Today, there are people whose aim is to retain their status quo lifestyles at any cost, with little regard to the natural world and the many species that inhabit it.
These people will go to any lengths in order to keep their nature-exploitive, consumerist and habit-bound ways of life going no matter how much torture this causes to fellow sentient beings and no matter how this endangers the future of life on Earth that has taken many millions of years to establish itself on this planet. Such people are often smug in their demeanor and become threatening when anyone questions their heedless ways.
They group together in alliances that defend the status quo at any cost in terms of its destructive harm and torture of others, then they hypocritically proclaim themselves to be on the moral high ground and often use the outward trappings of their religion as a way to stave off all overt criticism as well as that small, still voice of conscience that reprimands them for what they are doing – which brings me to the subject of this article.
Currently, America’s last remaining wild horses and burros are being unjustly and drastically rounded up mainly by helicopters stampeding them. These have no Go-Pros mounted on them to show the mayhem that the horses and burros are really suffering. The dreadful Onaqui wild horse helicopter roundup just concluded with its jerking out 435 beautiful horses. Many of these horses are exquisite examples of Spanish Colonial mustang heritage. Left will be a disordered, group of around 200, of which about 100 have been returned to the Herd Management Area (HMA) in altered condition. In effect, these “wild horses” are being semi-domesticated by the administration of PZP to prevent mare pregnancy. Their mature social units, or bands, have been broken asunder, even though these effectively inhibit reproduction by younger stallions and mares. Additionally, their ecological adaptations are being set back — adaptations that have taken generations to establish.
As of August 20, 2021, BLM continues its rampage of wild horse and burro excessive gathers, going through herd after herd of wild horses and burros in Utah (Confusion HMA), Nevada (Antelope Complex) and elsewhere, and their devastating plan continues with intentions to reduce mustang and burro herds throughout the West.
Officials are using the drought as an excuse to abandon consideration of many reasonable solutions that do not involve removal, claiming that the near-total removal of these national heritage species is for their own good. Yet, most of these animals quickly end up in dismal straits, confined to small corrals and bunched together with fellow horses, or burros, in conditions that make a real mockery of the true and core intent of the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFHBA). The Sinbad wild burro HMA in Utah is up for near elimination, as is the popular Sand Wash Basin wild horse HMA – Colorado’s most popular wild horse herd. The West Douglas HMA is being zeroed out to accommodate both cattle ranchers and energy developers, also in Colorado.
Often major fires break out in areas where the wild horses have been nearly eliminated, and I expect this will occur again with this ongoing war on the wild, free-roaming horses and burros. Basically, the problem rests with the stranglehold that the public lands livestock industry, including both cattle and sheep ranchers, have on America’s public lands, along with a similar stranglehold by large mining and energy companies. If this situation is not honestly and courageously faced and countered, I truly fear for the future of my most cherished West, because all the wonderful freedom and vitality that makes the West the West will have been squeezed to death.
All this is occurring because, contrary to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFHBA), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a branch of the US Department of Interior, has largely abrogated its responsibility to the wild horses and their legal habitats. And the same goes for the US Forest Service, the other agency charged with upholding this Act’s very noble and ecologically restorative provisions, and which is a branch of the US Department of Agriculture. These roundups are based on the rancher attitude toward these highly evolved and beneficent animals and do not reflect the naturalist approach to life that is at the heart of the WFHBA. They harm the horses and burros both physically and psychologically and the scars of the unnecessary trauma they cause remain with the “gathered” horses and burros for the rest of their lives, frequently as an equine form of PTSD.
Although the BLM and US Forest Service invariably claims their targeted wild horses and burros are “overpopulated,” they are almost always underpopulated; their numbers are greatly dwarfed by livestock and big game animals. Their negative impacts are grossly exaggerated while those that are positive in nature, which are considerable, are callously ignored. Basically, America’s last wild-living mustangs and burros are being targeted in order to secure a virtual monopoly of the natural resources on public lands by cattle and sheep ranchers, the hunting establishment, agribusiness, developers who pump down water tables, mining and energy companies whose excesses are protected by the grossly antiquated 1872 Mining Law and that squander and poison vast quantities of precious water throughout the largely arid West. Other interests also jump on the negative bandwagon against the wild horse including people who just seem to enjoy being disrespectful and disharmonious when it comes to Nature and the other species, including even such magnificent and highly evolved ones as horses and burros and which have been humanity’s faithful work companions and transportation means for not just centuries but millennia, and to whom humanity owes an enormous debt of gratitude.
