Horse News

Wild Horses: A Keystone Species

By Robert Bauer

Advocates Playing into a Conspiracy

Robert C. Bauer

Documenting and studying the issues concerning this nation’s wild horses and burros, has been my heart since 2009, as well as working in conjunction with others for their preservation in the wild. The wild horse and burro issue has affected the hearts of many, both in a positive and a negative way, yet most, both public and governmental figures, as well as many advocates, have failed to understand the true nature of their effects on this nation’s rangelands. There are several factors that individuals don’t see, or refuse to see, factors that are based upon sound science, which oppose the politics integrated into this fight both from the standpoint of the BLM as well as from the advocacy. All sides declare that they are working towards a thriving natural ecological balance on western rangelands, in reference to wild equine. I question the motives of many which speak the very opposite in reference to this. With this in mind I am presenting some thoughts for the reader to consider, and sound science, much of which is not original with me, but regardless carries so much weight in the present fight.

The concept of the Appropriate Management Level, for one, is based upon static thinking, which means The AML places a fixed number of wild horses per area and doesn’t change. This is stated in light of the fact that the Public Rangeland Improvement Act implemented in Oct. 25, 1978, mandated that the AMLs are subject to adjustment, based on resource availability. Has the BLM, however, been altering AMLs according to resource availability, for the benefit of wild horses, or is nature allowed to dictate numbers based upon the carrying capacity of the land? In truth this flexibility has not been happening with the BLM except in a downward way where the wild horse and burro AMLs and occupied habitats nearly always become lower. This is opposed to nature’s mandate which is dynamic, and continually in motion. In essence nature, based upon principles of Density Dependent and Independent Inhibition, through this climax community, is continually fluctuating the numbers of all coexisting species of flora and fauna, based upon the carrying capacity of the land, or what could be called, tweaking itself for the benefit of the ecosystem. These factors operate from the microbial all the way up to megafauna species, including wild horses. The BLM’s AML does not take this fundamental reasoning into account. Nature is constantly adjusting itself to maintain a balance, and has been doing it for thousands of years successfully, as opposed to the concept of the AML which hampers natures mechanisms. Nature’s concept can be visualized very easily and opposes the motives and methods of many. The changes that occur are minute adjustments over time, that collectively result in major shifts in a broad ecological equation all based upon environmental factors as well as densities of vegetation, predators, and prey species alike. It opposes what can be called the battle cry of the BLM, which are nothing more than hysterical reactions to numbers above what they call their appropriate management level, and nothing more than the numbers of wild horses that the BLM is allowing, in order to secure a monopoly for cattle on the forage and water resources. This is reflected in their grazing allocations, measured in Animal Unit Months, (AUMs). From this a rancher pays a mere $1.35 per cow and calf pair, or the same for a bull, or for 5 sheep. The extremely low AMLs however are a concept that have been designed to drive Equus caballas, and Equus asinus, to extinction, a concept that many are playing into, including the advocacy, without even realizing it.

Low AMLs place a genetic bottle neck on viability of this nation’s wild horses, in every area where they are living or should be living.  The result is inbreeding and irreparable genetic damage in limiting the population of wild equine to this fixed number, a number which has absolutely no scientific basis, and has nothing to do with a thriving natural ecological balance. One cannot place a fixed number on nature because the very mechanisms of nature oppose and will continually oppose this idea. The concept is ludicrous. Adjusting the sex ratios, plays into this as well, for the purposes of reducing reproduction to help accommodate this number. But is the BLM truly trying to maintain this number, or drive wild horses to extinction. Generally speaking, the normal sex ratio, in the wild, of 40 breeding stallions to 60 females of breeding age, is also flipped to a 60:40 ratio and doesn’t even factor in natural mortality in the wild which is roughly 14% to 50% in those wild horses up to a year old and 5% to 25% in those older than this. Or does it factor in natural mortality rates, and the BLM knows this, to continue driving the wild horses out of existence. Think about it. They are reducing reproduction while natural mortality is roughly maintained through its own mechanisms, totally at 19% to 75% annually. They have the audacity, however, of declaring a regular 20% population growth rate, as a no thinking involved strategy, to convince gullible and non-critical people that there is a wild horse and burro population explosion.

