There are 100,000 wild horses and burros on land managed by the U. S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service in the western U.S.; about half (50,000) of these are in Nevada. These numbers are 4 times the Appropriate Management Level (AML) for sustaining horses, ecosystems and other land uses in Nevada and West wide. Horse numbers increase at 15-20 percent per year so we add 15,000 – 20,000 new horses and burros every year. BLM has only removed more than 15,000 horses once since the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed by Congress (unanimously in the Senate) in 1971.
We are rapidly approaching a catastrophic future in which even with large increases in its budget, BLM will be unable to remove enough horses to keep populations from increasing, resulting in an ecological catastrophe on western rangelands. We already see the consequences of overpopulation of horses, with BLM having to perform emergency gathers in Nevada because horses are starving and lack water on some Horse Management Areas. SJR 3 is intended to spur the urgent action needed to bring horse and burro numbers down to levels consistent with the ecological balance intended when the Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed 50 years ago.
Impacts of horses and burros on wildlife with whom they share our wildlands are not generally seen by the public. The average citizen does not see the wild animals that die or remain unborn because of degraded rangelands. Numerous studies demonstrate the effects of horses on vegetation, especially riparian areas, essential to healthy wildlife populations. Ongoing work at the University of Nevada Reno shows that excess horses negatively affect vegetation important to sage-grouse and the survival of sage-grouse chicks. Dr. Peter Coates of the U.S. Geological Survey showed the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council that sage-grouse populations are stable or increasing when horse numbers are at or below AML but decline when horses are above AML.
Horses also negatively affect wildlife by preventing access to water and associated riparian vegetation. Social dominance by horses is well documented and widespread, negatively impacting mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and numerous smaller wildlife species. Impacts of overabundant horses on native wildlife and the horses themselves are likely to become worse in the warmer and drier climate projected for the West.
SJR 3 calls for (1) support for BLM’s plan to use a combination of gathers and birth control to bring numbers of horses and burros down to AML; and (2) support for sufficient funding to expedite BLM’s original plan so AML can be achieved in a decade or less. A significant proportion (50%) of new funds are needed in Nevada.
SJR 3 was originally conceived by the Coalition for Healthy Nevada Lands, Wildlife, and Free-Roaming Horses (CHNLWFRH), committed conservationists that include a former Director and current biologist from the Nevada Department of Wildlife, a former commissioner from the Nevada Wildlife Commission, board members from the Nevada Wildlife Coalition, two retired natural resources professors from the University of Nevada Reno, and local citizens concerned about environmental issues. This group presented a draft of what is now SJR 3 to the Interim Public Lands Committee of the Nevada Legislature in September 2020 and the Committee unanimously supported the resolution.
Because of the urgent need to bring horse populations down to appropriate levels, SJR 3 has the support of a broad coalition including the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, the Nevada Wildlife Commission, the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council, Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, the Nevada Farm Bureau, Nevada Association of Counties, and virtually all major sportsmen’s groups, including the Coalition for Nevada’s Wildlife, Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Back Country Hunters and Anglers, and, Trout Unlimited. Members of some advocacy groups believe that SJR 3 is primarily intended to benefit livestock producers. In fact, SJR 3 was drafted to benefit Nevada’s wildlands and wildlife, as evidenced by the broad base of support.
The CHNLWFRH explicitly acknowledges that there are serious and widespread problems with the management of livestock grazing in the Great Basin. We have chosen to focus on proper management of wild horses and burros because horse and burro numbers are four times AML and are continuing to dramatically increase, rapidly approaching a crisis. It is important to remember that wild horses were introduced by humans and, while we enjoy them as much as anyone, their numbers are to be regulated under the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
Additionally, while livestock can be poorly managed, there are principles that can be used to reduce the negative impacts of livestock on rangelands. We don’t believe merely removing livestock from rangelands is a reasonable solution for a multitude of reasons. Most importantly, maintenance of water on our rangelands is largely tied to private landowners, many of whom are ranchers.
Without careful policy we fear much of this water will be withdrawn to support urban development to the detriment of the land, wildlife, and horses. Improving grazing practices is important but that does not diminish the importance of bringing horse numbers down to appropriate levels.
Finally, livestock numbers are not increasing exponentially, and are not at risk of becoming unmanageable, as is the case with horses. In fact numbers of livestock on western rangelands have actually declined. We will be able to apply the same tools three years from now as we could today. Focusing on problems with livestock grazing by advocacy groups represents a false dichotomy. The fact that there is a problem with livestock does not mean we should not try to solve the problem with overabundant horses.
Numerous experts have realized that fertility control, by itself, cannot reduce overabundant horses. We applaud the fact that volunteers have been able to apply birth control to most of the breeding-age mares in the Virginia and Pine Nut Ranges near Reno and Carson City, and they are to be commended for these efforts. The organizations involved, however, have not yet demonstrated they can maintain this effort going forward and it is still uncertain whether they have been successful at reversing population growth.
Extending this approach used in the Virginia Range to the millions of acres of remote rangelands containing tens of thousands of shy horses needing treatment has given pause to professionals contemplating birth control as a solution. Groups as disparate as the Humane Society of the United States, The Association for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals and the Cattlemen’s Association have agreed on an approach, the Path Forward, that relies heavily on gathers alongside fertility control. We note that even in this plan, gathering will be required for administering birth control because the remoteness of the areas and the behavior of the horses will preclude widespread use of the darting methods used with tame animals on the urban interface.
Dr. Robert Garrott, a principal population ecologist on the 2013 National Research Council Committee that used science to evaluate and recommend improvements for BLM’s management of wild horses, came to a similar conclusion and published an important paper in 2018 calling for the removal of horses to achieve AML. Because birth control must be applied to each mare about every other year it will necessitate capturing horses repeatedly. Many experts believe this will be difficult to impossible and certainly is more stressful to the horses.
We believe our recommendation to capture horses once and move them to off-range holding pastures, until numbers are at AML, is the most humane. This approach minimizes handling of horses and it improves food and water for the horses remaining on and off the range. Once horses are at AML we believe the use of BIRTH CONTROL AND AN ADOPTION PROGRAM ARE CRITICAL COMPONENTS OF ONGOING MANAGEMENT which will minimize the number of horses that need to be gathered and ensure that horses removed from the range can be adopted.
It is important to recognize that even at AML, tens of thousands of horses will remain on our western rangelands (12,000 in Nevada) for everyone to enjoy, but these horses will be healthy, in contrast to many of today’s horses. Native wildlife will also experience significant benefits from this action. We understand there are concerns about gathering the number of horses needed to achieve ecological balance. The alternative, however, is an ecological catastrophe for both wildlife and the horses themselves. We cannot ignore this reality.
Dr. Jim Sedinger is the Foundation Professor Emeritus of Wildlife Ecology, the University of Nevada Reno, with 37 years of experience studying populations of wild birds, including 18 years studying sage-grouse in Nevada.
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