Is the Government Destroying the American West Ecosystem by Favoring Cattle Over Wild Horses?

by as published on OneGreenPlanet.org

“Wild horses play a crucial role in keeping the ecosystem of the west balanced…”

Welfare Cattle herded into Antelope Complex as wild horses are being rounded up ~ photo by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation

Imagine walking through a trail alongside the golden grasses of an open prairie in the Western United States when all of the sudden you are stopped frozen by the sound of a thunderous noise of hooves approaching from a distance. As you listen closely, you hear whinnying and soon, the herd is within your sight. With their power, grace, and majesty, horses can aesthetically make any landscape appear beautiful.

But horses also have a much greater purpose, as they help to physically maintain and benefit the health of prairie ecosystems. Millions of horses once roamed free in the Wild West. Unfortunately, by the time the first federal wild free-roaming horse protection law was enacted in 1959, the mustang population had already been drastically reduced. This law only prohibited hunting horses with the help of motor vehicles.

While the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is now the primary authority that manages wild horse populations. However, the BLM favors cattle interests over that of the wild horse which has lead to the steady decline of the wild horse population. Wild horses play a crucial role in keeping the ecosystem of the west balanced.

Managing Horse Populations to Benefit Cattle

In certain locations, natural horse predators, such as wolves, are now scarce and as a result, the BLM is “concerned” with regulating horse populations to avoid competition with land for domestic cattle. To manage the horses, the bureau issues roundups of wild horses to transfer them to a captive lifestyle. Their methods are often considered inhumane. For example, in 2014, the BLM poorly planned a roundup of approximately 800 horses from private and public lands. Ten died in the process, including four foals and the horses all experienced immense stress and discomfort (not to mention they lost one of the most valued ideals of America – freedom). Approximately 270,000 horses have been removed from U.S. land since 1971.

Furthermore, supply has exceeded demand for selling captured horses for an adoption fee of $125 and most horses end up at auction where they can be purchased for any use the buyer the wishes … sadly most of the time this means they are sold to slaughter for meat.

In order to validate their actions, the BLM has claimed that horses are overpopulating, while destroying critical habitat. Where is this evidence? Nobody knows … We do, however, have ecological evidence of how horses benefit their environment.

Horses Versus Cattle: Benefits of Horses for the Environment

While the BLM is concerned with avoiding grazing competition between wild horses and domestic cattle, there seems to be lack of attention toward addressing the impacts cattle are having on the environment. The ratio of cattle to wild horses on public lands is fifty to one. Wild horses are critical architects of the western ecosystem, so rather than wasting tax dollars funding roundups, if the BLM is really concerned with protecting public lands they should instead focus on protecting horses.

To illustrate the benefits of the presence of the wild horse, let’s look at comparison to how horses affect their ecosystem versus cattle.

1. Maintaining Grass 

While cattle do not have upper teeth and use their tongues to wrap around grass to pull it from the roots, horses only graze the tops of grass blades, allowing grasses to regrow in a healthier state.

2. Improving Soil Quality

Unlike cattle, horses are not ruminants and therefore, do not have four sections of their stomach. This means that their waste contains more nutrients. When horses defecate, they give back to the land through enhancing soil quality. Cattle operations often cause water pollution due to waste containing hormones, antibiotics, heavy metals, ammonia, and pathogens. Many animals depend on horse manure to help maintain soil moisture to prevent brush fires.

3. Use of Water Resources

While cattle enjoy chilling out by water sources, horses are respectful of their ecosystem. Instead of causing erosion and scaring away species diversity (like cattle do), horses tend to drink and move on, leaving minimal impact on stream habitats.

4. Grazing Habits

Since horses are travelers and cattle prefer to just hang out, horses do not exhaust grazing areas like cattle do. Horses are also picky about what they eat and avoid consuming pretty flowers, allowing wild flowers to survive. If a horse consumes seeds, they can still germinate after being passed and thus, horses act as important sources of dispersal for plant species.

5. Lending a Hand to Other Species

In cold climates, many animals will follow the path of horses in order to find access to food and water. The powerful hooves of a horse have the ability to break through ice, making streams once again potable for other animals. Furthermore, horses can make their way to grasses through deep snow, allowing other animals to also graze where horses have been.

Grazing cattle, on the other hand, pose a threat to 14 percent of endangered animal species and 33 percent of plant species as they encroach further into their territory.

Stop Roundups to Save Horses

Cattle are given priority over land because ranchers pay a tax to the BLM for every head of cattle they graze on public lands. The myth that the wild horse poses too much competition to cattle is a simple lie used to justify their systematic removal. It would not be far off to say that cows have become an invasive species in the West, leading to the downfall of keystone species who help to keep the native ecosystem healthy.

