Opinion: Share the West with Horses, Wild and Free

MINDEN, Nevada, September 5, 2002 (ENS) - One hundred years ago some two million mustangs roamed the Western range. Today there are 43,600, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). About 5,000 wild burros remain.

Craig Downer is a wildlife ecologist and member of Wild Horse Spirit and the Wild Horse and Burro Freedom Alliance. He lives in Minden, Nevada.


Wildlife ecologist Craig Downer
(Photos courtesy C. Downer)
In this August 12 letter to all U.S. Senators and Representatives he responds to the BLM proposal to remove one half of all wild horses and burros from public lands by 2005.

"Greetings from Nevada! As a wildlife ecologist long concerned for our nation’s wild horses, I have recently viewed a presentation by Mr. Merle Edsall given on August 5th, 2002, near Virginia City, Nevada. His proposal is to receive from BLM gathers off the public lands and manage 10,000 wild horses and burros on a sanctuary in northern Sonora state, Mexico.

These equids would be herded over a vast area of unfenced grasslands with mixed trees in the San Pedro River basin according to a grazing rotation scheme also incorporating goats and sheep. I understand that his proposal is now before the Appropriations Committee and would like you to consider the serious drawbacks of this proposal very carefully. These are as follows:

1) The massive wild horse and burro removals planned by the federal government, and being legally contested at present, are unfair and cater largely to the public lands livestock industry whose grazing pressure dwarfs that of the wild equids by about a 100 to one.

The legal herd areas of the wild equids are also very minor compared with the areas occupied by livestock on the public lands, yet in spite of this the livestock industry still seeks to monopolize those areas that have been set aside for the wild equids.

The wild equid population levels established as Appropriate Management Levels, which total around 26,000, are so small as to constitute a betrayal of the wild horses and burros.

In my considered opinion as an ecologist, these low levels will set the equids up for inbreeding and chance die out, create unstable populations, and do not constitute long-term viable herds.


Wild horses in Nevada's northern Pine Nut Range near Carson City
The massive transferring of the wild horses to northern Mexico only facilitates an unjust process of wild horse/burro clearance from their rightful areas on the public lands.

Instead, I recommend that the spirit of the Wild Horse Act (PL 92-195) be reinstated as the 1990 General Accounting Office study "Rangeland Management: Improvements Needed in Federal Wild Horse Program" suggests so that a fairer, truly viable number of wild equids be restored in every area where they have the legal right.

Many of these have been zeroed out contrary to the intent of the law or left with such paltry token population numbers as to be in serious jeopardy of extinction.

I recommend that more emphasis be given in the federal management program to allowing for larger herds in larger areas with legal provision for adequate water supply, shelter by means of terrain and trees/shrubs, food of sufficient variety, among other complementing habitat requirements.

Real migratory requirements between summer and winter ranges must also be guaranteed and fences which hinder the wild equids must be removed. Too often I have witnessed the wild horses and burros being treated like second class citizens in their own legal herd areas – themselves a minor component of all the U.S. public lands over which the livestock industry exercises a monopoly.

I further recommend that government agencies in conjunction with wild equid advocacy groups strive to restore viable herds that are self-stabilizing as to their population numbers. This is entirely possible through conscientious planning, including the recognition and reinstatement of natural boundaries and predators and the free exercise of intrinsic limiting factors to which all wildlife species are subject.

2) The creation of a long-term holding facility for thousands of wild horses and burros outside the United States would subject these animals to the political whims of another government. In the case of Mexico with its desperate poverty and poor record when it comes to humane animal treatment, it is entirely conceivable that the horses could become targets for exploitation and that Mr. Edsall and his vaqueros would be unable to defend them.

I am concerned about the inhumane conditions of horses who could easily end up in pack trains and whose health could be ground down within a few short years – as I have witnessed many times in both Mexico and other Latin countries during my career as a wildlife ecologist.


Wild horses in Nevada
Also the temptation to sell them for meat on the world market might become so great that many would end in inhumane slaughter houses. In spite of promises to the contrary, Mr. Edsall really presents no guarantees on this point.

In ending, I would like to state that the wild horses and burros should be considered as integral ecological components in their legal herd areas as originally recognized. Here they should be born, live out their lives, and die, thus contributing their remains to the ecosystem that sustained them. This, was and remains the true intention of the Wild, Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.

Indeed, horses are nowhere more natural than in North America, their evolutionary cradle. And much the same can be said of the burro. They contribute seed dispersal and germination, soil building through feces, prey species for native predators, fire control through eating dry vegetation, breaking of ice or digging earth to access water and food, thus made available to many other species, equitably distributing their grazing pressure in a way that does not overgraze when so allowed.

Let us learn to share the Earth again with these noble animals who have done so much for humankind over the centuries and in the wild contribute even more to life on Earth."

America's wild horses and burros are found in "herd management areas" in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

The Fund for Animals, Animal Legal Defense Fund, and several individuals last September filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for failing to prepare an environmental study of its strategy to remove one half of all wild horses and burros from public lands by 2005.

The case is before a single judge, Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. This week he heard oral arguments for attorneys from both sides.