A Wildlife Ecologist's Perspective


By Craig C. Downer, Wild Horse Ecologist
Wild Horse Summit, Las Vegas, NV, Oct. 12, 2008

Wild horses and burros on public land remain on the very bottom of the totem pole of priorities of both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, the two agencies charged by law with protecting and managing them. Yet these two “national heritage species” whose rights to live free are covered by Public Law 92-195 are supported by many millions of ordinary U.S. citizens as well as people worldwide. The extent of livestock grazing and the permittees involved both in their original Herd Areas and in their reduced Herd Management Areas should be clearly spelled out to the public — but this is not being done.

Livestock, big game, and other overlapping uses within the wild equid Herd Areas and Herd Management Areas should be clearly incorporated into the federal government’s National Integrated Land System (NILS) data retrieval program as are most of the other land designations such as wilderness, mining claims, livestock allotments, etc. It is quite probable that this is an intentional cover-up for the unfair and illegal treatment that the wild horses and burros are receiving. Last spring a top BLM official plainly told me that virtually all the wild horse and burro Herd Areas (HAs) and Herd Management Areas (HMAs) were leased to livestock grazers. From a close examination of the original 1971 wild horse and burro Herd Areas in relation to overlapping livestock grazing leases, I estimate that over 95% of these original legal areas are being grazed by livestock. And by examining the administratively reduced wild equid Herd Management Areas still occupied by equid herds (scant in relation to livestock), I estimate that over 98% of these legal areas are being grazed by livestock. The latter is all the more objectionable given the large percentage — 36% — by which the original Herd Areas have been reduced in setting up these Herd Management Areas (See Table 1 and accompanying Chart).

Original Herd Areas total 53,444,499 acres of which 42,099,454 acres are BLM and 11,345,045 acres are USFS. But reduced Herd Management Areas total 34,441,150 acres of which 29,082,217 acres are BLM and 5,358,933 are USFS. These figures reveal that BLM has reduced its equid-occupied areas by 7,658,302, or 18%, while the USFS has reduced its equid-occupied areas by 5,986,112 acres, a whopping 53%! And this situation is seen to be even more exacerbating when each Herd Area and Herd Management Area is more closely analyzed to reveal the large-scale displacement of the wild equids that has occurred even within what is on paper still an occupied HA or HMA. Consideration of specific HAs and HMAs throughout the West, such as the Spring Range of southern Nevada (Las Vegas BLM Field Office) and the Cedarville California based Surprise BLM Field Office covering NW Nevada and NE California reveals that not only livestock but also big game are being given entire preference both within the original HA’s and even more flagrantly within the greatly reduced HMA’s. Indeed, while forage and water rarely seem to be an issue for the established livestock and big game interests, these same resources are almost always portrayed as being too little for the relatively tiny members of our nation’s remaining wild horses and burros. My overall analysis reveals an effective displacement of the wild equids from at least 75%, or three fourths, of the public lands — both BLM and USFS – to which they are legally entitled as the “principal” presences to be managed for within these original Herd Areas. These HA’s were supposed to b e determined by where these equids were found at the passage of Public Law 92-195 — and I take this to mean not just the tiny portion of Earth the equids stood on at the exact hour and date of the Act’s passage, but rather the home ranges of all the bands in every equid herd that was then occupied on a year-round basis.

As concerns how many livestock permittees utilize legal wild equid areas both on BLM and USFS lands and lacking any precise information from our government agencies on this crucial question, I have calculated a logical estimation for such, based on relative proportions. By taking the total number of livestock permittees on the public lands and proportioning this number relative to the percent of public lands that are original wild horse and burro herd areas and also reduced herd management areas, I have obtained the following:

260,000,000 acres/22,000 grazing permittees = 53,444,499 original H.A. acres/X permittees.

Solving for X, yields, X = 4,522 livestock permittees grazing their livestock on the original 53,444,499 legal Herd Areas (BLM) or Territories (USFS) today. This represents 20.6%, or about 1/5th of the livestock permittees on BLM and USFS lands. However since the occupied HMA’s are much smaller than the original HA’s, we must calculate as follows:

260,000,000 acres/22,000 permittees = 34,441,150 HMA acres/Y permittees.

Solving for Y, Y = 2,914 permittees grazing their livestock on the reduced 34,441,150 acres in herd management areas/territories today. This represents only 13%, or about 1/8th of the public lands livestock permittees.

Looking at this situation from another angle, of the 4,522 livestock permittees having to originally share the land they graze — by privilege not right — with wild horses and burros, 1,612, or 36%, now no longer have to share. In other words, our supposed public servants have already eliminated the wild horses and burros from the grazing allotments of 36% of the public lands ranchers in spite of the legal right of the horses and burros to live there. To reiterate: this is all the more disturbing because of how marginalized those remaining wild horses and burros have become even within these reduced Herd Management Areas. This lopsided situation constitutes a shameful betrayal of both the wild horses and burros who have a legal right to live here and of the substantial public interest in them that is represented by millions of U.S. citizens, individual people who count upon their public servants in the BLM and the USFS to uphold the law of the land: to do what the unanimously passed Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 actually states.

Concerning both Herd Areas and Herd Management Areas, it would be entirely fair to approach the relatively small number of permittees involved with these with the proposal that they reduce or even eliminate their livestock within the legal wild horses and burro areas. This would enable the establishment of truly long-term viable and stable populations in these areas as is consistent with the original intent of the Act.

It would also be fair-minded to offer these persons priority treatment for wild horse/burro public tour franchises and population monitoring or habitat enhancing enterprises that are consistent with the purposes of the Act. Also worth our serious consideration is the suggestion by the late Nancy Whittaker who worked for the Animal Protection Institute. Her idea was that the government issue conservation permits in lieu of grazing permits in the legal wild horse/burro herd areas as in other land categories such as wilderness, and that the wild equid-supporting public be permitted to bid on these with the aim of freeing the herd areas of competing livestock, especially where in excess, among other conflictive interests. This seems entirely fair and I suggest her insightful proposal be pursued by regulatory and, if necessary, Congressional means.

The percentage of the U.S. population ranching on Western public lands is a miniscule 0.012%, or around one hundredth of one percent; and the percentage of all U.S. livestock feed, including crops, pastures, and range forage, supplied by BLM and USFS lands is only ca. 2%. And this 2% comes at a great economic and even more enormous ecological cost, a cost estimated as at least one half billion dollars annually. But who can put a price tag on the ecological health of Mother Earth upon which the future of life depends?!

Forage consumption by livestock on BLM land amounted to nearly 7 million — 6,835,458 Animal Unit Months [AUMs] in fiscal year 2005. This contrasted with the mere 381,120 AUMs worth of forage that was consumed by wild horses and burros. The latter consumed only 5.6% of the forage consumed by livestock on BLM lands and only 381,120/7,216,578, or 5.3% of the total consumed by both livestock and wild equids. And this percentage is substantially lower still when forage consumed by big game animals is brought into the calculation. I estimate this would bring the figure down to between one and two percent of the forage available on the public domain, or BLM lands, especially considering the priority treatment given to state fish and game agencies by the federal government.

This disparity is even greater on USFS lands where livestock devours 6.6 million AUMs per year yet wild horses and burros eat a mere 32,592 AUM’s annually, or the equivalent of only 2,716 wild horses or burros grazing year round. In other words, on USFS lands, wild equids consume 0.49%, or less than ½ of one percent of what livestock consume on Forest Service lands. Combine this with the earlier revealed fact that the U.S. Forest Service has reduced the originally equid-occupied, legal herd areas by 53% and we see to what an egregious extent the Forest Service is “death on wild horses and burros!”. Its negative policy is currently reflected in the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Refuge in Montana where Custer National Forest officials are refusing to acknowledge that the unique Pryor Mountain Spanish mustangs have a legitimate right to live in an area they occupied at the passage of the 1971 Act.

Livestock are often allowed to strip the very most nutritious forage, during a few months to a half year often in the spring or early summer, leaving what remains in the way of forage for the wildlife, including the returned native wild horses, to fend on as best they can for the rest of the year. Being much less mobile than wild horses and burros, livestock concentrate their grazing pressures in certain areas, especially in and along species-rich stream, marsh, or lake shore habitats known as riparian (which I have experience monitoring with the BLM). Cattle and sheep have destroyed these riparian habitats on a large scale by overgrazing throughout the West — as throughout the world, especially in arid and semi-arid areas, and thus are responsible for the extinction or near extinction of literally thousands of species of plants and animals. The wild horses, on the other hand, do not linger at watering sites or along riparian areas but disperse their grazing pressure much more broadly in the arid to semi-arid West; and as a consequence they greatly reduce dry parched vegetation. Their post-gastric digestive system is perfectly suited to taking advantage of this drier, usually coarser vegetation, as such does not entail as much metabolic energy involved with the more thorough breakdown of this food when compared with ruminant grazers: cattle, sheep, deer, elk, etc. Their digestion also favors the dispersal of the seeds of many native plant species that are not as degraded in passing through their digestive tracts. These involve species that have in many cases co-evolved for millions of years with horses and even burro-like Asses, developing many mutually be neficial symbioses in the process.