Then we get into the idea of fertility, and sterilization, in working towards this AML, or better stated, working towards extinction. Although most including advocates cringe at the thought of permanent sterilization, however, fertility drugs, administered through darting seems to be okay, in the eyes of many advocates. It is justified in the mind by saying it is temporary, and does not affect wild horses adversely. The fertility drugs, however, have been known to have many side effects, including disruption of the social units and wild horse hierarchies, which interferes with natural reproductive inhibition. Concerning population growth accusations, this is a very serious side effect. Additionally, a weakening of the immune system, another effect, has the general result of increasing the possibility of mortality. Also, it has been shown to cause still births and birth deformities, again an unnatural increase in the mortality of wild horses. After consecutive use it causes permanent sterilization, not to mention extending the birthing season of wild horses to almost year around, thus bringing foals to birth in the middle of the winter at times, affecting that 14% to 50 %, 1st year mortality rate. All of this is artificial alteration of something that is so natural and beautiful. The BLM, however, says that these methods are for the purposes of reducing reproduction so that it balances with mortality. All is so authoritatively stated without really knowing what the natural mortality is at any given time, as these mortality rates vary from month to month and year to year.

In addition, the BLM is beginning to propose even more stringent               measures, to bring about this extinction, without calling it extinction. This is specifically true in the EA of the North Lander Complex of Wyoming.  Gelding or vasectomize up to 95% of the stallions that are returning to the wild, as well using flexible intrauterine devices on nonpregnant wild mares also being returned, is proposed. Implementing the GonaCon-Equine vaccine on all mares including those that have had the intrauterine devices used on them, also is added. Consider all of this, and again they say it is striving to maintain a thriving natural ecological balance. Couple this with normal mortality as addressed above, along with those wild horses not returned to the wild, is creating a serious genetic issue, not to mention literally wiping out the wild horses and burros.

Natural predation and environmental impacts are vital for regulating numbers but do not work independently, but rather in concert with density dependent mechanisms, in this ecological equation. That is, the density of both ruminants and ungulates existing in any given ecosystem will regulate each other based upon the carrying capacity of the land. Numbers of one species will always keep the numbers of competitive grazers in check, and ideal based upon these concepts of ecological equilibrium. Therefore, with an increase or decrease in predatory impacts as well as environmental agents, numbers of individual species will still limit those of other species. This can be seen in populations of wild horses versus pronghorn antelope. These are natural ecological feedback loops that continually compensate for an increase of, or lack of, other mechanisms. If the BLM were honest and not driven by monetary prompts it could see this clearly.

Within the physiological and behavioral makeup of wild horses and burros, also, there exist self-regulating mechanisms. These additional factors serve to govern reproduction and subsequent population growth, or lack of it. An increase of the gestation period in wild equine, (delayed implantation), and spontaneous abortion, come into play during times of environmental stress. Also, selective breeding on the part of band stallions exists, if indeed he breeds at all. Wild horses do not go on a feeding frenzy of reproduction and breed like rabbits. They are what can be called a “Climax Species” in reference to their self-regulating behavior and are very selective especially during times of environmental stress. This has the effect of limiting reproduction and overall population growth. Added to this, are the annual mortality rates which again, are mentioned above, maintaining proper densities of all interactive species, including wild horses.

There is the concept of reproductive compensation, which is continually brought up as an answer to what the BLM states are astounding percentages of population growth. This phenomenon does occur, but not to the degree that the BLM is asserting. Artificially limiting one natural species from an ecosystem and not affecting another will always trigger this remarkable development, but again not to the degree that is stated, but rather gradually. The BLM’s standard 20% annual population growth rate simply does not exist, but rather is a standard figure used based upon finite thinking. Again, nature is dynamic and constantly adjusts itself, and does not govern itself based upon fixed numbers. It is continually in motion, so to speak.

The subject of the devastation of rangeland vegetation, due to overgrazing has been brought up as well, effecting wildlife including the range grouse. Using the wild horses as a scapegoat in this endeavor is faulty. Understanding the positive effects of wild horses as a keystone species as well as their physiological attributes that work in conjunction with this will outline their benefits. This is opposed to cattle which can be considered an invasive species, being imported from Europe, whose effects are very destructive. Wild horses, due to their unique post gastric digestive system, do not completely digest the vegetation that is consumed. Add this concept to their free roaming habits and we see a reseeding phenomenon throughout the rangelands due to undigested seed being planted through the feces of wild horses and burros. Additionally, the organic matter in the feces builds up the humus content of the soil, thus encouraging vegetative growth as a whole, as well as increasing water retention. This revitalized vegetation, attracts competitive ruminants and with the increase of herbivores comes the increase of predatory species. These numbers will continue to rise and fall, but all based upon these concepts of density dependency and environmental factors.  It must be remembered at this juncture that no human intervention is required at this point, because with the increase of different species in an area, both predatory and prey, as well as varying species of flora, comes the limitations of the carrying capacity of the land. In essence nature has complete control of the numbers of differing species, and has no need for the artificial intervention of mankind.

