May 11, 2014
Laura Bies, Director of Government Affairs
The Wildlife Society
5410 Grosvenor Lane, Suite 200
Bethesda, Maryland 20814-2144
Regarding: TWS publication: FERAL HORSES: GET THE FACTS
Dear Ms Bies
Recently, a friend sent me your above-referenced 4-page article which I’d not seen before. Though there is no date or authorship designated, it appears that the piece was probably issued within the past 3-4 years.
Though the Wildlife Society touts its members professional credentials early on as the authority on this matter, claiming as an organization to purse the “highest standards” and be “committed to science-based policy”, it struck me as odd that TWS used the term, “Feral” in the title instead of “Wild Horse” which is, of course, the legal designation for many of the horses living full-time on public lands in the West.
(In case you don’t know the difference, the term “feral” is deliberately used by detractors of wild horses, primarily ranchers, farmers, sportsmen and their sympathizers, to attempt to verbally denigrate and humiliate the animal before the public much as the term “Obamacare” was used by Republicans early on instead of the actual name, Affordable Care Act, when talking about the new health care law in public.)
The one and only horse photo was odd as well, showing an animal that seems unappealing with its small head, long narrow neck, and rangy look. Though I am not a horse owner nor knowledgeable about such characteristics, I have heard conversations among wild horse detractors who appear to delight in claiming that such anatomical features characterize wild horses in general…yet another reason to denigrate them.
However, as a 45-year resident of Nevada, and as someone who has observed and photographed wild and feral (not living on public land) horses on public and checkerboard lands, and who has observed wild horses after gathers in BLM holding facilities, I have seen many wild horses which have inspired photographers, artists and admirers from around the world because of their shapes, sizes, colors, and associated features, none of which were captured with your photograph.
Because the title and photograph of the TWS “fact” sheet, suggested to me (and perhaps others readers with similar backgrounds) that objectivity would not likely be found by reading the contents, I was tempted to ignore the document. Then I noticed the reference to the impact of horses on “native habitats and wildlife”.
Since I live in Nevada, the home of many of our wild horses and burros, and since I know something about the status of wildlife in Nevada by virtue of 40 years of attending meetings of the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners, interacting with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, camping and hiking on public lands in Nevada, and traveling the rural areas of our state for decades, I decided to send you actual facts about Nevada’s wildlife. I do this because unsupported allegations of “damage to wildlife by wild horses” are made frequently by sportsmen, ranchers and farmers.
While your article did provide some bibliography references in support of the notion that small reptiles and burrowing mammals may be affected by wild horses, and while bighorn sheep were mentioned with reference to certain preferences for water source exclusivity, the “big picture” was missing….particularly with respect to Nevada.
Here are some actual facts about the status of wildlife in Nevada as of early 2014, and in the face of recurring drought conditions to boot:
- Elk numbers in Nevada are at historic high levels. Nevada has too many elk. No neighboring state wants our elk because they already have too many of their own.
- Bighorn sheep numbers are at historic high levels. Nevada has more bighorn sheep than any state in the country except for Alaska. The Nevada Department of Wildlife is now suggesting that bighorn numbers are exceeding “carrying capacity” and need to be reduced.
- Pronghorns are at historic high levels. Never have there been so many pronghorns in Nevada. They may be reaching “carrying capacity” limits.
- Mule deer numbers have been stable for over a decade. While not at historic high levels, biologists at the Nevada Department of Wildlife believe the current numbers are consistent with the conditions available. No one is suggesting that wild horses are affecting mule deer numbers.
- Waterfowl hunting in this state is limited only by the availability of birds coming down the Pacific Flyway. Drought is the only local factor discussed with respect to waterfowl hunting. Wild horses play no part in the life of the Nevada duck hunter.
- Fur trappers are still free to trap as many animals…from muskrats and beavers, to foxes, to coyotes and bobcats…as they please. Trappers have not been asked to cut back or curtail any of their trapping activities because of wild horse impacts nor have they complained that wild horses are interfering with their activities.
- Fishing opportunities in Nevada are limited only by drought and water conditions. Wild horses have nothing to do with fishing on Lake Mead in Southern Nevada, or with fishing conditions on ponds, lakes and reservoirs in Northern Nevada.
- Birding opportunities in Nevada are unrelated to wild horses. The two Audubon Chapters in Nevada do not cite wild horse activity as a factor of concern in the ability of Nevada birders to enjoy spring and fall migration.
- Rabbit hunters have not complained about a lack of rabbits due to wild horse activity. Neither have they been asked to kill fewer rabbits due to wild horse impacts.
- Reptile collectors, primarily in Southern Nevada, have not appeared at the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners to complain that wild horses are interfering with their ability to collect snakes, lizards and other reptiles.
- Sage grouse hunting still occurs in Nevada. Hunters kill several thousand birds, annually. Sportsmen have not complained that wild horses are interfering with their opportunity to kill sage grouse. Nor have they been asked to curtail or stop sage grouse hunting because of wild horse impacts.
- Upland game hunters still take their bird dogs out to hunt chukkar and quail without any disruption from wild horse activity. No chukkar or quail hunter has, to my knowledge, ever come to the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners and tried to make a case that chukkar are losing out because of wild horses.
- Dove hunting continues to take place in Nevada without any disruption from wild horses.
I could do more but that would be silly. The point is this: When anybody….TWS, Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners, representatives of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the noisiest of the sportsmen…makes unsubstantiated claims that wild horses are “damaging wildlife”, I do not doubt their sincerity. I simply doubt their facts…or rather, I lament that they don’t have any.
Putting it another way, for those detractors of wild horses to convince us that their assertion has merit, they’ll need to account for the facts I’ve listed above in order to receive serious consideration.
There is a bit more to be said. I do agree that reptiles, burrowing small mammals and rodents and other similar species may suffer effects from wild horse activity.. But to seriously consider that possibility, one has to factor in livestock use of the same or similar areas, and use by big game ungulates.
Speaking of livestock use, here are facts regarding that aspect of the wild horse issue in Nevada:
- -The current “guesstimate” of wild horse numbers in Nevada is between 27,000 – 30,000 according to the habitat biologist from the Nevada Department of Wildlife who so stated in a presentation this past weekend.
- Roughly 300,000 cattle, and 75,000 domestic sheep use Nevada’s public lands (part of) each year, outnumbering wild horses by about 12:1.
- Cows often outweigh wild horses by several hundred pounds.
- Cows have no natural dispersal mechanism equivalent to the band structure of wild horses. Consequently, cows tend to “settle” into places like water sources, shaded areas, along stream banks, grassy meadows and have no incentive to move around without the intervention of the rancher. Wild horses disperse themselves frequently.
- The structure of the cow’s foot…the cloven hoof is, in my view, more destructive to the all-important thin biomass ground cover between sage brush plants than is the flat pancake-like foot structure of the horse.
Bottom line…..cows definitely leave foot prints…and a lot more….on the ground on public lands in Nevada.
Here’s the real story from my point of view. The unsupported allegations about damage to the environment and “wildlife” by wild horses as claimed by ranchers, farmers and sportsmen amount to two things:
- Ranchers and farmers view wild horses as “competition” for their own (subsidized) use of the public lands and wish the animals gone for economic reasons.
- Sportsmen make their claims to show support for the livestock industry so that ranchers won’t limit sportsmen’s access to their private lands and to allow for access to public lands just beyond.
Or so it seems to me.
Donald A. Molde