It didn't look much different than any other horse that had died and been buried in the mud for many years.
To her surprise, analysis revealed that the carcass was about 25,000 years old! Remember she could smell the carcass? It turned out that even the stomach contents were still in the gut. The horse's mane didn't stick straight up, but hung over the neck of its hide-covered skeleton. The horse had solid hooves, just like a modern horse. Scientists might have been looking at a near carbon copy of some of the small mustangs thriving on Cloud's home range.
The specimen was named "Equus lambei" and it is fossil proof that horses evolved in North America to a finished form. The modern horse evolved in North America, migrated as a species across the Bering land bridge, probably went extinct here, and returned with the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500s. Quite a journey!
Here is the really important point of all this. The wild horse is a returned native species. If it received this well-earned title, it would be eligible for 'endangered species' status… at least 'threatened' status. And it would be far harder "to get rid of them".
Management techniques would have to alter. Perhaps a different agency would mange wild horses. That might not be a bad idea. The BLM is ill equipped to manage a wildlife species like mustangs - especially since they hesitate to admit they are a wildlife species, and a native wildlife species at that. Also, they do not admit the new grazing science that talks of the need for lively, active grazers like wild horses. Mustangs play an essential role in keeping ecosystems healthy by reseeding plants. They plant seeds when their hooves push old plant material into the soils, incorporating new organic material. As they run around, this “hoof effect” speeds up the all important mineral/nutrient cycle that has gone on for hundred of thousands of years. I just had this interesting conversation with a land management consultant over Labor Day as we sat and watched the wild horses atop Cloud’s home range. Many of these waterhole pictures were taken then.
Proud, independent and capable of surviving where many hooved mammals cannot, they evolved with and are beautifully adapted to their wild lives. Instead of protecting them, however, BLM is managing our wild horse herds for extinction. The BLM has decimated wild horse numbers. 10,000 will be rounded up this year. That is their stated goal, even though they know they can find homes for only about half of these animals.
Over 85% of the wild horse herds are not viable. Simply put, there are not enough animals in a herd to avoid inbreeding. Unless we can reverse this irresponsible and cruel management trend, wild horses could soon be just images on a screen or pictures in a book. Just how many wild horses need to live in a herd to survive in the long term - to maintain their genetic health? Probably several hundred, preferably far more. Only about one-third of the herd members are the reproducers - the band stallion and his adult mares. The remaining two-thirds are bachelor stallions, old mares, foals, yearlings, and two-year-old fillies.
Raven, black as coal. This glorious stallion and his family taught me what makes a wild horse tick. Wild horses… just a memory? Not on your life. We created The Cloud Foundation to make sure this doesn't happen, and to champion the rights of wild horses to live free with their families as the Wild Horse and Burro Act - and nature itself - intended.
Let me explain how wild horses live in the wild. They live in family groups called bands or harems. I choose to use the term 'band' as it is less sexist ('harem' reminds me of a human harem).There is usually one dominant stallion in a family band. This band stallion has a mare or a group of mares, their foals, yearlings and sometimes two-year olds in this family unit.
The stallion father is the protector of the family 365 days a year. He is a disciplinarian, guide, warrior, and all around organizer, snaking foals who wander off back to the family. It wouldn't do for mares to do this as a prowling stallion might steal the mare away.
Often, there is a lead mare in the family, a female with special status who calls many of the shots - where to go to water and grazing and when to nap; where and when to take cover from an approaching storm. Other members of the family know their place and rarely challenge the authority of the lead mare and band stallion.
There is an orderliness to the whole family, one I believe humans might do well to emulate. Discipline is rarely physical. It is fair, consistent and immediate. Rules are followed or there are consequences. The consequences might be a deadly stare or a menacing laid-back ear. It might be a hind end turned and the threat of a kick. The offender is often a juvenile - often a foal who has "forgotten" the rules of wild horse family life and needs a little reminder. You've no doubt seen many of these behaviors in your own horses.
Just as there is a pecking order within the family, there is a pecking order too amongst the various bands. In Cloud's home range there are 30 some bands and each is ranked against the other. Size of the band, strength of the stallion, and cohesiveness of the family unit all play a role in which band outranks the other. These family bands are the glue of wild horse society.
Then, there are the wild horse rascals and troublemakers. They are the bachelors… a rowdy bunch of teenage boys, capable of reeking havoc on the peaceful lives of the stable family bands. But bachelors just want what the band stallions have, and they'll fight to start their own families. I've watched them for hours, practicing the skills they will one day need to win a mare. Some never succeed. Others, like Raven and Cloud, are born to be band stallions - they possess a combination of physical talent, ample testosterone, a feisty temperament and boundless courage.
