They don’t shoot horses – or should they?

They don’t shoot horses – or should they?

Over the holiday weekend, we sent an email out about the Bureau of Land Management's policy on wild horses. Thousands of you have responded in shock and outrage to the news that BLM claims that each wild horse needs as much land as an 800 acre strip mine or cattle ranch. It's wildly untrue, but BLM uses this flimsy excuse to claim it doesn't have room for all of America's horses. So it sells them to shady vendors who make them disappear—often with grisly results.  

But a number of members also wrote back to us with a really good point: horses (at least what we think of as horses) are not a native species to the American west. They were brought here by settlers and their impact on the ecosystems of our rangeland are to some degree un-natural. So I'm posting some more of my own thoughts to keep the conversation going and see what others think.

First, nobody who emailed us advocated shooting domesticated horses in the head (as this over-zealous cowboy did) just to make a point. But they did point out that when dealing with tens of thousands of wild animals, and millions of acres of public rangeland, things can get a bit complicated. I can't put it any better than some of our members, so here's a few excerpts of what we heard:

The best thing for the environment, i.e., the health and balanced functioning of the ecosystem, is to remove ranching, mining, drilling AND FERAL HORSES from fragile, arid, western ecosystems. These horses are destroying the environment (just as surely as ranching or mining) for America's native plants and wildlife.
– Lee O.

How do you propose to deal with the problem of the horses which are removed from the range due to the damage they are causing to their habitat and the resulting detrimental effects to native wildlife?  There are too many – and growing – to adopt.  Warehousing them as now at terrific expense does not seem sensible.  
– Bill T.

[F]eral horses are an invasive species and should be completely removed from off the range so that native species have a chance.
– Loreli F

I'm a wildlife biologist living and working in Wyoming for the last several years. … Currently, there are more feral horses rounded up than can be adopted. A private feral horse refuge outside of my home in Laramie, is already at it's maximum. We must do something with the remaining number.  I am not willing to sacrifice native wildlife for the sake of a romanticized west that comes from a lack of understanding of what an overpopulation of this species can do to the landscape. If horses must be culled from the herds, using their meat would be more honorable than not.
– Anika M.

Our sincere thanks to everyone who sent in thoughtful, planet-first responses to the email, and sorry I don't have room to cite every idea or feedback I heard. Here's what I think:

There's no doubt that left completely un-managed, wild (or feral, if you prefer) horses can do real damage to the western rangeland. Which is, in theory, why the BLM's absurd 800-acres-per-horse rule exists in the first place. But the idea that we can remove horses, people and everything else non-native from Public lands is not as simple as we'd like to believe. This idea is sometimes called re-wilding – and Europe's been experimenting with it for a few years with decidedly mixed results (click here for the free summary on rewilding, but if you have the means to read back-issues of the New Yorker, this article is worth a read).

What makes the most sense to me, the thousands of members who signed the petition to the Department of Interior and those who wrote back seems to be to set a more sensible BLM management policy. Not to kill all horses as an invasive species with no place in America, nor to oversimplify their ecological impact in the name of our fantasy of the West as a land of cowboys, Indians and painted ponies. But if there's one thing I think we ALL agree it's that strip mines, fracking wells, oil drilling and other environmentally destructive practices have no place on lands the American public owns. Even commercial cattle ranching can be as destructive to the land as a bulldozer if not managed well. And since wild horses ARE on our lands already, part of the ecosystem now as much as chinaberry trees are in South Carolina where I live, the job of BLM and Interior Secretary Jewell should be to manage their interests to the greatest benefit of the planet and all species.

That's what our petition is about—so if you agree, I hope you'll sign on.

And if not— keep telling us what you think about ecological diversity and the role of wilderness in the American west. It's a big frontier out there, and there's room for a lot of opinions. You can share your ideas with us on Facebook, on Twitter, or any other way you please.

– Drew Hudson
Director, Environmental Action