As a matter of fact, livestock interests exploit about 300-million acres of public lands in the US and are equivalent to a few million year-round cattle and several million sheep in terms of their forage, water and other resource consumption as well as trampling of riparian and upland habitat. BLM and US Forest Service personnel largely cater to them even though they lose millions of dollars of taxpayer money every year in the process and cause many millions more in terms of ecosystem harm and destruction. In contrast, the wild horses and burros account for only an estimated 70,000 to 95,000 animals (high figure from BLM). And remember that a burro consumes only about half the forage as a horse or a cow. But government officials, public lands ranchers, misled conservationists who accept the lies against the wild horses and burros, nearly always trumpet this, in fact, very modest population as being dangerously high as they count upon people’s ignorance, lack of questioning, concern and, above all, perspective.
In fact, the relative grazing, water, and other resource and habitat necessities of America’s last remaining wild horses and burros only amount to around one 100th that of domestic livestock and big game animals on our public lands. So, to blame them for the ongoing destruction of ecosystems is both egregious and mendacious – deceptive in the extreme. Also largely ignored is the enormous impact of off-highway-vehicles on public lands.
The wild horses and burro who are so massively removed from the public lands are taken to BLM and USFS holding corrals where the stallions are usually castrated. Usually the mares are PZPed, or GonaCon’ed or otherwise treated to prevent their reproduction. Both PZP and GonaCon produce serious harm to the individuals and the social groups they belong to if put back out in the wild.
The so-called “Path Forward” plan presently adopted by BLM and USFS is, in my professional opinion as a wild-horse ecologist, a “wipeout” plan, in that it “wipes out” generations of natural adaptation to the particular ecosystems from which these equines came. Basically “natural selection” is being replaced by human’s “artificial selection” of who remains and who doesn’t, of who reproduces and who doesn’t, which is entirely contrary to the true intent of the WFHBA. This gives a clear mandate that we humans let the horses be themselves on the public lands and give principal resources to them in their legal areas, which originally were about 12% of BLM and USFS lands, but have been reduced by many millions of acres since the passage of the Act 50 years ago.
After roundup, the conditions in which the mustangs and burros are held are extremely utilitarian; the equids are over concentrated and, though regularly fed and watered, they feel terribly fearful and apprehensive about their future. Many fall into a deep depression; a significant portion of these simply “give up the ghost”. This reminds me of the Biblical verse: “One does not live by bread alone.” The mortal remains of those who die are unceremoniously hauled off by tractors and buried in large pits near the holding corrals. Alternatively, local rendering works are contracted to dispose of their decomposing bodies. Those who are not adopted are reportedly sent to long-term pastures where they supposedly live out their lives in habitats with adequate forage, water, shelter and space to move about. However, there exist many well-substantiated reports of these being sent off by the hundreds, thousands or even ten thousands or more to horse-kill companies both in Canada and Mexico. This would be such a grievous and gruesome betrayal of America’s national heritage species.
Once a wild horse or burro adopter gains title, usually after one year of BLM or USFS compliance with care guidelines, this individual may sell his/her horse/burro at open auctions where the vast majority of animals purchased go to kill buyers. And even the “Incentive Program” of BLM that gives people $1000 to adopt a horse or burro has been proven to frequently end in the horse being sold to a kill buyer, as attests a recent NY Times article by Dave Phillips. The current SAFE bill in Congress has passed out of the House but still has to clear the Senate. It aims to stop the transport of these wild horses and burros as well as other equids, to slaughter in Mexico, Canada and other foreign countries – and I sure pray it passes this time, as similar bills have been introduced for many years but never succeeded.
