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Bring back the horses: Public lands bear the ecological brunt of livestock grazing

Wild horses reducing prodigious grass and brush fuel loading in a wildfire-prone wilderness area. © William E Simpson

Naturalist and rancher William E. Simpson outlines why he thinks replacing wild horses with cattle in wilderness areas is costly to taxpayers and to the landscape.

The financial impacts of poorly managed public lands, especially wilderness, are very costly, far-reaching and significantly affect taxpayer pocketbooks and lifestyles, with direct and tertiary impacts.

Growing livestock management issues on public lands, especially in wilderness areas, is a major concern given that cattle and sheep are invasive animal species in North America that interrupt the naturally evolved evolutionary processes and trophic cascades, which results in undeniable damage to entire ecosystems. The unraveling of nature’s intricate evolutionary complexities yields losses to the forestry industry, recreational interests, watersheds and related fisheries, among others.

Both cattle and sheep have complex (multiple) stomachs and digest virtually all the seeds they consume from flowering plants and grasses, thus interrupting the natural reseeding of the flora in any given ecosystem where they graze.

Over time, via the disintermediation of natural reseeding processes, cattle and sheep grazing will strip the landscape of any ecosystem of much of its native flora, which is depended upon by numerous native species.

In wilderness areas where there are threatened and endangered species of flora, and native fauna that depend upon the native flora for their existence, livestock grazing can wipe out the native flora, thus adversely affecting native fauna as well.

Science shows that horses, having single stomachs, virtually pass all of the seeds they consume intact and able to germinate in their droppings, which in fact reseeds the landscapes where they graze on native flora.

Wild horse droppings provide humus for native plant and integral grass and plant seeds that pass through a horse’s single stomach undigested. Wild horse droppings also contain microorganisms essential to soils. The combination of these features can restore soils damaged by wildfires. © William E Simpson

When the soils of the landscape are depleted of native flora via cattle and sheep grazing, soils lose the stability that was provided by root systems and are then subject to catastrophic erosion during seasonal rains.

This abnormal erosion process also occurs when catastrophic wildfire (abnormally hot wildfire) defoliates a landscape and pasteurizes soils, killing root systems that stabilized the soils.

The recent evolution of catastrophic wildfire in western American states is also a result of less than adequate natural resource management, which has led to the collapse of large native species herbivores that had been consuming and maintaining fuel loads of grass and brush across the landscape to nominal levels annually.

Wild horses, with past populations in the tens of millions in the 17th century and numbering about two million in the early 19th century, were an important species in North America in regard to maintaining grass and brush fuels to nominal levels, while concurrently maintaining an evolved natural reseeding process across the landscapes where they grazed. In this regard, wild horses are unique, and their symbiosis is critically important in the American landscape.

Mankind and all of our technology (including modern livestock grazing) cannot duplicate the symbiotic value (in dollars it is worth tens of millions of dollars annually) that wild horses provide to plants and grasses on remote wildfire-prone wilderness landscapes.

The stripping of the flora from the landscape via invasive species grazing or by catastrophic wildfire, in turn, leads to catastrophic runoff and abnormal erosion. This abnormal runoff and erosion results in the silting-in of the gravel beds of the streams and rivers used by spawning salmon and trout. The silting covers fish eggs that may already be present, which are suffocated by the mud. And gravel beds that become silted-in no longer provide space within the gravels (also known as ‘redds’) for any fish eggs. The consequences are failed trout and salmon runs, among other issues.

There are tens of millions of acres of rugged and remote American wilderness landscape which are targeted for livestock grazing. These rugged and remote landscapes cannot be cultivated and managed using mechanized grass farming (re-seeding) methods, which are required to renew grasses on private tillable ranch land areas grazed by cattle and sheep. And therein is the problem. In the wilderness, which is mostly untillable because of steep and rough terrain, once the land is defoliated it cannot be reseeded by existing mechanized methods.

There are tens of millions of acres of rugged and remote American wilderness landscape, which are targeted for livestock grazing. These rugged and remote landscapes cannot be cultivated and managed using mechanized grass farming. Image by Steppinstars

The end result is landscapes that are stripped of native flora by cattle and sheep become erosion-prone lands because they are defoliated and not reseeded. A further effect of this process is the depletion of aquifers in such areas with reduced ground-cover, leading to the ultimate failure of riparian areas.

