Restoring America’s wild horses and burros throughout the West will prove life-saving for the ecosystem, writes wildlife ecologist Craig Downer.
Following the widespread Wild Horse Freedom Rallies of April 23 at 34 state capitols, and the lobbying effort in Washington DC, Americans need to acknowledge the urgent need to restore our nation’s beleaguered wild horses and burros together with their appropriate – and legal – habitats.
Restoring the true intent of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFHBA) is a worthy goal whose time has come now. The herds need to be restored to genetically viable levels in corresponding habitats to enable long-term viability. These include food, water, mineral sites, shelter, predator/human enemy-safe sites, and altitudinal gradients to accommodate their migrations between hot and cold seasons, among other essential survival requirements.
The habitats must be free of extreme fencing and cross-fencing for livestock, which interfere with the “free-roaming lifestyle” guaranteed under the WFHBA.
This act’s true greatness lies in its willingness on the part of people to share the land and freedom with the horse and its evolutionary cousin the burro. These species have done so much for humans. But being fenced in and overly confined has become increasingly the fate of the 400 or so original herds and their legal habitats on Bureau of Land Management-USDI and US Forest Service-USDA lands. Here they occurred as free-roaming, unbranded and unclaimed animals in 1971, giving them the legal right to live as the principal resource recipients. This stipulation refers to their occupied, year-round habitats in 1971.
The “wild” naturally living horses and burros are really restorers of order and harmony in so many places, not only in the West but around the world. This has been proven by a team of scientists who examined this matter for over a decade (see Naundrup, P.J. & J.C. Svenning. 2015. A Geographical Assessment of the Global Scope for Rewilding with Wild-Living Horses (Equus ferus).)
Equids complement the cloven-hoofed, ruminant-digesting herbivores because of their post-gastric, caecal-fermentative digestive system, which is superior at dispersing intact and germinable seeds of a much greater variety and at building humus-rich, nutrient and water retaining soils. The enrichment of soils results in greater water retention by them and the elevation of water tables/subsurface aquifers.
Furthermore, as I and other ecologists have proven; horses and burros are superior Carbon Sequesters via their less digested droppings.
Thousands of people showed up at the rallies at the 34 state capitols and in Washington, DC, and people from around the world stood and spoke up to demand a halt to the roundups that continue to nearly eliminate America’s last wild horses and burros. These are actually underpopulated herds that have been marginalized on the public lands and even within their legally designated Herd/Herd Management Areas on BLM and Territories on US Forest Service lands.
On these, they are supposed to be the principal presences, as according to Section 2 c of the WFHBA, these areas are to be “principally devoted” to the benefit of the wild horses and burros, not that of the public land cattle and sheep ranchers. Other public land users including mining and energy companies, off-highway vehicles and the hunting establishment also do enormous damage.
For example, both the hunting and ranching establishments go after natural predators, often to the point of elimination. Mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, bears, and even hawks, eagles and condors often face severe persecution by a variety of means. Many of these predate upon the sick, declining, advanced aging or otherwise unfit among the mustang and burro and other wildlife populations. These overbearing interests need to be checked. And it is our moral duty to stand up for the fair treatment of the wild horses, burros and other wildlife species and their habitats in order to achieve long-term-viable population levels that fill their respective ecological niches – play their important roles.
As a biologist, I stand in opposition to the use of chemical sterilants, whether temporary or permanent, such as GonaCon and PZP, as well as the invasive insertion of IUD devices and the extremely cruel ovariectomies and castrations.
Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV, District 1) recently introduced a bill to amend the WFHBA. This is HR6635 Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 2022. While this bill is on the right track in mandating the curtailment of the violent helicopter roundups, we need a more genuine reform of America’s whole wild horse and burro program.
There’s a better way forward that will achieve the true intent of the noble WFHBA, a way that is not a “quick fix” – it is known among nature conservationists as Reserve Design. I presented this in my peer-reviewed article, which includes a description of the steps that must be taken to make it work.
They include natural barriers such as mountains, canyons or rivers wherever possible, or semipermeable, artificial barriers, to keep the wild equids from built up or farmed areas; buffer zones around the reserve; the restoration of natural predators; allowing the equids to fill their respective ecological niches and to naturally self-stabilize within their habitats (they are what ecologists call “climax” species capable of self-limitation in balance with their habitat); educate the public about the positive aspects of wild horses and wild burros; promote and allow moderate ecotourism enterprises to flourish; implement voluntary buy-outs of public lands ranchers; and curtail or cancel livestock grazing privileges on public lands.
It is time to call upon all of our Senators and Representatives to formulate, introduce and pass the “Restore Our American Mustangs and Burros Reserve Design Act” (ROAM-RD Act). This would release the stranglehold that public lands ranchers and other interests have on our public lands.
We must call the House of Representatives Natural Resource Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee to voice our concerns and promote our well-founded solutions. We much call our individual Senators and Representatives and their staffs. We must insist on a major and dignified reform of our nation’s wild horse and burro program through the just restoration of wild horse and wild burro herds and their habitats throughout America and at long-term-viable population levels and habitats.
These highly evolved animals have done so much for us – and it is high time we do something truly good for them, like allowing them a place to be free, a place where they can realize their true and beneficial place in those ecosystems where they belong.