On their legal lands, whether BLM or USFS, where the wild horses and burros are supposed to be given the principal resources (Section 2 c of the WFHBA), they are almost always allocated only a minor portion of available forage relative to that allocated to livestock. On average the wild horses/burros get only between 10 and 15 percent; often they are allocated much less, even just a few percent. Also, their legal habitats (called Herd Management Areas / Herd Areas by BLM and Territories by US Forest Service) are usually over-fenced and cross-fenced so as to overly restrict the natural movement patterns of these wild equids. This is very much contrary to the true and core intent of the WFHBA, which mandates their “free-roaming” lifestyles and allows them to practice their instinctual, natural rest rotation.
Concerning their critical access to sufficient and pure water in order to survive, this should be secured by BLM / USFS to meet the needs of viable populations, but often these agencies’ officials fail to fend for adequate water for the herds and merely allow the ranchers, miners, energy developers – whoever – to monopolize the water of the HMAs/Territories. This has become particularly apparent to me during the many photographic monitoring flights I have conducted over the HMAs in several Western states, often with the help of the LightHawk organization.
My photographs and other documentation indicate the extreme degree to which public waters end up going to private interests. For example, in eastern Nevada, this has occurred to the extreme detriment of the wild horses both in the Ely and the Elko Districts of the BLM. The same story exists throughout the West where the wild horses and burros should be the principal presences within their legal areas. This situation represents a shameless betrayal of the wild horses and burros, who should have access to adequate water for viable populations of at least over 1000 to be genetically sound. This they should have by dint of those Implied Federal Water Rights that came with the unanimously passed WFHBA 50 years ago (see my interview with WHB BLM Specialist John Phillips in my book The Wild Horse Conspiracy, pp. 125-126).
Often, as just occurred in the Onaqui Wild Horse HMA, major water sources will be turned off by ranchers once their livestock has been removed from their grazing allotments within the HMAs.
Only because of an outraged public was a recent serious incident remedied. This involved a major water trough in the Onaqui HMA that was turned off leaving many horses in a desperate predicament for a few days.
Finally, after much vociferous complaint, either the rancher or a BLM worker came to turn the water back on. Such incidents are common throughout the West, but usually, the wild-horse-advocating public is unaware of them and the wild horses and burros suffer greatly and often perish in dire straits as a consequence.
This sorry situation will only continue unless the American public rises up and insists it is corrected. Basically, we need pro-wild-horse-and-burro people in positions of authority over these naturally living equids and their habitats, not the contrary. Such reform may require additional legislation to place the wild horses and burros and their habitats under a separate agency staffed by well-educated people who appreciate the naturally living equids rather than by those who have traditionally opposed wild horses and burros in the wild.
The large-scale and excessive removal of America’s last remaining, underpopulated wild horses and burros is actually having a detrimental effect upon the life-supporting ecosystem, often referred to as “the environment”. These equids restore balance and help heal overgrazed, eroded and species-poor life communities by enriching soils, seeding a great variety of plants and contributing their mortal remains to the food web, including predators such as wolves, mountain lions and bears, as well as scavengers such as foxes, coyotes and vultures. Because of their larger and more powerful bodies and their extensive and frequent movements, they also open up thickets so that other animals, such as deer, benefit, break ice and frozen crusts on frozen water and forage, again to the benefit of many smaller, weaker animals.
Their broad home ranges result in greater dispersal of many diverse plant species that find a fertile germination bed in equid feces. Also, equid feces increase the water-retaining abilities of soils because they increase their humus content; this has the much-appreciated effect of dampening out incipient wildfires, such as are caused by lightning strikes, campfire cinders, etc.
Another often overlooked but significant effect of wild equids concerns their wallowing, i.e. rolling on the earth. This can be done to massage their skin, rid themselves of ticks, disguise their scent and, as I have singularly observed, adjust the alignment of their very elaborate and intricately connected skeletal system. But, furthermore, on the ecosystem level, their wallowing benefits many other species, especially when in drier, more arid habitats they create natural water catchments, especially where there is a high clay content to the soils to “seal the pool bottom”. And such clayey soils are to be found in many regions of the West. These “wallow pools” collect water from cloudbursts, ordinary rain and snow storms, as well as dew and runoff; their water content can remain for weeks and even months before drying out. The result is that they facilitate the generation of willows, cottonwood trees, many small flowering plants, sedges, rushes and grasses of a great variety. With these come all the other insect pollinators, fruit and seed eaters, stalk and leaf consuming animals, etc. These include rodents, reptiles, rabbits, large mammals and a great variety of birds and on up the food chain.
