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Volume 9 Issue 5

Wild Horses


The Past, Present and Future Status of Wild Horses: An Indispensable Challenge for Our Times

By Craig C. Downer, Wildlife Ecologist

Photo 1. High Rock herd being driven at a fast clip by helicopter during BLM contracted roundup, Sept, 2006. Sometimes bands are brought in from many miles experiencing extreme stress, injury and even death. This is particularly hard on the old, the young, the pregnant and those in weakened condition for whatever reason. This is very draconian! Photo courtesy of Front Range Equine Rescue, www.frontrangeequinerescue.org

Craig Downer gave this speech along with a slide presentation on June 14th, 2007, to a respectful audience and a full house at the Carson Valley Museum and Historical Center, in Gardnerville, NV, in his home county of Douglas. This is part of the inauguration of the Mustang exhibit that he also helped to prepare sharing photos, films, and information to give a fairer view of the mustang, not just the rancher's view.

A little over a century ago, an estimated two million wild horses inhabited the United States, including in its plains, prairies, Western deserts and Californian valleys. Since then, an unscrupulous campaign to eradicate these ecologically benign returned natives has been waged. In the early 1900's, horses and vehicles were used to roundup hundreds of thousands of horses, mainly for slaughter, often for pet food factories. Little consideration was given to these majestic animals’ intrinsic value, their evolutionary justification for being here, nor their ecological niche and contribution. By the 1940's, only a few hundred thousand remained; which were to be drastically reduced during the 1950's by WWII trained pilots using light aircraft to buzz the wild horse bands into corrals.

This cruel elimination of the mustangs and burros compelled Wild Horse Annie (Velma Bronn Johnston) to arouse the public to stop the continuing atrocity. She likened it to the tragic slaughter of the buffalo and the last passenger pigeons. Only a few tens of thousands of wild horses then remained by the late 1950's. Annie’s efforts led to the passage of the first federal law in 1959 (Public Law 86-234, the “Wild Horse Annie Act”) to protect the wild horses by prohibiting motorized vehicles, including airplanes and helicopters, in their capture on public lands. Though this law somewhat decreased the rate of wild horse elimination, this still continued at an alarming pace during the 1960's. Enforcement in remote regions was not at all thorough; and, since horseback roundups were still legal, the wild equid herds continued to plummet. This spurred Annie and millions of wild equid supporters to mount one of the most popular grassroots campaigns ever in U.S history, culminating in the unanimous passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (P.L. 92-195) of 1971. This protects both wild horses and burros “where found” at the passage of the Act in nearly 350 legal herd areas upon BLM and USFS lands and makes it a felony to harass, capture, or kill any wild equid on these lands or originating and having their main homes thereon. It is officially estimated that some 17,000 wild horses survived at the passage of the Act, though more methodical estimates give a higher number. Many evaluators believe that the current 2007 wild horse and burro population is at least as low as or even lower than the 1971 population about which the public was so alarmed.

Why has there been such a huge reduction in the wild equid herds? Grasping the history of “civilization”, the answer should not be surprising, but it should be disgusting! Humanity has spread its exploitation of Earth’s natural ecosystems in a very thoughtless and insensitive way and even such magnificent animals as the horses and burros who have long served man have not been exempt from his vicious and ungrateful treatment. Among the primary culprits in wild equid elimination has been the plundering mentality of the livestock culture, which has devastated millions of square miles throughout the world; and any species that has stood in its way has been violently combated and destroyed. But by no means is the livestock culture the lone enemy of wild equids. The hunting establishment has also targeted them, since they are not a game species. They do so in spite of the fact that wild equids ecologically complement rather than compete with deer, antelope, bighorn, and many other species, when man allows their ecosystem enough space and freedom to naturally adapt, interrelate, stabilize and evolve.

Photo 2. Depressed colts and fillies in separated pen. Early Fall, 2006. Palomino BLM wild horse and burro holding facility, north of Sparks, NV. Recumbent one seems unusually distressed or sick.

We are dealing with narrow-minded “tunnel vision” – a monstrous thing, indeed! The ecologically inconsiderate expansion of agriculture, mining, off-road vehicle recreation, urbanization and suburban sprawl throughout the West has hogged water sources, drained mountain ranges, sealed off natural springs, paved over the most fertile soils, fenced and cross-fenced the land so as to disrupt ecologically healthy migration patterns, and generally wreaked ecological havoc.

The huge reduction of the wild equids to their present level of a little over 20,000 nationwide is especially due to the power establishment’s having targeted these noble and ecologically fitting animals for practical elimination. The politicos, including those in academic circles, have outrageously lied about these species, concocting negative propaganda and using them as scapegoats for ecological problems that people – not horses and burros – are responsible for. This is what makes the current attitudes toward and treatment of the naturally living horses and burros so utterly reprehensible and requiring of our immediate attention.

While the arrogant and ruthless livestock culture rapes the natural ecosystem to feed an unwholesome appetite for meat and other animal products, and leaves desertification in its ever expanding wake, the returned native wild horses restore the North American ecosystem, seeding its native plants and building the vital humus component of its soils, acting as a natural prey species for native predators such as puma and wolf, and in countless other ways enhancing the biodiverse life community.