Additionally wild horse and burros have incisors on both the top and bottom of their jaws which have the effect of clipping off vegetation, allowing the roots to remain and regrow. This is opposed to cattle which have incisors only on the bottom of their jaws. The grazing action of cattle results in a wrapping of the tongue around vegetation and ripping it out by the roots. Couple this with the congregating grazing habits of cattle, especially in moister habitats, and vegetation is stripped in these same areas. This has been documented in multiple locations, including riparian areas where cattle have grazed out areas surrounding it, allowing erosion to take over. Additionally, the effects on these areas are deplorable considering the amount of defecation within the water sites themselves, which devoid these areas of any life.  Think carefully about these factors as opposed to the free roaming habits of wild equine, which briefly meet at water sites, and then move on.

These so-called motives, of the BLM, to strive to maintain a “thriving natural ecological balance” are based upon monetary gain, and the result of greed and pride, whether from the BLM, the ranching community, or from sport hunting individuals, who love their canned hunts. Many of the advocacy are tap dancing with the BLM trying to play a political game with them, a game which involves fertility drugs for these creatures, which is simply not going to work. The reasoning of the BLM and the motives of advocacy that promote fertility drugs is filled with unscientific holes, and political assertions, which are directly opposed to any concept of a thriving natural ecological balance, and there is nothing natural about it.

Every one of us have to ask ourselves as to why we are fighting for these beautiful yet vital equid restorers of balance and symbols of freedom. Are we truly trying to work ourselves out of a job and is it really to make sure that the wild horses are free, unmanaged, and untouched?  How much self-promotion is involved. All of us have to ask ourselves these questions. No doubt I will receive a lot of scathing accusations for this last statement, but think about the rest and peace in knowing that the wild horses are truly free to live their lives as nature has mandated. This should be reward enough. Yes, there are struggles within nature’s balance but herein is the harmony and beauty, that it has been determined by nature itself and not by a finite mind. The answer to ecological balance, therefore, in our western ranges doesn’t lie in experimentation, fertility, sterilizations, contraceptives, adjustment of ratios, or the institution of removals. The answer lies in the termination of all roundups and a release of the wild horses and burros, in holding facilities back into the areas from where they were taken. This is including those that have been rescued as well. They have to be allowed to return to nature, as it was in the beginning, and to have that chance again. Their homes are in the wild, and they simply must not lose their wild status. We can take a wild horse out of the wild, but you can never take the wild out of a wild horse. These aspects have to be seriously considered. They will find their way again if released.  All that is necessary for a “Thriving Natural Ecological Balance”, is to keep the restrictions off of nature, that have been implemented by mankind and allow her to control herself. The beauty of nature lies in the fact that it is allowed to regulate itself, untouched and unmanaged. Again, regardless of what seem to be struggles within nature, therein is the harmony that we as humans continue to neglect. Nature is a teacher. Are we listening?

I am asking the reader of this comment letter to consider what is being shared.

7 replies »

  1. Yes, love reading your comments. Wish we could use these comments to get through to the “powers that be” The gov. doesn’t really want to understand what is happening to OUR Wild Horses & Burros. Seems all anyone cares about is money! Wild Horses & Burros be damned! Just because someone [BLM] is put in charge of something doesn’t mean they’re doing a good job, care if they do a good job and exploiting their job for money at the expensive of OUR Wild Horses & Burros.
    I was one that followed the PZP fertility control, but as I further educate myself, I realize this is wrong! It does cause selective breeding etc. BLM thought this was the way to go and that is why they abstained from really doing it. Now they say it’s the best & we know why. There are few in Gov. that want to be bothered to find out what is really going on and just don’t care. There’s no doubt in my mind that a lot of people are getting paid a lot of money to let this happen!
    These same people think that they would get away treating these animals the way they do, and no one would really care, but they are so wrong. Americans do care! More people raising their voices are needed telling the gov. we want this to stop. These atrocities must stop. We are losing OUR Wild Ones and they need to be returned to THEIR lands! I don’t know if signing petitions and actually writing to as many congressmen as possible will help, but I guess it doesn’t hurt. Try to reach as many of them as we can, letting them know how we feel.
    Someone must be made to listen and act for these fabulous animals before they’re all gone!
    What is the strongest way to make our voices heard? Can we make any impact at all?

