When we read about wild horses and burros in the American West often somewhere in the text is the phrase “wild horse problem.” When we read about ranching, BLM management, mining, urban encroachment that phrase “wild horse problem” crops up.
In 1998 the film “The Horse Whisperer“ was released. Robert Redford portrayed Tom Booker, a horse “whisperer,” hired to help a traumatized horse after a severe collision with a logging truck. The persona of Booker was based on Buck Brannaman.
There is an interaction in the movie between the woman that hires Booker and Booker (this quote is also attributed to Brannaman in multiple forms.
Annie: I’ve heard you help people with horse problems.
Tom Booker: Truth is, I help horses with people problems.
At Wild Horse Education we often get questions about “what we do.” Recently our founder Laura Leigh was interviewed about the “wild horse problem.” During the interview this interaction popped into her head from the film.
“There is no wild horse problem,” said Leigh, “WHE is helping wild horses with people problems.”
Wild horses exist on public land that is mandated to be managed in a multiple use fashion. Decades of prioritized use by those making a profit off public land has created western landscapes severely impacted by those uses. As competition increases for those resources, wild horses present a “problem.”
For the last 40 years under an Act of Congress designed to protect wild horses we have not seen much of an attempt to protect the resources required to sustain wild horses. Instead what we have witnessed is a stockpiling of wild horses in captivity as resources are utilized by profit making entities.
In addition perspective gets lost as “the wild horse problem” is blamed for every ill that exists on public land. Wild horses exist on about 11% of public land. If wild horses were responsible for wide spread degradation of the rangeland, we would only see it in areas where wild horses exist.
The most damaging use of public land grazing is the livestock industry that provides less than 4% of the beef produced in the US. More than 2/3 of public land is open to livestock grazing. This use impacts every other surface use from wolves, wild horses, buffalo, sage grouse. This wide spread, long term, use of public land is not called “the cow problem,” (although perhaps it should be?)
Wild horses, because of the way people “manage” public land, exist in a realm of artificial boundary lines, population levels set by people, forage allocation set by people, crowded holding facilities created by people. We do not have a wild horse problem, we have a people problem.
At the core of the “people problem” is a system that never saw management under the intention of the law. No component of data required to include wild horses into any conversation based on a “this is what is” and “here is how it fits” conversation took place. Instead we simply transferred the very practice of “mustanging” into government hands where “removal” was the only tool utilized in any broad fashion. Instead of “grinding ’em up for fertilizer” we put them in holding pens. Any baseline for “management” was based primarily on “guesswork.”
In order for wild horses to exist in a sustainable fashion data must be gathered based on the intention of law for their preservation. “Wild and Integral,” terms used in the Act to protect them, data on how they use the range must be obtained. “The land where they now stand” must be understood and protected. “The living symbol of the pioneer spirit of the West” must take into account that wild horses are distinct in that each herd does not simply speak to the evolution of the wild environment, but to the unique history of the human environment in it’s genetic code.
Wild Horse Education (WHE) has been very busy attempting to create the tools required to obtain the needed information to preserve wild horse herds on a site specific basis. Site specific because of the intention of law and the reality of the range. Broad brush portrayals will continue flawed practices. The historic practices and realities of each range will determine every variable used to create “appropriate management.” As an example a recent study by the University of Wyoming geared toward creating a “cow vs horse” example of forage consumption through fecal analysis is data that could be useful. However the data gathered can only be considered in a larger picture of the ratio of feed to the specific range that the data was obtained from, not in a broad brush overview. It would also then need to be compared to the actual number of cows and horses consuming forage on each range to create any picture. Data like this could be easily misrepresented to scapegoat wild horses once again if perspective and complete data is not represented.
(In addition we have been very active in other aspects of the intention of law like “humane handling,” that is used no less than seven times in the Act, and transparency in government actions).
The conversation among people is elevating as competition for resource is increasing. Protection of threatened species like the Greater Sage Grouse (present in about 70% of ranges in the American West managed for multiple use) is creating pressure to elevate all management practices into an area supported by sound data.
In the Wild Horse and Burro program data is severely lacking. The 10% of public land occupied by this use will be under the same data scrutiny as all others. If people fail to gather the data on wild horses needed to participate in this conversation, wild horses will pay the price as management practices will be based on data presented by people representing competitive interests.
As people involved in advocacy we must increase our efforts to engage the conversation with other uses based on data. We must gather that data, engage land use plans, engage the law. This must be accomplished in an increasingly competitive field. Not continue to engage the same theories of the past, but present hard data.
So when you ask us what we are doing to address the “wild horse problem,” the answer is simple:
We are not addressing the wild horse problem, we are helping wild horses address their people problems.
Important links of interest: