The Focus on Wild Horses Distracts From the Massive Damage Caused by the Livestock Industry

Wild horse herd, Red Desert, BLM lands, Wyoming. Photo: Erik Molvar.

The Washington Post Magazine recently ran a misleading story on wild horses, focusing attention on anti-federalist ranchers in Nevada and the big money behind them. By failing to look beyond the superficial personality conflicts, and missing the real and important public lands issues, this article does its readers a disservice.

In the article, the writer characterizes the wild horse issue as an “emotional battle,” and correctly observes, “Many ranchers see the mustangs as an overpopulated invasive species that competes for the public land their livestock grazes.”

However, the reality is that wild horses are only bit players in a very real, West-wide ecological battle in which the livestock industry is the principle antagonist. Domestic cattle and sheep (not horses) are the most significant overpopulated invasive species, competing for the public land that our wildlife – elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep – need to survive.

Pancake Herd, BLM lands, Nevada. Photo: Erik Molvar.

The scope of livestock destruction on western public land dwarfs the impact of wild horses. Wild horses are completely absent on almost 90% of western public lands, and on that small subset where they roam, free-ranging equids pose a measurable impact only in places where aggressive federal roundups aren’t already holding their populations at low levels. In the 1700s, there were an estimated two to seven million wild horses in North America, and native wildlife were abundant. Since the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 1971, many herds have been entirely eliminated. Meanwhile, domestic livestock are found almost everywhere on federal public lands and are authorized to graze at densities that create long-term ecological destruction, with minimal oversight and management.

In fact, the livestock industry in the West plays a pivotal role in the two great environmental issues of our time: climate change and the biodiversity crisis. With their wholesale destruction of native grasses, cattle and domestic sheep today are converting native ecosystems to cheatgrass wastelands at a rate that hasn’t been seen since the Dust Bowl. Cheatgrass burns with unnatural frequency, eliminating sagebrush and other deep-rooted plants. An annual weed, it dies each year, surrendering its carbon and bankrupting the soil of its carbon stores. If left undisturbed, high deserts provide carbon sequestration that scientific studies have found to immobilize more carbon even than forests. Thus, the cattle grazing on western public lands are exacerbating the climate crisis. Public lands ranching also decimates native wildlife, degrading wildlife habitats and targeting native species from wolves to prairie dogs to beavers for elimination. The role of wild horses in all this has never been found to be anything other than negligible on either of these fronts.

The article also neglects to mention that Kevin Borba – one of the two livestock industry spokespeople featured in its story – is damaging the public lands where he runs his livestock. His Fish Creek Ranch grazing allotment covers almost 300,000 acres of leased public lands, lands that are failing the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) basic rangeland health standards. According to the BLM, the cause of the land health problem is cattle, not horses. Borba has a history of involvement with anti-public-land insurrections, including the 2014 “Grass March,” where anti-government ranchers drove across the country with horse trailers, ceremonially riding their horses through the towns along the way to protest federal management of livestock grazing on public lands.

Pancake Herd, BLM lands, Nevada. Photo: Erik Molvar.

Similarly, the article fails to identify the other livestock industry spokesman, David Duquette, as a supporter of the Hammonds, notorious ranchers and convicted arsonists who had set fire to Oregon’s public lands in order to create more grass for their cows. It was the Hammonds’ imprisonment that touched off the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2015 by Cliven Bundy’s sons and their ragtag gang of domestic terrorists. These spokespeople aren’t outliers, they are just some of the more prominent voices in a movement that seeks to give control of public lands and resources to profit-driven interest groups.

Wild horses can absolutely damage the vegetation, as can any large herbivore, but this is rarely the case. In Wyoming, for example, the BLM is currently in a planning process to zero out three major wild horse Herd Management Areas in the fabled Red Desert, an area currently home to 2,065 wild horses, according to BLM estimates. The agency’s own analysis shows that all of these Herd Management Areas are able to maintain a “thriving natural ecological balance” under current management, without the massive reductions or elimination of wild horses proposed in the proposed plan.

The Washington Post article glosses over a deep and complicated controversy over land management in northeastern Nevada, in which a Bureau of Land Management field manager was targeted for bullying, not just by the livestock industry but by his own State Director, for trying to address chronic violations of domestic livestock leases on federal lands. These types of violations have been repeated over and over again throughout the West, and are symptomatic of systematic (and too often officially authorized) overgrazing of public lands by cattle and sheep that are the real problem here. A more penetrating article on the subject – featuring the same cast of characters – was written several years ago by a more thorough and insightful journalist. It’s too bad that the Washington Post couldn’t offer its readers an article living up to this higher standard of journalism.

By parroting the fake-news hysteria of the livestock industry, the Washington Post has given a nationwide megaphone to half-baked myths about wild horses first voiced by William Perry Pendley, the illegitimate and now-discredited interim director of the Bureau. This narrative distracts public attention from the very real and major ecological problems posed by domestic livestock. In doing so, it helps the livestock industry escape accountability for business practices that have long been abusive and destructive to America’s public lands.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.

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