Latest science highlights wild horse over-population myth and mismanagement

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A wild horse in the Kiger Mustang Herd Management Area in Oregon. © Craig C. Downer

The critics of the BLM and their Wild Horse and Burro Program who number in the thousands (at least), have long held that there were more myths being spun about wild horses than truths.

The Curator of vertebrates at the prestigious American Museum of Natural History, Professor Ross MacPhee, is just one of that indelible multitude and has made his position on the BLM’s canards very clear as we read here.

Now we have further confirmation of those suspicions. Noted wildlife ecologist Craig C. Downer has just completed a lengthy and enlightening study on the Bureau of Land Management wild horses in Oregon and their management on publicly owned wild horse Herd Management Areas (HMAs) that were established under Act of Congress in the 1971 Wild Burro and Horse Protection Act.

This same report is being provided to the administrative heads of BLM, US Forest Service (USFS) and Department of the Interior (DOI) in the public interest of proper management of the legendary and majestic American wild horses.

Wild horses grazing in steep, inhospitable land.
Wild horses grazing in steep, inhospitable land. © Laura Simpson

For those people who find ignorance as problematic, this just-released scientific study on Oregon’s wild horses (including those on the Oregon-California border) will be most informative.

As the report indicates, not only are wild horses being mismanaged, their population numbers are literally so low that the notion of ‘overpopulation’ as is falsely claimed, is little more than an outrageous falsehood.

In one of my recent articles titled Wildlife Wildfire and Wild Horses – Undeniable Evolutionary Connection some additional myths about wild horses are delineated for interested readers. Hopefully readers will make contact with local, state and federal officials and politicians and demand corrective action for this malfeasance by the BLM as well as by their associates at the USFS who also manage some wild horses.

The public has been misled by the BLM to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on reckless and improper management of America’s wild horses. Worse yet, in many cases the BLM is the source of misinformation, and in many instances knowingly allows other agencies to repeat and print incorrect information about wild horses and their management.

Frankly, there are very few qualified wildlife biologists or ecologists who specialize in wild equine behavioral ecology in the world today. It is in fact a specialty because wild horses are in many ways different than domestic breeds of horses. Craig Downer has the prerequisite knowledge to weigh into this issue.

A few of the many examples of the myths that have long been promulgated by the BLM and wild horse management officials in other government agencies, including the USFS, are cited as follows:

1. Myth: Wild horses cannot graze on rough or steep terrain:

Truth: This first myth is manifestly untrue. As someone who lives among wild horses in a naturally operating ecosystem, I regularly observe and document wild horses browsing on steep rocky (volcanic talus) mountainsides, as we see in these two photos:

In both photos above, wild horses are seen browsing on very steep mountainsides.

Wild horses grazing on a steep mountainside.
Wild horses grazing on a steep mountainside. © Laura Simpson

2) Myth: Wild horses don’t eat brush or woody plants, only sweet grass and hay.

Truth: Wild horses in fact do browse a diet that is widely distributed among many plants in the biomes of North America, and maintain symbiotic mutualism with the plants eaten by spreading their seeds in many cases. This canard as to diet has been repeated often by BLM wild horse and burro managers who do not have the requisite field experience in wild horse behavioral ecology, so they substitute and impose domestic breed behavioral ecology upon wild horses, which is not consistent with fact. Wild horses do in fact eat woody plants as we see in the below short video of a wild mare browsing on some white oak debris that was blown down from a tree top.

3) Myth: Wild horses consume forage needed for rebuilding depleted deer herds.

Truth: This myth was spawned into the hunting industry by some people in and around the BLM and USFS. In the detailed peer-reviewed study by Hansen, R.M., Clark, R.C., & Lawhorn, W. 1977 titled Foods of Wild Horses, Deer, and Cattle in the Douglas Mountain Area, Colorado, we read in the first paragraph that the dietary overlap of Deer and Wild horses is just 1%.

 

4) Myth: Livestock should be exclusively used for grazing prodigious ground-fuels that are the genesis of catastrophic wildfire.

Truth: The reality is that livestock are useful as wildfire ground-fuel grazers only in and around grazing areas that can be actively managed with mechanical means for soil conditioning and re-seeding. This is because livestock (cattle and sheep) are an invasive species and via their grazing, which does overlap more heavily with deer, will strip native plants and their seeds from any area where they graze.

This fact is a function of their being ruminants with a very efficient digestive system (complex stomach). The opposite is true for wild horses, which have a monogastric (single stomach) digestive system that passes both humus and undamaged/undigested seed back onto the soils, thereby complementing and re-seeding the soils where they graze, which is of particular value in wildfire scars. This study has photos and details this fact.

Wild horse droppings contain native seeds, humus, microorganisms and nutrients.
Wild horse droppings contain native seeds, humus, microorganisms and nutrients.

5) Myth: Wild horses damage riparian areas more than livestock.

Truth: Both physics and empirical evidence prove this false. The math/physics proves that the ground-loading in pounds per square inch (PSI) related to cattle is considerably higher in cattle over horses. Furthermore, due to the pointed (pick-like) tips on the bifurcated hooves of cattle, that force is made even more effective, therefore disrupting soils and increasing erosion significantly as compared to the shape of a horse’s virtually round one-piece hoof and lower ground loading in PSI.

These factors along with revealing photos are detailed in this study: Evolution of wild horses and cattle and the effect on range damage.

The result of a cow's hoof in a soft pasture.
The result of a cow’s hoof in a soft pasture.

6) Myth: Wild horses have no natural predators.

Truth: Every apex predator (mountain lions, bears, wolves, coyotes) hunts, kills and eats wild horses, and I have detailed and documented the depredation of our local wild horses, where the population of adults horses dropped from ca. 67 adults (2014) to ca. 52 adults in 2017. Only 5% of foals born alive with mares survive to their first year (1 out of 20 born) due to death by predators alone.

A 12-week old filly who was killed by coyotes.
A 12-week old filly who was killed by coyotes.

7) Myth: Wild horses are not native to America.

Truth: As professor Ross MacPhee says: “wild horses are as American as apple pie” and without doubt originated in North America.

Additional details about these and other wild horse myths are detailed and debunked in this article.

Take action: Send this article via email to your local elected officials and politicians and let them know that this kind of malfeasance is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

William E. Simpson

William Simpson is the author of Dark Stallions - Legend of the Centaurians, proceeds from which go towards supporting wild and domestic horse rescue and sanctuary. » Read Bill's profile

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