Given the length of time equids have evolved here, it would be blind not to recognize the great importance of the equid element in the North American ecosystem. Yet government personnel persist in maintaining that the wild equids do not warrant native wildlife designation. I suggest they visit one of our national monuments by the name of Hagerman Horse Fossil in Idaho and carefully consider the abundant evidence from paleontological science that establishes the horse family, genus, and even modern-day species, Equus caballus, as among the most truly native in North America, for most deeply and anciently rooted and of longest evolutionary duration here. The horse as returned native species and the burro as a species with substantial evolutionary roots in North America are proven facts concerning these two national heritage species, but these facts are rarely if ever acknowledged by BLM and USFS officials charged with their protection, and when so in a way designed to minimize their relevance.

To me it seems the height of ingratitude that of all the species upon which humans inflict their prejudice and spite, it should be these two who have performed such a world of service for mankind over, not just centuries, but approximately seven millennia! Yet their truer place among unfolding life on Earth was and remains in the wild, and particularly here in North American where the vast majority of their evolutionary past history was experienced over many millions of years and with practically no break right up to the present.

In freedom and in the wild, the true vigor of any race or species is preserved! We owe this freedom on the land that gave them birth to the magnificent horses and wise burros. Given sufficient freedom in space and time, they prove that the equid element restores and enhances the ecosystem here in North America, as elsewhere. But they must be allowed to fill their natural niche in a natural habitat of sufficient size to become a long-term viable, stabilized population. And we have not really given them this chance since the early to mid 19th Century. Many studies have revealed an increase in native biodiversity in areas where wild equids have been so restored, including in southeastern California’s Coyote Canyon Wild Horse Herd Area on BLM land, from which lamentably all of the distinctive, Spanish descended mustangs have recently been removed! Seed dispersal and soil building through added humus (both performed by means of fecal deposition) count among the primary ways in which this enhancement is achieved. And there are many other ways I could describe given the time (rolling swales as water catchments; accessing food and water by hoof action both for themselves and other species both in Summer and in Winter, etc.).

I am very concerned for the approximate 30,000 mainly wild horses but some burros who have been over-gathered and now languish in government holding areas and for whom euthanasia has recently been proposed by BLM officials as a convenient way of solving the crisis they themselves have created. And I strongly urge that these animals be restored to their empty or nearly empty — but still legal — Herd Areas throughout the West. This is the only honorable course of action, and we owe it to them!

I have performed a calculation of the numbers that could be restored based on the various sizes of the legal Herd Areas. Though just the empty Herd Areas in Nevada alone, or in Wyoming alone, could accommodate the 30,000, I recommend that these equids be used to restore more viable herds throughout all the 10 Western states from which they have been unfairly depleted. However, care should be taken to restore the wild equids to their original Herd Areas wherever possible, or if not possible, to Herd Areas as close by to their natal grounds or with as similar habitat types, climates and other conditions as is again possible. Availability of water, forage, shelter and other habitat requirements, of course, should also be considered -- and our public servants must learn to stand up to the wild horses’ and burros’ enemies in securing such vital resources, including summering and wintering grounds and the corridors there between.

Here is a summary by state of where the wild horses and burros could be released into already emptied Herd Areas or Herd Management Areas that contain too few wild equids and whose numbers should be bolstered for greater viability. (See Table 2 and chart.)

