Wildlife ecologist and champion of wild horses Craig C. Downer is fronting a new documentary showing the positive contributions that wild horses and burros make to ecosystems.
Over the years Downer has been fighting to protect wild horses and burros from elimination on the lands that are legally theirs, according to the unanimously passed Wild FreeRoaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFHBA).
The 24-minute film, The Mustang Man, Downer tells how biologists classify horses and burros as “Keystone Species” that restore and maintain native biodiversity, benefiting many interrelated plants and animals.
The Tom Porter-directed documentary is described as a timely wake-up call that communicates the greater truth concerning America’s wild horses and burros.
“This need is an urgent one, as these highly evolved returned North American natives must be allowed the natural freedom and space they need to restore balance and harmony both in the West and many similar regions of our precious planet,” Downer says.
In the film, Downer, the author of The Wild Horse Conspiracy and Wild Horses: Living Symbols of Freedom, takes viewers into the field to discover the ecological importance of horses and burros and to show that North America is their evolutionary cradle.
“Many people unfairly blame horses for water and forage scarcity, when in truth they take only a minor fraction of the forage and water resources on the public lands compared to that taken by privately owned cattle and sheep as well as the gargantuan mining and energy industries, among other nature exploiters,” Downer says.
“Also it is important to recognize that these national heritage species are only being allocated a small fraction of forage, water and appropriate habitat even within their legal areas on BLM and US Forest Service lands. These are areas where they should be the principal resource recipients according to the true intent of the WFHBA.”
In the film, Downer explains the many benefits that wild horses and burros bring to the land.
Their nutrient-rich droppings spread intact seeds in widespread areas where they roam. Both are food for many diverse animals, including many birds and mammals. In drier regions, horses and burros detect water underground and dig wells that help many species of animals and plants to survive, as shown in the film. Also shown is horses blazing trails in heavy brush, which help weaker animals to access forage and water. In winter, they break ice with their powerful legs and hooves, allowing smaller or less capable animals to access forage and water – often making the difference between life or death. Ruminant populations, including deer, often increase in health and abundance when horses are present.
“Horses and burros rebuild soils by contributing more organically intact droppings. These act as longlasting fertilizers, contributing more humus to the earth. Their single-stomach fermentative digestive
system differs from the multi-stomach, ruminant digestive systems of cattle, sheep, deer and other
herbivores that are favored by our society,” Downer says.
Horses greatly mitigate and often even prevent catastrophic wildfires by consuming significant amounts of vegetation that become fire-enabling tinder during the dry season, Downer says. They also consume much greater amounts of this drier, coarser vegetation that their specialized digestive systems are better able to handle compared with those of cattle and other herbivores.
“They will rebuild soils, restore aquifers and disperse and help diverse plant species germinate and
bloom. And we mustn’t forget the critically needed service they will provide by mitigating and even
preventing catastrophic, life-destroying wildfires that now loom so ominously upon the future’s horizon
due to Global Warming.
“Surely we mustn’t forget all that they have done for our species over the centuries and our debt of gratitude to them as special beings existing in their own right. They lend a special uplifting energy and beauty – and what could be more important than this?”
Downer has also been undertaking field evaluations of several new areas in California and Oregon and meeting with US Forest Service and BLM officials, to promote Reserve Design for wild horses.
A pioneer-descended Nevadan, as a boy Craig Downer fell in love with the natural world, oft while riding his best friend Poco. This passion led him to pursue a career in wildlife ecology and to earn an A.B. in Biology with specialization in Ecology from the University of California-Berkeley, an M.S. from the University of Nevada-Reno, and to attain Ph.D. candidature at Durham University in Britain. His studies and observations of wild horses led him to work with Wild Horse Annie in insisting that the true intent of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act be implemented throughout America. He served as a Peace Corps wildlife ecologist in Colombia and is the first biologist to have successfully captured, radio-collared and tracked the endangered Mountain, or Andean, Tapir as part of his doctorate studies, His organization, the Andean Tapir Fund, continues to successfully defend and protect this dwindling species, along with its diminishing cloud forest and paramo habitats. He is a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and his organization works to save all members of the Horse, Tapir and Rhino families (Order Perissodactyla) in their natural habitats. Visit Craig’s website.
Director and videographer Tom Porter is a former UCLA marine science professor and has collaborated with Craig Downer to produce the film Maverick Mustangs of the Salt River that greatly helped to save this precious Spanish mustang herd from total removal by the Tonto National Forest. Porter produces the TV series Animal Consciousness, People Helping Animals and People Helping the Planet, which has featured programs on the Coachella Valley Horse Rescue sanctuary, whales, dolphins, chimpanzees, desert tortoises, California condors, bird rescues, and wetland preservation. In earlier years, he worked for Marineland of the Pacific.