This is the wild horse society Raven invited me into 11 years ago. And it is a society ripped apart by round ups. In an instant the family is separated and all is lost for the band stallion. It might have taken him a lifetime to win his mares and build his family unit, and it is shattered when the helicopter swoops in.
Perhaps, just as insidious, is the experimentation with drugs on wild horse herds like Cloud's. I hesitate to make a blanket condemnation of PZP, the infertility drug used in the Pryors and elsewhere. It is an invaluable tool in zoos. And perhaps it has some merit in viable wild horse herds - large herds with no predation and few natural threats.
However, I do condemn its use in Cloud's mountain home where predators killed all but one foal last year, where lightning has taken an entire family at one time, and where winter weather is a regular killer. All the foals and older horses died in a winter storm in the 1970s.
Sadly, two young mares who received the infertility drug have just given birth this late in the year. The drug no doubt wore off last fall and the fillies were bred out of season only to foal out of season. These September newborns have little chance of surviving, for winters in Montana are harsh and it is not the time to be a nursing foal. Nor is it the time to be the mother who nurses that foal. Her life is also in jeopardy. The typical foaling period is mid-May to mid-June and this year was typical except there was a higher percentage of mares foaling. Remember I said only one foal survived last year? Well, the mares responded, giving birth in larger numbers. This is nature's way to compensate for a declining population and is known as compensatory reproduction. Round ups have the same effect. Suddenly the population is dramatically reduced and the mares respond with higher foaling rates. I think it's fascinating to be able to study these natural phenomena.
But BLM is not known for watching or studying nature at work. Only about 3% of their budget to manage wild horses is allocated to monitoring the herds and inventorying the range they live on. Instead the focus is on rounding them up. As noted animal advocate Andrea Lococo has stated it, "BLM seems 'hell-bent' on getting rid of as many wild horses as it can, before new legislation can stop the slaughter."
Andrea refers to slaughter in her quote. Right now, wild horses over the age of 10 who are captured have no protection and are being sold by the BLM for as little as one dollar. Technically they cannot give them away as the gentleman in charge of the sales informed me the other day. BLM must charge for them. Once out of BLM hands, these horses can be legally sold to slaughter.
This horrible travesty is a result of Senator Conrad Burns of Montana who attached a rider to the Appropriations Bill just before the Thanksgiving recess when few Congressmen and Women even knew it was attached, and fewer still had an opportunity to read it. This sneaky rider was attached to the omnibus Appropriations Bill, a 3,000-page document that must be passed and signed into law by the President to prevent the government from grinding to a halt.
Some believe that Burns and the BLM plan to eliminate these "pesky" wild horses once and for all from OUR public lands. And that includes Cloud's herd - the most famous real wild horse in the world is not off-limits to the BLM.
I urge you to get involved to help us protect Cloud's herd and all wild horse herds on our Western Public Lands. You can give money to Senator Burn's opponent. Burns is up for re-election next year. And you can laud the efforts of Kentucky's Congressman Whitfield. He and Congressman Rahall of W. Virginia have introduced a bill, which would restore the protections taken away by Senator Burns (still active legislation).
Right now the Rahall-Whitfield bill is being held hostage in the House Resources Committee, chaired by Congressman Pombo of California. You might want to write to Congressman Pombo, and let him know what you think of his tactics.
And you can get behind an Amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations Bill, which would prevent ALL horse slaughter for the coming year. The vote is next week. (Note: This Amendment passed by a vote of 68 to 29 in the Senate banning horse slaughter for one year beginning October 1, 2005. That ban will go out of effect in one year unless permanent protections are passed or another amendment is passed.)
Please let your Congressional Representatives and Senators know that you want wild horses protected - not just the ones in captivity… but those still wild and free.
Wild horses… just a memory? Not on your life. We created The Cloud Foundation to make sure this doesn't happen and to champion the rights of wild horses to live free with their families as the Wild Horse and Burro Act intended.
(Note: Here is the current situation. Cloud will be 11 years old in 2006. If he is rounded up. BLM would decide if he is to be released with his family or held captive. Unless a rider is again attached to the House Agriculture Appropriations Bill preventing horse slaughter, the Burns Rider would again be the prevailing legislation governing wild horse sales, making any wild horse over 10 vulnerable.)
Please help us ground the helicopter in Cloud’s home range. Help us ground the helicopters all over our public lands. And help us protect wild horses for all the generations of Americans to come. These magnificent animals belong to all of us. It is our responsibility and our challenge to keep them running "forever free!"
This article has been adapted from Ginger Kathrens' Speech at Equine Affaire, Louisville, KY, September 16, 2005.