On September 26, the US Senate Appropriations Committee approved $35 million for the massive reduction of America’s last and relatively minor wild horse and burro herds scattered throughout the West.
Through an arrogant, misleading and hyped misinformation blitz, including the film Horse Rich and Dirt Poor, traditional wild horse and burro enemies are very near to getting 100% of their mean-spirited way, which includes massive sterilization programs that undo the very wildness of the horses and burros that the law was meant to preserve. All the while, the general public is being ignored and insulted.
And this includes millions of Americans who cherish these national heritage species. It seems that rank hypocrisy and a love of lies has taken over too many of those in positions of power and authority, as some sort of desperate spirit of perversity seeks to overwhelm all levels of society in order to continue parasitizing the Living Earth. We must not allow true honor to slip by the wayside. And so I ask just who’s kidding who when our Western public lands’ wild horses and burros only get two percent or less of allocated forage on public lands while the rest goes almost in its entirety to livestock and big game?
Nearly 48 years ago, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFHBA) was unanimously passed and represented a “giant leap forward,” morally speaking, for humanity. At long last, humans had decided to do something truly good for two worthy species occupying Earth. These ancient presences have done so much for us humans, yet their truer roles are realized in the world of nature. Over the course of millions of years, these species arose primarily in North America, their cradle of evolution. In the process, they have established many positive relationships with other species. The WFHBA has an ecological mandate to let the horses and burros become integral components of many public lands’ ecosystems throughout the West. Here it gives them the principal resources within year-round habitats where they dwelled in 1971. Yet from the onset of the program, shameless interests have set out to thwart and to subvert this magnanimous law’s true purpose and goal. And these close-minded people are now very close to getting their corrupt way, unless people who still possess clear minds, pure hearts and intact wills stand up and do something to stop them.
In this war of Truth versus Falsehood, some important, untwisted, unfiltered facts to bear in mind are as follows.
According to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) report published on March 1, 2019, the high end national Appropriate Management Level (AML) for wild horses and burros is 26,690 while the low end is 16,290. But this is deceptive because it represents a lumping of two distinct equine species that occupy different ecological niches, in spite of their similarities. The burros are slighter and require fewer resources than horses and also have a different, more territorial social structure. To lump them with horses is much like lumping mandarins (the burros) with oranges (the horses). Consider, for example, how slight a thin, austere little 500-pound burro or a 900-pound wiry mustang is compared to a very hefty 1500-pound beef-producing cow or bull that has been genetically engineered today and set out upon the public lands to consume enormous amounts of forage, often during the peak seasons of late spring and early summer, only to be abruptly removed for human consumption, thus depriving the ecosystem that nurtured it to recycle its biological remains.
Let’s examine BLM’s report with a critical eye and a balanced view of what’s going on today on the public lands where the wild horses and burros possess legal rights. As concerns totals, in the 10 western states where these animals still have legal rights, in terms of “appropriate management level” (AML), wild horses have a low AML of 14,189, a high AML of 23,771 and a mean AML of 18,980 while wild burros have a low AML of 2101, a high AML of 2919 and a mean AML of 2510. These are extremely low numbers when it comes to assuring the long-term viability of the various populations spread throughout the West.
They are almost all genetically non-viable assignments, especially when we follow the guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Committee’s Equid Specialist Group. This recommends a level of 2500 interbreeding individuals to maintain the viability of a wild equid population – and this makes the 150 individual standard often presented by BLM look very sham. We should ask: just who’s kidding who? Also, when it comes to the claims concerning wild horse and burro overpopulation, we need to carefully examine just what species are, in fact, overrunning and overpopulating the public lands. Again, BLM and US Forest Service annual reports show that many times the amount of forage that wild horses and burros consume goes to domestic cattle and sheep – even within the legal areas of the wild horses and burros. And the same applies to big game animals like deer and elk.
Rather than striving to fairly fulfill the WFHBA, our government officials are trained to repeat over and over these arbitrarily assigned levels – the AMLs – as if they were scientifically and objectively established – though nothing could be further from the truth. And they also deliberately ignore that many millions of legal wild horse and wild burro acres have been “zeroed out”, or cleared, of wild horses and burros. This has and continues to be done almost always for political reasons, especially to favor livestock or mining and energy development, subdivision development, game hunter interests, road, including off-highway, construction – and the list goes on.
By BLM’s own admission, there were at least 53.8 million acres of legal BLM wild equid herd areas at the passage of the WFHBA in 1971, but now it only wants to manage for a little over 26 thousand equids on a little over 26 million acres. You do the math. Hint: BLM is planning to have only one individual equid per 1000 acres and is trying to fool the public that this is a fair and healthy situation. But just for whom? I ask. And this is at the High AML.