  • In Arizona, 540 wild burros, 35 wild horses proportionally among 8 herd areas according to area size, AML, species designation and habitat factors such as water and forage.
  • In California, 303 wild burros into 2 herd areas and 2005 wild horses into 13 herd areas.
  • In Colorado, 659 wild horses into 7 herd areas/herd management areas.
  • In Idaho, 81 wild horses into 4 herd areas/herd management areas.
  • In Montana, 294 wild horses into 6 herd areas.
  • In Nevada, 5,200+ wild horses into 31 herd areas/herd management areas.
  • In New Mexico 166 wild horses into 3 herd areas/herd management areas.
  • In Oregon 2,240 wild horses and 10 wild burros into 28 herd areas/herd management areas.
  • In Utah, 1,085 wild horses and 17 wild burros into 18 herd areas/herd management areas.
  • In Wyoming, 7,425 wild horses into 29 herd areas/herd management areas, 22 of which are zeroed out and 7 below AML.
  • Totals: 19,190 wild horses and 870 wild burros for total 20,060 wh/b’s in 149 HA/HMAs.

The additional approximately 10,000 government-held wild equids could easily be accommodated by assigning just AMLs to the zeroed out herd areas. These would be proportional to the size of such as well as water and other resource availability therein. Also by increasing already assigned AMLs that are ludicrously low and disproportionate to the size and resource availability of the original HAs in question many of the excessively gathered wild equids could be accomodated.

Table 2 shows the additional equid numbers that could be, thus, easily accommodated and Table 1 shows other revealing data such as the acreage and percentages of reduction of original herd areas occurring in each state, i.e. elimination of wild equids there from. These estimated additional numbers by state are:

  • Arizona (15% reduction): 1,000 wild burros/horses;
  • California (65% reduction): 5,000 wild horses/burros;
  • Colorado (45% reduction): 1,000 wild horses;
  • Idaho (12% reduction): 1,000 wild horses;
  • Montana (83% reduction): 1,000 wild horses;
  • Nevada (23% reduction): 4,310 wild horses/burros;
  • New Mexico (77% reduction): 334 wild horses;
  • Oregon (32% reduction): 1,750 wild horses/burros;
  • Utah (28% reduction): 1,085 wild horses;
  • Wyoming (53% reduction): 2,575 wild horses.
  • Total: 19,054 wild equids

As is readily observed, the federal agencies in most states have already grossly infringed on the wild horses’/burros’ legal rights to land and are now proceeding with mop up operations! The additional numbers that should be released into the 10 Western federal wild horse and burro containing states sum to 19,054 wild equids, chiefly horses with some burros.

Summing to the earlier figure, a total of 39,114 wild equids should and easily could be reinstated into their rightful legal herd areas on federal lands throughout the West administered by the BLM. This is over 8,000 more than the ca. 30,000 wild equids currently being held. And this evaluation does not take a hard look at the original USFS wild equid herd areas, many but not all of which have been given over to the BLM for management. Since, as earlier indicated, the USFS has reduced its original legal wild equid herd areas by 5,986,112 acres, or 53%, we should well appreciate that it could easily restore many wild equids to these empty by still legal areas throughout the West provided the political will to do so.

To appreciate the extent of unfairness toward America’s last wild horses and burros on the public lands where they have legal right — a long tradition that includes other scapegoats such as the buffalo and the Indian himself — I again call your attention to Table 1 and Chart. As earlier indicated, the national reduction from the original herd area acreage is 36% and four states have eliminated wild equids from over 50% of their original herd areas: California, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming. To better appreciate the inequities involved toward the wild equids, we should look at the numbers of acres per individual wild horse or burro both in relation to current existing wild populations and in relation to the planned Appropriate Management Levels (AML’s) that our public servants have unjustly established throughout their over 300 legal areas. Our no longer trusted “public servants” — and please take note! — have allowed for only one currently surviving wild horse or burro in the wild per 1,871 acres of original legal Herd Areas established by the 1971 Wild Horse Act to protect and preserve them and their freedom, and well as to manage their numbers in a minimally invasive manner! And in the greatly reduced Herd Management Areas, there are currently – and again pay close attention! — only 1,206 acres per surviving wild equid!To better imagine the gross unfairness, one entire football field is closely equal to just one acre. These figures come from published BLM data of the current year, 2008. Yet since this evaluation, BLM has been reducing the herds even further than originally planned, depriving several thousand more wild horses and burros of their natural freedom in order to establish the cripplingly low, non-viable Appropriate Management Levels that would leave 1,253 acres, or football fields, of HMAs per individual wild horse and burro! — This is a lot of space for the horses to play football and a mockery of the law by any estimate! Also this is like leaving one wild equid for every livestock permittee.