In this and many other ways, it has been conclusively proven that wild horses and burros enhance, safeguard and perpetuate a balanced ecosystem where they live, contrary to the ill-motivated, anti-wild-horse/burro propaganda that has been going on for many years and that derives from the attitudes of greedy and selfish exploiters of public lands’ resources who remain ungrateful for the enormous privileges and subsidies they receive from government, whose hand they generally bite!
The Wild Horse Conspiracy has a whole chapter on these equids’ ecology as well as another on their history and evolution – which is deeply rooted in North America – among several other chapters. I also suggest you check out my field reports on several wild horse and burro herds and their habitats throughout the West. These are on my website, along with other articles, alerts and general overview information that will help you be a more effective wild horse and burro advocate in order to win for the wild horses.
Please also consider reading my scientific article summarizing the many justifications for America’s wild horses and burros and their place in “wild America” and throughout the world. Check out my recent illustrated article here. Feel free to comment.
And please do not forget to call up my Reserve Design project and consider supporting it. This conforms with the true and core intent of the WFHBA, because it treats the horses and burros and their rightful habitats with genuine respect.
A call to action
Finally, I urge you to take actions to protect, preserve and restore America’s precious wild, naturally living horses and burros together with their complete and viable natural homes. Become an active defender of one or more wild horse/burro herds and their HMAs by going to www.blm.gov and familiarizing yourself with this agency’s wild horse and burro program and do likewise for the US Forest Service at www.fs.usda.gov. Select the HMA/Territory that most interests you. These herds are usually organized by state on either of the websites. Hopefully you’ll fall in love and become a herd’s ardent and knowledgeable defender, which will entail becoming involved in the Herd and Land Use Planning processes of BLM and/or USFS, giving input on the behalf of the wild horses and burros and their rightful and adequate viable natural habitats, and, thereby, your gaining standing in the courts to sue, if this becomes necessary – which is often the case.
Craig C. Downer is a wildlife ecologist who has specialized in the Mammalian Order Perissodactyla. This Order includes the Horse Family, Equidae, as well as the Families Tapiridae and Rhinocerontidae. While earning his M.S. at the University of Nevada-Reno, he did a field study and paper on the Pine Nut Mountain wild horses. And later in his career, he did a professional herd and habitat analysis of these unique wild horses, that have a strong Spanish Colonial component. Craig worked with Wild Horse Annie (Velma Bronn Johnston) in the 1970s when the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFHBA) was first being implemented. He has given speeches, slide and PowerPoint presentations and guided films defending the wild horses and burros as well as written books and articles, including scientific, about them. As a legal plaintiff in numerous court cases, he has defended the rights of the wild horses and burros throughout America after having investigated their unfair treatment on the public lands throughout the West. His Reserve Design project for restoring the herds and their habitats to viable levels has registered with many people and government agencies and is producing a much-needed turnaround for these magnificent and benign animals. His organization the Andean Tapir Fund / Wild Horse and Burro Fund has awakened many people concerning the many positive contributions these species make to ecosystems as well as concerning their North American origins and long-standing evolution. His dynamic, greater truth and justice-serving organization upholds the pure intent of the WFHBA. Its website contains his reports, articles, videos and interviews and those of others and provides an important overview on this subject as well as a well-informed and timely call to action.
His book, The Wild Horse Conspiracy, can be ordered from thewildhorseconspiracy.org or on Amazon as an eBook or hard copy, or by sending $25 to Wild Horse and Burro Fund, P.O. Box 456, Minden, NV 89423, USA. Craig’s latest book, America’s Wild Horses and Burros Must Make a Comeback! has an instructive call to action. “My relatives going back generations to pioneer days are from this part of Nevada, around Lovelock. This goes to show we are not all a bunch of anti-wild-horse anti-wildlife and wilderness greedy so and so’s.”