New research reveals wild horses are ecosystem engineers
A new study indicates wild horses and burros know how to tap the earth for water.
According to a paper published April 29 in the journal Science, the animals use their hooves to dig more than six feet deep to reach groundwater for themselves. This activity creates oases that serve as a boon to wildlife—American badgers, black bears, and an array of birds, including some declining species such as elf owls, National Geographic reports.
“This behavior fits the definition of ecosystem engineering and underscores why the Bureau of Land Management should protect wild horses and leave them roaming free on federal public lands instead of treating them like pests, rounding them up and forcibly drugging them with fertility control,” said Jenni Best, assistant legal director of Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program.
The scientists found that a total of 57 species came to these equine-created wells to drink: raptors, such as red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks; smaller birds such as yellow warblers, hooded orioles, and scrub jays; large mammals such as mule deer, bighorn sheep, and badgers; and even Colorado river toads. They also found willows and cottonwoods germinating at some wells, suggesting these spots could serve as nurseries for these critical—and dwindling—desert trees.
“Vertebrate richness and activity were higher at equid wells than at adjacent drysites, and by mimicking flood disturbance, equid wells became nurseries for riparian trees,” the authors write. “Our results suggest that equids are able to buffer water availability, which may increase resilience to ongoing human-caused aridification.”
For decades, BLM’s entire analysis of America’s wild horse population has ignored scientific information about the positive impact of wild horses. Other studies have demonstrated that wild horses support healthy ecosystems on public land if given enough habitat and left alone. For example, wild horses help spread plant seeds over large areas where they roam. Wild horses do not decompose the vegetation they ingest as thoroughly as ruminant grazers, such as cattle or sheep, which allows the seeds of many plant species to pass through their digestive tract intact into the soil that the wild horses fertilize by their droppings. Wild horses also help to prevent catastrophic fires and help to build more moisture-retaining soils.
The meat industry, as well as oil, gas and mineral extraction projects, are fragmenting habitat for wild horses and other wildlife, damaging the environment and contributing to climate change. Today, upward of 2 million cattle graze public lands, not to mention sheep — compared to a measly 79,568 wild horses. BLM oversees 246.4 million acres of land, and it does not allow any wild horses on 219 million of those acres.
Rest assured, FoA is considering filing a rulemaking petition asking BLM to change its regulations regarding wild horses to ensure the integrity of the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Adjusting appropriate management levels, returning wild horses to Herd Areas that were originally designated for their use; requiring that BLM consider removing cattle and sheep before removing wild horses and mandating that the BLM provide notice and comment before every removal, are just a handful of things that the BLM could be doing to better protect wild horses. Depending on how BLM responds, we could work with the agency to craft new regulations or we could legally challenge their decision if they deny our petition with no reasonable explanation.
We are also assessing crafting an amendment to the WHBA that would need to be enacted by Congress.