More objective assessments put the 1971 figure of equid-inhabited areas at about 88 million acres (US Geological Survey [USGS]). And the number of herd areas in the Western states was about 350 as determined by where the wild horses and burros were found in 1971, but every year this number diminishes and is now only 177 Herd Management Areas. Ironically, what was originally the term for the land where the wild horses and burros had legal rights as the principal presences, i.e. the herd area, has now been twisted to mean an area where BLM has decided not to protect and manage for any wild horses or wild burros at all. Concerning “seeing the writing on the wall” emerging over the years, their “target mentality” is plain.
The mean Appropriate Management Level for wild horses and burros is 21,490 equids (again “mandarins and oranges” lumped together). And this mean is absolutely dwarfed by the several million cattle and sheep by which ranchers monopolize our cherished public lands and resources. To make the matter even worse, this lopsidedness is also present within the many BLM-US Department of the Interior Herd Areas/Herd Management Areas and US Forest Service-US Department of Agriculture Territories where, despite wild horses and wild burros possessing legal rights to receive the principal resources, the hog’s share is being given to public lands ranchers, most of whom are extremely wealthy. We must not allow selfish interests to subvert our laws and take over our public lands. This unacceptable situation can and must be changed.
The mere token wild equid population levels, or AMLs, ignore the valuable contributions that naturally living horses and burros make to ecosystems as returned natives in North America. (And bear in mind that they also make these same positive contributions on several other continents.) Here’s a list of basic facts concerning their biology and ecology of which we should be aware:
- The post-gastric, caecal digestive systems of horses and burros contribute vital humus via their droppings, which build nutrient-rich and moisture-retaining soils that increase biodiversity, lend ecological balance and restore aquifers, or water tables;
- The round, blunt hooves of equids do not cut as deeply into moist soils as do the sharp, cloven hooves of cattle and sheep, and these hoof prints often plant seeds at perfect depths for germination;
- Their possession of upper and lower incisors permit them to carefully prune the plants they eat in contrast to cattle and sheep who lack upper incisors and often tear up roots with their tongues;
- Horses’ semi-nomadic lifestyle allows for natural rest-rotation within the ecosystem throughout the year; their “patchiness” of foraging distribution leaves areas where food plants can set seed and reproduce – reflecting an age-old wisdom and mutually beneficial symbiosis with the plants that sustain them;
- Horses and burros play extremely valuable roles in reducing dry, flammable vegetation that greatly reduces the probability of catastrophic wildfires; and they also reduce the ladder-like lower branches on their shelter trees – often the magnanimous old junipers and edible-nut-providing pinyon pines (thousands of which are being eliminated by BLM and US Forest Service to provide more grass for livestock at the great expense of the wildlife community, including the returned native wild equids);
- Horses and burros contribute a much-needed balance to ecosystems including those being overwhelmed by ruminant-digesting herbivores. The latter are overly promoted by people who blindly follow harmful traditions. Indeed, equids actually help these ruminant herbivores lead healthier lives by restoring soils and watersheds, dispersing more intact seeds of a greater variety, etc.; and
- Natural-living horses and burros input a higher vibration to the land and life communities where they dwell. They resuscitate an inherent harmony in their many relations to diverse plants, animals, micro-organisms, air, water, soil, bedrock, and even to us people. Some call this hard-to-pin-down quality beauty – and so I ask: what could be more important? For beauty concerns that precious quality of life we experience and is inextricably tied to life’s higher meaning. And this is what makes life worth living in the first place.
We humans must learn to share the land and freedom with such highly evolved fellow beings as the horses and the burros. They have performed immense services for humanity, yet their truer place is to be found in the world of Nature. And to grant them this sufficiently both as concerns room to roam and healthy, complete year-round habitats, as the WFHBA intends, would be to repay all of horse-kind and burro-kind an enormous debt of gratitude.
This would allow them to be themselves, to be free to realize their age-old trajectory … and in the process, we would be doing ourselves a very great favor. For we would be overcoming so much of our own imperfection and backwardness in so doing. … And this, my friends, would be the true path forward for us all. This would implement that ecologically attuned Reserve Design approach concerning horses, burros, plants, animals, humans, enhanced ecosystems, and verily all of life itself and its future here in our shared home: Earth … a plan that has been repeatedly presented to authorities – but whose time has certainly come today.
Craig C. Downer is a wildlife ecologist and an authority on wild horses. He is the author of The Wild Horse Conspiracy, and is the President of the Andean Tapir Fund/Wild Horse and Burro Fund. His website is https://thewildhorseconspiracy.org/.