The Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition Supports the Free Roaming Equids and Ecosystem Sustainability Network

Wild horses in northern Nevada - photo: BLM

Opinion

After consultation with its board members, the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition has decided to support the Free Roaming Equids and Ecosystem Sustainability Network (FREES) through support for its various working groups. 

According to the FREES website, as of March 1, 2020, the BLM estimated that there were “95, 114 free-roaming equids in BLM administered Herd Management Areas HMA. This is more than three times the ecological balance.”

These statistics do not cover the excess free roaming equids on State or tribal lands which have become a problem in several western states and due to their proximity to federally managed lands could exacerbate the problems on federal lands with minor migrations from state or tribal lands onto federal.  The website notes that “not every HWA is affected adversely, but where there is an overabundance of free-roaming equids, they impact the overall health of the U.S. western public rangelands by degrading ecosystem functions and reducing the forage and water available for domestic and native wildlife species.”

In addition to the ecological impacts of excess free roaming equids, there are also significant economic impacts to rural communities dependent upon healthy rangelands and the multiple use doctrine on federally managed lands.  Nationally, the economic costs are rising with the burgeoning operating cost of the wild horse and burro program plus the cost of reclamation, weed control and other operational impacts resulting from ecological decline of rangelands.  FREES seeks a common ground to achieve “healthy herds on healthy rangelands,” and the working groups include population management, rangeland conditions and habitat and outreach and communication groups.

I have, I think, a unique perspective on wild horses.  As part of Miami University’s Masters’ degree in zoology, I traveled to Mongolia to assist researchers with fieldwork on the Pallas Cat and Takhi or Mongolian Wild Horse.  It is considered the only remaining extant, non-domesticated wild horse, although a recent DNA study suggests it may descend from domesticated horses.

The environmental conditions of the Mongolian Steppe are much different from the much drier conditions in the sagebrush sea and the steppes with their extensive grasslands that support healthy populations of not only Takhi but also the livestock of the Mongolian families still living a nomadic existence in their characteristic sheep wool yurts, moving freely through pasture lands without a fence in sight and communally managed.

The Takhi went through a genetic bottleneck, with living wild horses descended from a tiny group of 28 captured foals were brought to Europe in 1902 with a small number of additional animals held in zoos and game parks.  The last wild population of Takhi was seen in Mongolia in the 1960s, then disappeared. Specialized reserves were set up in Europe for the species including Chernobyl in Ukraine, the site of the nuclear powerplant meltdown.

Takhi have been reintroduced on the steppes of Mongolia, China and Russia.  Unlike the feral horses on the Western US range, which breed rapidly, as of 2011 there are 400 Takhi back in the wild in three free-ranging populations. Assisted reproduction and cloning has been used to help boost the Takhi population, much different than the birth control measures used in the U.S. to try and keep wild horse populations down.  Experience has shown that introduced species can quickly dominate a particular ecosystem and impact the native species. 

In the case of the Takhi, I witnessed park rangers in the Hustai National Park on motorcycles running interference between the Takhi and stallions of domestic herds who try to breed with the Takhi and either diminish or boost their gene pool depending on how you look at it.  Hopefully, in the case of the wild horses of the Western U.S., a way forward will be found as the FREES website indicates to achieve healthy herds on healthy rangelands. 


Eric Horstman was born and raised in the historic town of Weaverville, California.  After living and working in the country of Ecuador for 27 years, he now finds himself in Ely, Nevada working as Executive Director of the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition.


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