BLM planned on leaving only 27,492 wild horses and burros nationwide as of the spring of 2008, though their current total was only 28,563 of which 2,874 were burros and 25,689 were wild horses. This is about the population level of pronghorn antelope that survived in the early part of the last, i.e. 20th, century after the wholesale carnage and plunder of the West by European settlers. This low population level, i.e. 26,000, was just cause for declaring the pronghorn to be endangered and warranting immediate action by authorities to save it. Obviously our two national heritage species are not so valued, since they are being set up for just such a low level. Again, “managing for extinction” comes to mind, both for the wild horses and ten times more for the wild burros!

As a wildlife ecologist who appreciates the wild horses and burros and their freedom, I envision self-contained wild horse/burro reserves both in and around the originally established Herd Areas, including where possible other appropriate areas on both private and public lands. Through ecologically knowledgeable reserve design that takes into account as many of the short and long term needs of the wild equids as possible, drastic roundups could be avoided, or at least greatly minimized. This can and will be accomplished by incorporating natural boundaries that limit the equids’ movements and, only where necessary, by the construction of artificial, semi-permeable equid barriers that allow other species of wildlife to pass through unharmed. Crucial to this plan is that each reserve contain appropriate habitat of sufficient size to support a long-term viable wild horse or burro population of around 1,000 interbreeding individuals. Within each such natural sanctuary, the wild equids will be respectfully treated as the “principal” presence, not relegated to mere token numbers and deprived of basic resources to accommodate a monopoly of livestock and/or big game — currently the case! In these equid reserves, natural checks and balances will be allowed to operate, including natural predators of equids such as the puma and the wolf. With relative rapidity, the herds will attain population stability as part of a special, harmonious give-and-take relationship with each unique occupied ecosystem. And the cruel and ecologically disruptive roundups that have tragically set back th e site-specific adaptiveness of the West’s magnificent wild horse and burro populations will become a thing of the past! — Thank God!

Every truth- and justice-loving person should ask him/her self: “Is the kind of treatment wild horses and burros are currently receiving fair?! Do not our fellow Earthlings in equine form — who have done so much for us humans — deserve a much better place and consideration in this our shared world?!

We know what interests are displacing these National Heritage Species within the relatively minor portion of public lands to which they have legal right. But it has proven very difficult for wild horse and burro advocates to obtain exact figures on the allocation of resources to livestock and big game within the legal wild horse and burro Herd Areas and Herd Management Areas. I believe these figures are being intentionally hidden from the public precisely because they would reveal such an enormous subversion of the Wild Horse and Burro Act and in order to achieve an even more blanketing public lands monopoly by livestock and big game. among other, interests. We can rest our case, however, on the fact that our supposed public servants are planning to leave only one wild horse or burro for nearly 2,000 football fields of their original legal herd areas! This is, indeed a “managing for extinction” at its worse and one with a farcical justification. This intolerable situation boils down to sheer greed and selfishness on the part of some people who have not learned the how and why of sharing, of appreciating another kind, and the greater world we share with all fellow species. (I refer you to the excellent work Las Vegan Cindy Macdonald has done to reveal to the public the gross inequities that are involved in the federal wild horse and burro program [seewww.americanherds.com].)

Though the horse is a quickly reverting, returned native wildlife species in North America, complementing many native plants and animals, and though he greatly reduces flammable vegetation, thus preventing catastrophic fires of mounting “global warming” concern today, he is still perversely treated as a destructive exotic by federal officials. This is in conformance with a mainly negative policy toward both the wild horse and burro. The burro species is a member of the ass branch of the horse family, Equidae, which branch had its origin and long-standing evolutionary development in North America. It refills an empty niche that was occupied by very similar Asses in the drier areas of the West and not that long ago, geologically speaking. Both species successfully disperse the seeds of native plants and help build water-retentive and nutritive soils through their feces. Upon these wild equids so much of the native Western ecosystem depends. And in such, given sufficient time and space and freedom, all individuals and species — including wild horses and burros — ever work in marvelous conjunction!

“With nostrils flared and mane flying, the horse is an image of beauty and grace with an undying spirit!” Although briefly domesticated by man, its awe-inspiring, multi-million-year history and destiny remains in the vast, wide-open spaces of the natural biodiverse and inter-balanced world. And whether corralled or at liberty, its heart remains its own, forever wild and free!