Originally appeared in the Wyoming newspaper, The Rocket Miner.
This week Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning sold out wild horses when she talked to media after speaking at the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference in Wyoming where she touted the new BLM Dingell Act Priority Access List Portal. The portal highlights 712 parcels of public lands in 13 Western states that have been identified for access improvements.
Stone-Manning said the wild horse “problem” at times feels intractable, in part because she wrongly believes it’s a species who didn’t evolve with the landscape of the American West and therefore doesn’t have a natural predator.
It is unacceptable and embarrassing that Stone-Manning is ignoring science just like the BLM has always done. She has a lot to learn about wild horses.
Wild horses are a reintroduced native species. A 2021 study of ancient DNA from horse fossils in North America, where horses evolved, and Eurasia shows that horse populations on the two continents remained connected through the Bering Land Bridge, moving back and forth and interbreeding multiple times over hundreds of thousands of years. That demonstrates the genetic continuity between the horses that died out in North America and the horses who were eventually domesticated in Eurasia and later reintroduced to North American by Europeans.
“Horses persisted in North America for a long time, and they occupied an ecological niche here,” co-author Alisa Vershinina said. “They died out about 11,000 years ago, but that’s not much time in evolutionary terms. Present-day wild North American horses could be considered reintroduced, rather than invasive.”
BLM has never tried to understand the wild horse’s place in the Western ecosystem or its ancient relationship with its main predator, the mountain lion. BLM does nothing to help the predator-prey relationship thrive, even though it admits the Cerbat Mountain wild horse herd in Arizona has a relatively stable population because the high density of mountain lions there keeps the population from growing rapidly.
A 2012 University of Nevada study found that in several mountain ranges of the state, horses made up the majority of mountain lions’ diets. Some lion mothers who were collared and tracked feasted almost entirely on wild horses and taught their young to do the same. A 2021 study of mountain lion predation showed that 60 percent of the mountain lion diets in the Great Basin region of western Nevada were made up of wild horses of varying ages and that 10 of the 13 big cats tracked were predominantly choosing horses for kill.
Yet, while the BLM spends millions to limit horse herds, the Department of Agriculture spends millions to kill mountain lions and other wild horse predators like wolves and coyotes to protect livestock and big game. In 2021, its Wildlife Services branch killed 200 lions, 324 gray wolves and 64,131 coyotes. Not to mention hundreds of mountain lions killed by hunters for fun. Hunters in Colorado, for example, killed nearly 500 mountain lions last year alone.
It’s maddening that Stone-Manning continues to perpetuate the politic that favors ranchers and the myth that wild horses are overpopulated, that it’s necessary to “pull some horses off the landscape, or figure out very quickly long-term fertility control, because the populations double every four years.”
“That is untenable. It’s untenable for the horses, it’s untenable for the landscape, it’s untenable for wildlife,” she says.
What’s untenable is how BLM’s roundup decisions are being made based on unethical, unscientifically sound information about wild horses and range conditions. As called for in Friends of Animals’ recent petition to BLM, the agency must include the impact of cattle and sheep ranching on public land range assessments, and immediately reduce the number of cattle and sheep within wild horse herd management areas, followed by a phaseout of all livestock as grazing permits expire.
It is preposterous the government spends millions to remove wild horses from the only homes they’ve ever known at great expense and put them in dangerous holding prisons. Adding insult to injury, livestock companies get paid millions from the government to warehouse older wild horses, or animals who were offered for sale or adoption multiple times, in the long-term off-range pastures.
What BLM is doing is a national disgrace.
Priscilla Feral is president of Friends of Animals, an international animal advocacy group founded in 1957.