Massive roundups have a detrimental effect upon horses and burros, both as individuals and in their social groupings. The helicopter roundups (Photo 1) contracted mainly by Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but also by United States Forest Service (USFS), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service (NPS), and other agencies, today, are very stressful and greatly traumatize these animals. And a significant percentage of the equids are physically harmed and killed. This harm results in a higher degree of suffering and death in the government holding pens (Photos 2 and 3) as well as after adoption. Unable to accept their life as prisoners and always at the mere beck and call of their human owners, many become morose and decline in health, longing for their once free and natural life. A large percentage simply fail to adjust and are sold to slaughter buyers when the owner gains final title from the BLM after one year. – A sad fate, indeed, and one that is not at all necessary!

Socially and ecologically, the roundups devastate the interrelationships and stability between and among the horses and the diverse plant and animal species with which they share the land. A far better solution would be to realize true wild equid sanctuaries where, in accordance with P.L. 92-195, these worthy animals would be treated as the “principal” presence and, thus, afforded adequate water, space, shelter and habitat variety so as to accommodate truly long-term viable populations numbering in the thousands for each given herd. This would be in lieu of the mere hundreds or even tens that have resulted according to the perverse plan of government officials doing the bidding of the wild equids’ chief enemies. A large portion of America’s legal Herd Areas (HAs) have already been “zeroed out”, declared “horse free”! Those Herd Management Areas (HMAs) that remain generally receive a similar short shrift as the historic Little Bookcliffs herd. Established by Wild Horse Annie as the first such in the nation, currently this wild horse sanctuary is slated for reduction to a mere token, non-viable population of 38 wild horses!

Photo 3. This mare's front leg snapped in the corral right after being ‘gathered’, so a contractor shot her in the head. I had noticed a lot of very powerful kicks being administered to one another among the wild horses in their bunched up condition in the corrals, so perhaps it was such a blow that snapped the upper leg bone of this beautiful mare. Sept. 2006. High Rock Herd Management Area, extreme NW Nevada. Photo courtesy of Front Range Equine Rescue, www.frontrangeequinerescue.org

The HMAs still authorized for wild equids on BLM lands and their equivalents on USFS lands have been greatly reduced in size compared with the original legal HAs established at the passage of the 1971 Act. I estimate that well over a half of the original legal HAs now experience an absence of wild equids and that well over 90% of remaining legal wild equid HMAs are in actuality being monopolized by ranchers’ livestock and/or big game species controlled by state game departments – all in direct defiance of the Wild Horse Act’s true intent! Though the Government Accounting Office pointed out similar flagrant discrepancies to the U.S. Congress and public in 1990, the situation has only gotten worse during the 17 years since their stern reprimand and call for reform (Rangeland Management: Improvements Needed in Federal Wild Horse Program. G.A.O. 1990. Govt. Print. Off., D.C.)

Some otherwise well-meaning conservationists have been misled and misinformed so as to unjustly exclude wild horses and burros from their purview of what is valuable and belongs in the West. This is in large part due to the dishonest and negative campaign of the well-heeled livestock establishment. The extremely prejudice article that Ted Williams wrote in Audubon magazine during the Fall of 2006 is an example.

Wild equid roundups also set the process of natural selection operating within the herds way back, since mankind intercedes in place of nature in selecting which horses/burros shall remain in the wild and which shall be taken to an entirely uncertain future with “civilized” humanity. Hence, those characteristics and behaviors that adapt the equids for survival in the wild are not always chosen, indeed, for rarely identified, nor are an adaptive age and sex ratio and a host of other survival adapted traits, habits, etc. Since each herd is frequently ‘gathered’ to maintain an unnaturally low population number, the wild equids never really come to fill their niche, stabilize their numbers, nor adjust to the limits imposed by natural or artificial boundaries. The wild equids of any given HA are, thus, thwarted in their generations-long process of harmonious adaptation to their particular unique part of the world. They are treated as least valuable by our public servants who have sided with their enemies even in their legal HAs. Indeed, many of these officials have long been their enemies owing to their backgrounds.

Though the current situation is a disgrace, the good news is that it can quickly change, given the requisite enlightenment and will to change on the part of “we the people”. As a wildlife ecologist who cares about wild horses and burros and their freedom, what I envision for the future are self-contained wild equid sanctuaries existing both in and around their current legal HAs and in other appropriate areas on both public and private lands, such as the Virginia Highlands above Reno. (Photos 4, 5, and 6 are of a young band of 3 in the Virginia Range.) These can be established through proper, ecologically knowledgeable and caring sanctuary design that incorporates natural boundaries and, only where necessary, artificial, semi-permeable barriers. Each sanctuary should be of appropriate size and habitat to support a long-term viable wild horse or burro population of at least 1,000 interbreeding individuals. Within each sanctuary, the wild equids will be respectfully treated as the “principal” presence, not relegated to mere token numbers and deprived of basic resources in order to accommodate a monopoly of livestock or big game, as is currently the case. Within these sanctuaries, as many of the natural checks and balances that operate within an ecosystem as possible will be given free reign, allowed to reinstall themselves, including natural equid predators such as the puma and the wolf. With relative rapidity, these herds will attain population stability as a special harmonious give-and-take relationship with each unique ecosystem ensues; and the cruel and ecologically disruptive roundups will become a thing of the past. – Thank God!