Wild horses evolved in North America 55 million years ago and, as science shows, they have for millennia been nature’s reseeding experts in remote wilderness areas. It is my view that wild horses never went extinct in North America, as some people and agencies suggest. In fact, the most recent and best (unbiased) science proves that wild horses were present in North America before the arrival of any European explorers on the continent.

European explorers of the 16th century reintroduced additional horses to North America, horses that were descended from the North American wild horses that had migrated across the Aleutian land bridge about 17,000 years ago. The latest cultural and archaeo-zoology research presents a very strong case for these facts.

Public lands are arguably no longer managed sensibly, nor in the very highest standard of the public interest. And for that, American taxpayers pay the price. Instead, it’s becoming clear that our public lands are for sale to the highest bidder for exploitation by the livestock and mineral extraction industries, with livestock production being as ecologically egregious as the extraction industries.

The financial impacts related to livestock grazing on wilderness area lands is much greater than it may seem at first blush, and is largely based on the virtually irreversible adverse impacts that livestock grazing has on wilderness areas.

Wild horses being “managed into extinction”

The unreasonable reduction of wild horses is supported heavily by the cattle and beef industries, and by those who lobby heavily for the livestock production industry to government agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Department of Interior (DOI) and US Fish and Wildlife (USFW).

Wild horses are arguably being exterminated from America’s public lands to create more livestock grazing; and because the additional funding to the BLM for wild horse roundups are a source of incremental revenue likely derived from related administrative fees levied for program oversight.

I intentionally use the term ‘exterminated’ because of the method that has been crafted to manage wild horses into extinction and remove any impediments to expanded livestock grazing programs on BLM managed public lands, especially wilderness lands.

In short, the plan that has been adopted by the BLM that will arguably exterminate wild horses by motived people was carefully constructed to accomplish several key psychological milestones to limit public pushback.

The plan is accomplished in part by the use of studies funded by biased parties that misinform and confuse the American public (taxpayers) and their elected officials into believing these falsehoods:

  • There are too many wild horses in America

  • They reproduce at an astounding rate

  • Wild horses are not a native species in America

  • Wild horses have no natural predators

  • Wild horses are damaging the landscape; and livestock benefits the landscape.

All of the foregoing statements can be proven false in the light of facts.

The planned wild horse extermination process currently involves reducing population levels in herd areas below the numbers of breeding animals required to maintain genetic diversity and vigor of the species; and secondly, concurrently treating remaining female wild horses with chemicals (PZP and GonaCon) that cause sterility in mares as well as social disruption in family bands. The social disruption alone in any species of wildlife, including wild horses, is very detrimental, as science shows.

There is also a program on the table to spay wild horse mares using an archaic, cruel, and dangerous surgery — ovariectomy via colpotomy.

  1. Arguably under the influence of the livestock industry, the BLM sets so-called (arbitrary; not based in science) ‘appropriate management levels’ (AMLs) for herds of wild horses and burros grazing public lands that Congress set aside for wild horses to numbers of animals well below what is required to maintain robust genetic diversity and genetic vigor. The minimum (not optimal) number of wild horses in any immediate geographic herd area (Herd Area) must be 200 (or more) wild horses according to the best science. This statement is supported by extensive science in genetics and animal husbandry, including work by Dr Cassandra Nunez, PhD.

  2. The herd counts undertaken by BLM and the USGS to establishing their so-called AMLs for herd areas are based upon guesswork since wild horses move rapidly across the landscape and are difficult to track. Rates of reproduction are also greatly exaggerated. In some cases, biologically impossible herd reproduction rates are cited.

In order to properly manage America’s natural resources, especially the remaining wilderness areas, we must take care in engaging the correct choice of large herbivores on such lands. And there is no doubt the wild horses are the correct herbivores for wilderness lands where threatened and endangered flora exist, and where catastrophic wildfires threaten both the flora and fauna of such precious lands.

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