In its recent request to Congress for an additional $35 million for wild horse and burro eradication efforts, the Bureau of Land Management speciously claims it needs the funds to reduce the impacts of climate change and the growing threats of wildfires caused by wild horses.
“Excess wild horse and burro populations undermine the health of public rangelands, undoing years of BLM investments and making the public lands less resilient to other stressors such as climate change,” the BLM budget justification document says, as reported by E&E News. “Such degraded landscapes can also directly contribute to climate change, as they are more susceptible to wildfire occurrence and accompanying carbon release.”
Yes, you heard that right. Rather than point a finger at, say, one of the up to 7 million cows and sheep that are permitted to fart methane on public lands before being turned into even more global-warming meat, the federal agency deep in the pocket of the livestock industry wants to blame the climate crisis and wildfires on the 70,000 wild horses it hasn’t already rounded up.
The BLM’s blame game is nothing new, nor is its years-long refusal to actually study the true causes of wildfires in the American West or to recognize the positive impact wild horses have as eco-managers of the rangelands they’ve thrived on for centuries, much less to consider the major role that equids could play as four-legged firefighters capable of suppressing the threat of greater infernos to come.
Wild-horse advocate and author Craig C. Downer, who has done extensive field studies in support of Friends of Animals’ legal actions to protect wild horses, has long called for the BLM to research wild horses’ “elimination of dry flammable vegetation and their consequent prevention of catastrophic, excessively damaging fires, as well as how their droppings help build more moist and nutrient-rich, humus-containing soil, a soil with greater texture and absorptivity. Many of these positive contributions have been shamelessly ignored and, when brought up, denied by established interests,” says Downer.
Instead, the BLM takes a see-no-evil approach to scrutinizing the real perpetrators of the damage to U.S. rangelands: the livestock industry. A decade ago, the BLM conducted Rapid Ecoregional Assessments in each of the six main regions covering the vast sagebrush West in order to map ecological trends. A key task was choosing the “change agents” (such as fire or invasive species) which would be studied. Yet the BLM directed scientists to exclude livestock
grazing as a possible factor in changing landscapes “due to anxiety from ‘stakeholders,’ fear of litigation and, most perplexing of all, lack of available data on grazing impacts,” according to a scientific integrity complaint filed by the watchdog group PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility).
The cattle-cheatgrass connection
In its continuing quest to remove wild horses from their rightful and lawful place on the public lands of the arid American West at the behest of their cattlemen cronies, the BLM is literally clutching at straws. Specifically, dry, highly flammable cheatgrass, the invasive annual grass that has spread through much the 200 million-acre native sagebrush biome, the largest terrestrial ecosystem in North America.
The BLM says that to control cheatgrass, more cows are needed on impacted public lands. Wild horse advocates and other researchers counter that cattle are often the cause of the cheatgrass spread and resulting fires, and that wild horses are better solutions to the problems sparked by the growing cattle-cheatgrass infestation.
Cheatgrass is particularly pernicious in the Great Basin, which covers most of Nevada, half of Utah, and sections of Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and California, and is where the majority of wild horse herds live. The BLM manages 60 percent of the basin; over the past 20 years, 11 of the 50 largest wildfires in the U.S. have occurred there, reports bloomberglaw.com. “Science has already shown us that having cheatgrass doubles the risk of wildfire,” said Jeremy Maestas, a sagebrush ecosystem specialist with the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Portland, Ore.”
Where did all this cheatgrass come from? And how has it spread so far?
Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is a winter annual grass native to Europe, southwestern Asia, and northern Africa. It was first brought to the Western U.S. in the late 1800s to feed livestock in the winter. It’s less expensive than hay, hence “cheatgrass.”
What cheatgrass excels at is producing seeds, as many as 300 per plant, which can travel on the wind, attached to fur, or dropped in manure. The fast-growing plant has wide, shallow roots, which outcompete native plants for precious water. The seeds themselves can last for up to five years in the soil, waiting for the right conditions to germinate.
“These invaders are symptomatic of overgrazing – in healthy natural systems, these weeds are only able to achieve very low densities, because healthy native grasses are superior
competitors as adults,” reports Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. “But once livestock denude the land of its natural plant cover – which frequently happens during the droughts that are more typical in the West than years with abundant rainfall – invasive weeds are lurking, ready to fill the void.”
Other research has found that once cheatgrass takes over a native bunchgrass and sagebrush ecosystem, grazing cattle on the land only worsens the situation. “As they tromp around season after season, cattle crush the moss-like biological soil crust that protects bare soil. That means there’s more space available for cheatgrass to establish itself,” writes Emily Guerin in “The Cattle-Cheatgrass Connection” for High Country News.
The ideal ruminant to aid in rebuilding soils damaged by fires is, in fact, the wild horse.
Friends of Animals has waged a number of legal actions aimed at forcing the BLM to halt roundups of wild horses and in some cases require the agency to return them to the range. After the BLM rounded up 846 wild horses from the Warms Springs herd management area (HMA) in Oregon in late 2018 – essentially the entire population – FoA won a legal settlement in the U.S. District Court in Oregon in which the BLM committed to a process to put wild horses back on the range. “This settlement sets the right precedent for wild horses who have been unlawfully rounded up and gives them a chance to return to their homes and flourish in their own way,” said Michael Harris, director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. However, while the BLM said it would return 66 of the 846 wild horses captured, the agency only ended up returning 11 animals to the Warm Springs HMA.
Valuing wild horses as effective wildfire mitigators is accepted wisdom for those who share rangeland with them. “In northern Nevada, including the historic Virginia Range, families have long recognized wild horses to be effective reducers of flammable vegetation and fire,” says Downer. “The fire-reducing value of wild horses was one of the main reasons why, back in the 1950s, citizens of this county became our nation’s first government to pass a law protecting its wild horses in the wild.”
It’s time for Americans to demand that the BLM stop its corrupt campaign to depict wild horses as pests to be eradicated and instead treat them as an integral, keystone species of the American West – a ready-made fire brigade on the hoof that doesn’t degrade the land but protects it from drought, wildfire, even the climate crisis. And then, we may find out that wild horses really are the cavalry riding to our rescue.