    Liked by 4 people

  2. As always,, Mr. Bauer tells it like it is AND like it should be. Sadly, as ikie69 states – those so-called “powers” just dont want to spend their valuable time which is being taken up by retaining their “power” & the financial benefits that come with it. There have been efforts made by some of our representatives to pass the SAFE Act etc plus other attempts to help our wild horses AND domestic ones. But it appears there just arent enough hours in the day!!!!!! It always seems that any species other than humans just dont matter, do they? Between the slaughter of wolves, buffalo, mountain lions & the elimination of OUR Wild Horses & Burros or pretty much any type of Wild animal that is felt to be inconvenient or in the way – I have to wonder if feeling of empathy or the process of actual thought has been bred out of human beings! Sure doesnt make me optimistic at all.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. On behalf of the wild horses and burros and their rightful habitats — Thank you very much, Robert, for sharing this very thoughtful and Nature-attuned essay! You expose so much that needs to be exposed and set the record straight on so many counts. One other aspect I would like to add concerns how the draconian roundups by BLM and USFS disrupt the mature social bands of the wild horses, and similarly with the social structures of the more territorial burros — and how this disrupts the natural social inhibition of reproduction by younger horses and burros, sub-mature ones. Thus these terrible and cruel roundups torture not only the individual horses and burros but their social unites themselves. And this is anything but harmonious and in tune with a “thriving natural ecological balance” as the WFHBA requires. It is also anything but “minimum feasible management” also a major tenet. Clearly it is high time for a major reform of the entire wild horse and burros program. The livestock need to be cut back as do other monopolizing interests within the legal herd areas (BLM-USDI) and territories (USFS-USDA). Something akin to the ROAM bill must be reintroduced but without the disastrous compromise of tinkering with the reproductive systems of the horses and burros — which is so antithetical to the true and core intent of the WFHBA and constitutes a dissonant form of domestication, replacing natural selection with human selection of who breeds and survives! Think about this, indeed — and let’s get going to turn things around this year for the wild horses and burros and their rightful land and freedom! We can do this! We must! The wonderful horses and burros are depending on us who still know their value and have a conscience and a will that is still alive and free!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The BLM’s multiple-use mission is to sustain the health and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. “It would be anomalous to infer that by authorizing the custodian of the wild free roaming horses and burros to “manage” them, Congress intended to permit the animals’ custodian to subvert the primary policy of the statute by harassing and killing and capturing and removing from the wild the very animals that Congress sought to protect from being killed and harassed and captured and removed from the wild.”
    In past years, everything that Biologist Robert Bauer has written has been “spot on”; educational, accurate, inspirational and based on true science and this is another excellent work by Mr. Bauer. Thank you very much.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Nature will fix itself if we humans would let it. Humans like to control and manipulate that which is around us. Horses are part of our history and culture and should be treasured and protected, some try but more often than not we fail. Why? Humans, people have deemed them a nuisance, a drain on the land. They “compete” with cattle for water and grass, so the cattle industry wants them gone. They are a “drain” on game resources so hunters lobby to have them removed. The books are stacked against them and more and more are removed from their homes. And the way they do it is cruel and heartbreaking. Should we remove the sick, old, injured in humane ways so the strong can survive? Or do we let nature take its course? We can read the stats and science, numbers can be manipulated to go one way and maybe not always the truthful way or put in a way to benefit one side over the other without taking certain things into consideration. Most people in the government could care less about the enviroment or our diminishing wildlife, or not care enough to put a stop to what keeps happening. Wild horses do not bring in Money, but yet how much is spent caring for those in holding pens? The wild horses also shouldnt be sent to slaughter but they are. So how do we get a complete overhaul on a system that has dropped the ball and go about doing things the right way which helps instead of damages that which should be protected? People for years have been trying to save and protect the horses and other wildlife but just seems anymore we are losing more ground then we gain.

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