A funny thing happened at a presentation the other day. A retired professor started off talking about how to repair damaged riparian (streamside) areas on public land around Nevada. The presentation was instructive, and supported by scientific data, photos, and the like.
Then, the topic shifted to wild horses and became (to put it in charitable terms) ‘creative’.
When someone advocates for a large-scale reduction of wild horse and burro numbers in Nevada, as did the professor, it can be a challenge to pull it off. Public support for wild horses and burros is widespread among the public.
The best circumstance for such a presentation is to have a naïve audience, most of whom won’t know what is not being addressed or being ‘creatively’ repurposed. Should the presenter have academic credentials, that may well add some ‘mustard’ to the effort. Such was the case here.
The professor’s PowerPoint presentation faithfully reflected a 16-page color brochure created by the Coalition for Healthy Nevada Lands, Wildlife and Free-Roaming Horses and distributed at the presentation.
This coalition, formed in the last 2-3 years, is dedicated to achieving a major reduction in wild horse and burro numbers in Nevada, perhaps pushing them back to 1971 levels when the Wild and Free-Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was enacted by Congress by unanimous vote.
The Professor’s Problem
To make the most compelling case against wild horses, it must be asserted to the audience that wildlife is being harmed. Wildlife becomes the ‘victim’, wild horses are the villains.
Simply claiming that wild horses are damaging the landscape, just by living on it, is not persuasive, since public lands in the West have a long history of overgrazing by domestic livestock with well-known adverse impacts.
Usually, such presentations (and there are many) are devoid of any data showing direct impacts on wildlife, relying instead on quoting horse numbers, the cost of gathers, and espousing the simple notion that wildlife is, in some manner, being harmed.
The Creative Part
When the professor used the term, ‘wildlife’ in his presentation, he was referring to mule deer, elk, pronghorn (antelope), and bighorn sheep. Collectively, these big game species are known as ungulates, perhaps simply termed ‘the big four’.
Ungulates are what hunting season is all about in Nevada for many licensees. The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) depends on revenue from license and tag sales to support its budget. Because of the importance of those four species to the department’s revenue stream, NDOW keeps close track of population numbers.
Consider the following slide from the presentation:
Note the wording above and below the slide. Figure 30. appears to suggest (or infer) that wild horses and burros have an unfair weight advantage (almost 3 times) over ungulates while leaving readers to ponder what ‘biomass’ has to do with it.
The professor’s ‘creative’ wrinkle: use the term ‘biomass’.
What is ‘biomass’?
A simple definition of biomass is renewable organic material produced in a certain location. For example, ‘biomass’ of the planet’s ant species might be compared to ‘biomass’ of the planet’s mammalian species. Biomass is a term often used for big comparisons.
Do the management agencies, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and (NDOW), use ‘biomass’ as an important measure in managing wild horses and ungulates?
The professor had a reason for his ‘creativity’. The numbers are not on his side.
NDOW creates an annual estimate of individuals for the four ungulate species; the BLM lists wild horse and burro populations by the number of individuals. Neither agency uses weight.
That ungulates outnumber wild horses 3:1 is not the whole story.
Let’s Talk Ungulates
Three of the four species, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn are at or near historic (modern times) high population levels. (Moose and mountain goat numbers are small and can be disregarded for this discussion.)
Elk numbers have been deliberately reduced by NDOW in the past several years due to depredation complaints and other concerns. Elk were introduced into Nevada several decades ago.
Bighorn numbers are higher in Nevada than anywhere except for Alaska. NDOW biologists have suggested bighorn numbers are near maximum due to a lack of suitable locations for additional animals because of potential conflicts with domestic sheep. (Bighorns suffer disease transmission from domestic sheep,)
Pronghorns were abundant in Nevada in the late 1800s when explorers and settlers came through. Their numbers now are at historic high levels in modern times.
Mule deer are not doing well in Nevada compared to the 1960s and 1980s. Mule deer were scarce in Nevada during the late 1800s. They were brought to eastern Nevada in the early 1900s by railroad car, turned loose in the mountains to serve as meat for mining camps. Deer hunting followed.
While mule deer numbers have declined from about 135,000 at the turn of this century to about 85,000 now, habitat changes and climate change are among other critical factors identified by NDOW as reasons for decline. Deer are browsers, horses are grazers. They eat different things and live in different places.
The Elephant in the Room
What you won’t hear at presentations arguing for wild horse reductions is much about domestic livestock grazing on public lands.
While photographs of public lands in Nevada from 100 years ago show decimated landscapes resembling the Moon’s surface, a change of ethics and enactment of federal law has resulted in public lands in the West being in better condition now.
Despite that improvement, how can we talk about today’s public land issues while leaving out the biggest user of public lands: domestic livestock grazing? Obviously, we can’t.
Current Domestic Livestock Numbers on Nevada Public Lands
According to National Agricultural Statistics Service data, Nevada has about 60,000 domestic sheep, many using public lands.
Using Nevada BLM statistics regarding forage allocation for domestic livestock in Nevada, American Wild Horse Campaign has calculated that 2 million Animal Unit Months (AUM) allocated for domestic livestock use amounts to about 167,000 cow/calf pairs on an annual basis, or about 334,000 individual animals.
(An AUM is the amount of forage on public lands necessary to sustain one cow and calf, or five sheep or goats for a month.)
The Professor’s Biomass Argument Revisited.
Here is a better look at ‘biomass’ on Nevada’s public lands:
Wild Horse Numbers vs Ungulates and Domestic Livestock
What To Make of It?
We could mention that wild horses and burros are outnumbered about 12:1 with respect to ungulates and domestic livestock on Nevada’s public lands.
We could talk about virtues and challenges of ‘creative’ presentations in front of naïve audiences, ‘cherry picking’ or shaping the narrative in such a way to be persuasive.
But it is, still, the same old story.
Wild horses and burros are in the middle of a conflict that continues well beyond the passage of the 1971 Act.
When the Wild and Free-Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act came into existence in 1971, it did at least two things: it provided legal protection for the animals and implied something about having those animals on the landscape.
The law did not alleviate the decades-old conflict between livestock producers and wild horses. It simply folded that issue into BLM’s improbable mandate to manage public lands for ‘multiple use.’ Livestock producers did well in the negotiations.
Slide courtesy of the American Wild Horse Campaign
Now, we have additional elements affecting public lands in the West that were not present in 1971 when the Act was passed, persistent drought and climate change being two large examples.
If we want to protect and improve public lands in the West in the face of significant environmental challenges, do we go after the smallest, most insignificant users first, wild horses, which must live on public lands as their only home?
Or do we first look elsewhere?
Don Molde is a 50-year Reno resident, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former board member of Defenders of Wildlife, and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in wildlife advocacy for 45 years. Support Don’s work here.
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