7 comments

  1. An excellant article and so true. Much has been said aginst this nations wild equine, the least of which is not that they are non native and invasive. According to Kirkpatrick and Fazio, for a species to be considered native, they must both have originated and coevolved, in an area. Wild equine , according to geoglyphic and petroglyphic evidence have not only originated in america, their cradle so to speak, but have filled a vital niche as a keystone species, that has not only helped western rangelands stabalize, but rejuevenate and flourish, complimenting all other coexisting species, both flora and fauna. There has even been some evidence by some that they were here when the spanish arrived. Whether they crossed over the Berring Strait land bridge to parts of Asia, then from there expanding, before dying out in America, and then reintroduced, or were here at the time of the Spanish, they are most definitely native. Regardless, since whether a species is native or not is the argument. let’s look at cattle and sheep. Neither one originating from the america’s and neither one of them contributing to ecological balance, or coevolving with America’s ecosysytems. Cattle, historically, never originated in America but rather in the British Isles and came over with the Spanish. Sheep Originated from Scandanavian countries and British Isles and again, came over with the Spanish. Big Horn Sheep, never originated in America, but rather Asia and what is now modern day Iran and Iraq. Historically they crossed over the Berring Strait Land Bridge, which is why they exist in the Americas now. Therefore according to the native/nonnative equation cannot be considered native. The Bottom line is that, if the continued existance of a species in the Americas is based upon whether it is native, then its a given that the wild equine stay, and we had better get rid of all the cattle, sheep and for that matter Big Horn Sheep.
    If an individual will open their heart to the amazing positive cascade effect that wild equine bring to any ecosystem, that individual could never try to extricate them. By virtue of their free roaming habits, social order, physiological makeup and self stabalizing nature they indeed are a vital keystone species to the areas they have existed in before the BLM rampage. Even throughout the world it has been proven that the introduction of wild equine to areas have had a revitalizing and rejuevenating effect. So what is our responsibility?. Nature knows how keep perfect balance through its own mechanisms, for wild horses and burros, as well as predators, coexisting herbivores, and vegetation. For an ecosystem to flourish, however, mankind’s restrictions have to be removed. Restrictions to water, migratory routes, not to mention, the free flow of all wild species of animals, including equine in and out of areas, has a detrimental effect on the livelyhood of these same species, not to mention, has helped to destroy genetic viability. For our wild equine to flourish, all that is needed is to approach them hands off. Yes keep them protected, but a hands off approach is needed. Our rangelands will flourish again and stabalize if we stop the roundups, once and for all, and release all of the wild horses and burros, now in holding facilities, back to the areas where they were found, and eliminate the Wild Horse and Burro Program of the BLM. Then if we remove the manmade restrictions, and artificial alterations, and we will have natural balance again. The beauty of our wild horses and burros, can only be seen if we allow them to be truly wild, and fill the niche that nature can so brilliantly establish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Portugese also brought and released a much more destructive invasive species on this continent: feral hogs. These are rapidly colonizing and spreading with a population estimated at 6 MILLION, and damages already over $ 1BILLION. As our climate warms they are expected to expand into ecosystems formerly too cold.

      Not to deflect here but when one compares the reproductive rate, damages, and outright dangerous behaviours of feral hogs, a few thousand wild horses on their natural rangelands seems an insignificant threat. Why so much energy against wild horses and burros, and so little on feral hogs.

      “The pigs are the descendants of the domestic swine that were first brought to the United States by Spanish explorers in 1539. Long after their arrival, hunters introduced wild Eurasian boars into some areas where they went on to breed extensively with domestic pigs. The result is a modern invasive species that are known to carry or transmit over 30 diseases and 37 parasites, according to the USDA.

      In 2014, the United States Congress appropriated $20 million to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service to create a damage management program for the increasingly problematic pigs.

      https://weather.com/science/environment/news/wild-pig-boar-population-united-states

      Christopher Columbus first introduced members of the family Suidae into North America in 1493 in the West Indies. The first documented introduction of hogs into the United States was in Florida by de Soto in 1593. More introductions followed in Georgia and the Carolinas, which established free-ranging populations in the Southeast. Free-ranging practices continued until they finally became illegal in the mid-twentieth century.

      Populations of unclaimed, wild hogs increased and spread throughout the Southeast. Domestic hogs were released in California in 1769 and free-ranging practices there also resulted in a feral hog population. European wild boar were released at Hooper Bald, North Carolina, in 1912, and from there introduced to California in 1925.

      Wild pigs (feral hogs) are found throughout the southeastern United States from Texas east to Florida and north to Virginia; and in California, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The local introduction of these animals for hunting purposes occurred in North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, and California. The National Park Service reports feral hogs in 13 National Park Service areas. They occur in many state parks as well (Mayer and Brisbin 1991). Feral hogs are also found in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and several other South Pacific Islands.

      http://www.wildlifemanagementpro.com/2007/06/01/range-of-feral-hogs-in-the-united-states/

      Like

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