The media can play a valuable role in making people aware of each and every herd and herd area. Programs such as Ginger Kathrens’ Cloud series aired on PBS’s Nature program can encourage U.S. and world citizens to respectfully visit the various wild equid herds and to monitor their fair treatment by BLM/USFS public servants sworn to uphold the law, as well as by ranchers, hunters, hikers, photographers, campers, backpackers, and other classes of people who utilize the public lands in areas where the wild equids occur.

Photo 4. Chocolate brown colt with star. A handsome young life starting out in freedom. Virginia Range, W Nevada. Late summer, 2006. Very spirited colt.

However, too many television programs, articles and books suffer from very limited viewpoints, failing to reveal the greater picture and time-frame concerning wild horses and burros. They oversimplify and give an unbalanced perspective. Undoubtedly their hampering has been due to the very aggressive put down of the wild equids and their supportive public by a conspiracy of mainly ranching but also hunting and other established interests who have targeted the wild equids for discreditation and elimination. Their campaign of disinformation and political arm twisting is as monetarily rich as it is corrupt and blind to the true, whole story and value of the wild horses and burros in the wild! Beware of it and do not be taken in.

Though efforts to protect, preserve and restore the wild horses and burros have been greatly thwarted , those relatively few caring individuals who persist in this holy cause remain as bright and strongly resolved in their vision as any who have gone before – perhaps even more so! Numerous and repeated attempts have been made through professional and personal inputs, public education and legal suits to rein in the BLM and USFS in their attempts to largely eliminate the wild horses and burros from their legal areas. While some of these battles have met with limited success, the overall trend since the election of President Ronald Reagan (who sided with the Sagebrush Rebels) has been an increasingly losing one. I attribute this to a widespread apathy or downright mean-spiritedness of too many people today, especially people with wealth and political power. Possessed by their worldly possessions, such have abandoned the noble cause of the wild horses and burros in the wild and have used them as sacrifice pawns in order to curry favor with the establishment. Too often this goes along with the adoption of a way of life and value system that blindly worships "cowboys" and adopts plunderous "cowboy" mentalities and, so, has no place in its heart or room in its mind for the wild horses and burros in the wild. It has been such a pity for me during the past few decades to observe this deadening of sensibility, this dumbing down of society, both here in the West as elsewhere!

Yet this regretful situation must not be taken as an excuse to give up. Far from it! We champions of the wild equids, as our exemplars: the wild equids themselves, must be like beacons of light in a dark and storm-tossed sea, showing forth the way to lost ships groping hither and yon. The Wild Horse Act still remains intact! The legal herd areas still are legal herd areas, even if largely empty or populated only by token, non-viable populations. These populations can recover! A caring America can restore their rights in the ecosystems where they are an ancient yet ever self-renewing and evolving part. Think about it: their future is our future, for when we abandon their cause, their freedom, their land, we also abandon a very special and essential element in our very own. For to this degree are the lives and destinies of horses, burros and their kindred linked to those of man. Their true home is a free home, not that of some mere prisoner or slave in a world made prison both by, and ultimately of, man himself!

Photo 6. Head mare of band and mother of colt above. Purplish brown with dapple effect. Keenly alert to my presence. Late summer, 2006. Note the Pinyon Pine (on right), the Juniper (on left), the Sagebrush (on left) and the Deer Brush (on right). The Pinyon and Juniper trees provide them much needed shelter both from hot summer sun and cold winter storms, and also serve as rubbing posts, especially the junipers. The rocky terrain here keeps their hooves in excellent shape. They do not overgraze but spread their grazing pressure over many square miles thus greatly reducing "fuel load", i.e. flammable parched vegetation, upon which they can thrive due to their post-gastric digestive system adapted over the millennia to just these conditions. Reducing flammable dry grass on the large scale that wild horses can accomplish is of crucial importance today for fire prevention, given the very dry conditions the West is experiencing.
Photo 5. Band stallion and father of colt. Late summer, 2006. Very spirited stallion later pranced and shook his head.

We the people must insist on the wild horses’ rights to freedom in their legal herd areas. We must exercise our right to know they are still free by going out and respectfully observing them in their natural freedom. Through the unhampered exercise of our democratic rights, including that of freedom of expression in any medium, freedom of belief, and the right to redress of grievances, especially now in regard to the wild horses’ right to freedom, we will also set ourselves free from greed, ignobility and pettiness! Let us freely defend the wild horses, for their sake, for the sake of all horses everywhere, for the sake of a more ecologically balanced and restored world, and for the sake of very blessed Freedom!hoofprint

Copyright Craig C. Downer, June 11, 2007


About the author:
Craig C. Downer is a wildlife ecologist and author of "Wild Horses: Living Symbols of Freedom." Contact him at: ccdowner@yahoo.com

Craig C. Downer
PO Box 456
Minden, NV 89423


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