Recently, The Sierra Nevada Ally hosted point-counterpoint pieces regarding SJR 3, a now deceased joint resolution before the Nevada Legislature, urging Congress to reduce wild horse and burro numbers in the state.
Dr. Jim Sedinger, long-time UNR professor, presented the view generally held by ranchers, sportsmen, the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners, and others who are in opposition to wild horses, or at least to current population numbers of the animals. One of his assertions was that wild horses and burros are damaging to wildlife.
Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist, and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project represented conservation interests. He suggested that wild horses and burros receive more scrutiny than domestic livestock which use public lands in far greater numbers.
Let’s take a closer look at three aspects of this issue.
Dr. Sedinger’s Sage-Grouse Reference
To leverage his argument in favor of SJR 3, Dr. Sedinger included a reference to sage-grouse which are widely known to be facing critical habitat concerns for their survival. Peter Coates, Ph.D., UNR graduate and prominent sage-grouse researcher (known for his studies of raven/sage-grouse nest depredation, not for wild horse impacts on the bird) was said to have told the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council that sage-grouse lek usage (important for breeding purposes) improved with fewer horses in the area.
While there may be circumstances where wild horse and burro densities around sage-grouse leks are problematic, wild horses and burros take a back seat to several larger threats such as livestock grazing, mining, cheatgrass, fires, energy exploration, loss of sagebrush habitat, and lower vegetation, conifer encroachment, climate change and more.
Dr. Sedinger did not mention that the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) sanctions an annual hunting season for sage-grouse. Hunters killed thousands of birds a decade or two ago. Current kill numbers (1500-2000 birds) are less than 10% of peak years in the 1970s. Sage-grouse production of chicks has been poor in recent years. Yet the hunt continues.
Hunters are told their kills are ‘compensatory’ …meaning each bird killed by a hunter leaves conditions on the ground a bit better for remaining birds…leading to better survival, increased fertility…and…presto… more birds! Yet, according to those same authorities, horses hanging around a lek, or a raven taking an egg from a sage-grouse nest, means disaster.
The other possibility is that hunter-caused mortality is ‘additive’, further reducing sage-grouse numbers. Why should a raven taking an egg from a nest create a bigger impact on the bird than a hunter killing a perfectly healthy hen, capable of laying eggs for years to come?
Do Wild Horses and Burros Damage Wildlife?
When Dr. Sedinger and others: sportsmen, NBWC, the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), ranchers and sportsmen’s advocacy groups use the term, ‘wildlife’, they are almost certainly (even exclusively sometimes) referring to four species: mule deer, elk, pronghorn (antelope) and bighorn sheep.
These are the Big Four ungulates (hooved animals) … the species that form the backbone of wildlife management in Nevada…. the species that consume hours upon hours of deliberation at NBWC meetings. Their economic importance to NDOW cannot be overlooked…license and tag sales make up a decent percentage of NDOW’s annual budget of about $53 million.
When making his claim that wild horses and burros harmed wildlife, Dr. Sedinger certainly had the ‘Big Four’ in mind. Here’s what he didn’t tell you about their status:
- Pronghorn and bighorn sheep numbers are at historic high levels. Elk numbers are slightly below due to NDOW’s decision to reduce elk numbers because of depredation complaints (eating from haystacks).
- Mule deer numbers are well below historic high levels in Nevada (and around the West) due to habitat and climate conditions. No one is postulating that wild horses and burros are the cause. Mule deer are browsers (bitterbrush being a favorite shrub); wild horses and burros are grazers, consuming grasses, and other vegetation not used by deer.
- Mule deer and elk were essentially absent from Nevada in the early days when explorers and early travelers came through the state.
Other wildlife species pursued and killed by sportsmen: upland game birds (chukar, quail, doves), furbearers (coyotes, bobcats, muskrats, beaver, foxes), waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans), crows, rabbit, and more, are free from any claims of adverse impact by wild horses and burros.
The above image by William E. Simpson II is showcased in his 2017 article in Horsetalk – Evolution of wild horses and cattle and the effect on range damage.
Bigger Is Not Better
Why are the following facts not more widely appreciated?
- Range cattle can weigh 1000 – 1300 lbs. and more; wild horses are generally in the 700 – 1000 lbs. range (with occasional exceptions). On average, cows are noticeably larger and heavier than wild horses.
- The hoof design of the two animals is dramatically different. Horses have a flat, round-oval pancake-shaped hoof; cows have a bifurcated V-shaped hoof with the two tips facing downward.
- The combination of heavier weight and V-shaped hooves of cattle produces far more damage to fragile ground cover between sagebrush plants, moist meadows, unfenced spring heads, stream banks, and other susceptible surfaces than does the more benign hoof structure of wild horses and burros. Any casual observer, even if naïve to this issue, can easily make that simple observation.
Perhaps it comes down to this:
- Public lands need protection and management. All user groups…. human and non-human species alike…contribute to management needs.
- Wild horses and burros have a legal right to exist on public lands in the West. It is their only home.
- Over 95% of all domestic livestock in this country live on private property. Public lands in the West host approximately 3.5% of all the cattle in the U.S. Nevada’s contribution to the nation’s cattle census (about 100 million cows) is, at most, 0.5%.
Is it difficult to see where management efforts to preserve and protect public lands in the West should be directed?
Don Molde is a 50-year Reno resident, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former board member of Defenders of Wildlife, and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in wildlife advocacy for 45 years.
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence.