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Imagine walking through a trail alongside the golden grasses of an open prairie in the Western United States when all of the sudden you are stopped frozen by the sound of a thunderous noise of hooves approaching from a distance. As you listen closely, you hear whinnying and soon, the herd is within your sight. With their power, grace, and majesty, horses can aesthetically make any landscape appear beautiful.

But horses also have a much greater purpose, as they help to physically maintain and benefit the health of prairie ecosystems. Millions of horses once roamed free in the Wild West. Unfortunately, by the time the first federal wild free-roaming horse protection law was enacted in 1959, the mustang population had already been drastically reduced. This law only prohibited hunting horses with the help of motor vehicles.

While the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is now the primary authority that manages wild horse populations. However, the BLM favors cattle interests over that of the wild horse which has lead to the steady decline of the wild horse population. Wild horses play a crucial role in keeping the ecosystem of the west balanced.

Managing Horse Populations to Benefit Cattle

In certain locations, natural horse predators, such as wolves, are now scarce and as a result, the BLM is “concerned” with regulating horse populations to avoid competition with land for domestic cattle. To manage the horses, the bureau issues roundups of wild horses to transfer them to a captive lifestyle. Their methods are often considered inhumane. For example, in 2014, the BLM poorly planned a roundup of approximately 800 horses from private and public lands. Ten died in the process, including four foals and the horses all experienced immense stress and discomfort (not to mention they lost one of the most valued ideals of America – freedom). Approximately 270,000 horses have been removed from U.S. land since 1971.

Furthermore, supply has exceeded demand for selling captured horses for an adoption fee of $125 and most horses end up at auction where they can be purchased for any use the buyer the wishes … sadly most of the time this means they are sold to slaughter for meat.

In order to validate their actions, the BLM has claimed that horses are overpopulating, while destroying critical habitat. Where is this evidence? Nobody knows … We do, however, have ecological evidence of how horses benefit their environment.

Horses Versus Cattle: Benefits of Horses for the Environment

While the BLM is concerned with avoiding grazing competition between wild horses and domestic cattle, there seems to be lack of attention toward addressing the impacts cattle are having on the environment. The ratio of cattle to wild horses on public lands is fifty to one. Wild horses are critical architects of the western ecosystem, so rather than wasting tax dollars funding roundups, if the BLM is really concerned with protecting public lands they should instead focus on protecting horses.

To illustrate the benefits of the presence of the wild horse, let’s look at comparison to how horses affect their ecosystem versus cattle.

1. Maintaining Grass 

While cattle do not have upper teeth and use their tongues to wrap around grass to pull it from the roots, horses only graze the tops of grass blades, allowing grasses to regrow in a healthier state.

2. Improving Soil Quality

Unlike cattle, horses are not ruminants and therefore, do not have four sections of their stomach. This means that their waste contains more nutrients. When horses defecate, they give back to the land through enhancing soil quality. Cattle operations often cause water pollution due to waste containing hormones, antibiotics, heavy metals, ammonia, and pathogens. Many animals depend on horse manure to help maintain soil moisture to prevent brush fires.

3. Use of Water Resources

While cattle enjoy chilling out by water sources, horses are respectful of their ecosystem. Instead of causing erosion and scaring away species diversity (like cattle do), horses tend to drink and move on, leaving minimal impact on stream habitats.

4. Grazing Habits

Since horses are travelers and cattle prefer to just hang out, horses do not exhaust grazing areas like cattle do. Horses are also picky about what they eat and avoid consuming pretty flowers, allowing wild flowers to survive. If a horse consumes seeds, they can still germinate after being passed and thus, horses act as important sources of dispersal for plant species.

5. Lending a Hand to Other Species

In cold climates, many animals will follow the path of horses in order to find access to food and water. The powerful hooves of a horse have the ability to break through ice, making streams once again potable for other animals. Furthermore, horses can make their way to grasses through deep snow, allowing other animals to also graze where horses have been.

Grazing cattle, on the other hand, pose a threat to 14 percent of endangered animal species and 33 percent of plant species as they encroach further into their territory.

Stop Roundups to Save Horses

Cattle are given priority over land because ranchers pay a tax to the BLM for every head of cattle they graze on public lands. The myth that the wild horse poses too much competition to cattle is a simple lie used to justify their systematic removal. It would not be far off to say that cows have become an invasive species in the West, leading to the downfall of keystone species who help to keep the native ecosystem healthy.

There are many organizations working to raise awareness about wild horse roundups. To learn more about how you can help, check out the work of American Wild Horse Preservation.


Image source: Bureau of Land Management

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20 comments on “Is the Government Destroying the American West Ecosystem by Favoring Cattle Over Wild Horses?”

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6 Months Ago

There are a lot of comments here and I do not have time to read them all but what it really comes down to is that it is the ranchers who get favor.They take over land that the horses live in and Who cares if the horses were introduced ? They do not cause harm (in my opinion) but the ranchers want more and more land for their cows. The more land the more cows. They are killing bison for this reason as the bison go out of the parks at the end of winter to grace and the ranches kill them as they have taken land right outside Yellowstone. Do not make horses suffer and/or die for the purposes of people. If there is a any species that is invasive it is our own. We are the ones who have completely upset the balance of nature and continue to destroy it on a daily basis.

Maggie Frazier
6 Months Ago

My, this article certainly brought all the pros out of the woodwork with all of the same old propaganda!
Surprising that this site would be of interest to them.
Good article!

6 Months Ago

the bureau of land management needs to be humane to the great horses now.

3 Years Ago

Here is the scientific perspective of horses, which counters every single "fact" proposed in this completely dishonest article.






http://www.berrymaninstitute.org/files/uploads/pdf/journal/ fall2011/4_Bies_horses_p171-172.pdf







http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/envlnw15&div=29&g_sent=1& collection=journals#515



http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/lawlr16&div=29&g_sent=1& collection=journals#535



Melissa Ohlsson
20 Jan 2015

Agropyron, I didn\'t have to delve very far into the links you claim provide the "facts" to refute this "dishonest article"
The first, "fact" I came across was this:

"Spatial data for equid ranges were compiled from state and local BLM and USFS offices."

First off, if this particular document relied on information from the BLM state and local BLM and USFS offices, it is not acceptable. The BLM has publically acknowledged that they have no idea how many wild horses are on the range. They estimate, (aka: GUESS) that number to be 30 to 40,000 total. The agency could not produce any documentation to show that number was even an educated guess, because no data was accumulated. Advocates have learned from numerous BLM FOIA papers, that the BLM will monitor a section of range in Montana, then apply the results to whatever range they need statistics on.

For this reason alone, all roundup activity should cease until the BLM can do an accurate head count of how many wild horses they need to manage on the range and back that number up with credible scientific data.

Then there are statements like this:
"Free-roaming equids within these sagebrush eco-systems, as is true for all large-bodied herbivores, can alter ecosystem components directly through any of several processes, including selective plant consumption, trampling of plants and surface soil horizons, and spatial redistribution of nutrients via ingestion and subsequent excretion. Furthermore, relatively little consideration has been given to understanding links between the effects that free-roaming wild horses may have on sagebrush ecosystems and sagebrush-obligate species that these systems support."

What this cleverly avoids saying is that 100 cattle grazing within these sagebrush eco-systems will inflict far more damage than 10 wild horses, but no one thought it was an issue worth looking into.

Fossil evidence trumps your outdated belief that wild horses are an invasive species. Horses originated and evolved in North America. You might as well accept that FACT and bring your brain into the 21st century.

John Cox
16 Apr 2018

I do not know what happened, but the figures in my statement garbled. . . . less than 1% of domestic market sales, . . . 34% throw-away margins of beef products . . . Please correct, or use these figures.

Harold Thomas
3 Years Ago

Horse and cattle are both intooduced species. Wild horses (mustangs) were brought to the Americas by the Spanish, then all the other Europeans. They are native to the Steppes of Russia. Cattle are a bovine species that approximate Bison in their grazing. The grasses of the American Plains coexisted with the Bison herd migrtations for eons. Horses are an inefficient pest. They eat multiple times the amount of a similar sized cow because they are NOT a ruminant. They do not add to the environemnt, but in fact are a scourge. They should all be eliminated from public land just like any other invasive species. You can trap them and slughter them or shoot them where they stand, but their eilination would be a step in the right direction in restoring the former status of the public lands.Let the congregation say Amen!

13 Jan 2015

BLM horses must be protected and MANAGED as per the Wild Free Roaming Horses & Burros Act. As long as the BLM horses are managed to their Appropriate Management Level, I don\'t have any problem with them being on Public Land. I actually like having them there. Right now, they have become a serious problem. This article is so full of inaccuracies I\'m just looking for the DONATE button, because you know it was put together by an organization that wants your money and will say whatever will get the public to donate their funds. On this particular article, the money-grubber is: American Wild Horse Preservation. (Send money now...the horses need you...LOL)

14 Jan 2015

sorry, but you are incorrect. horse petroglyphs from thousands of years ago have been found in the western US. these early horses, and additional horses that escaped from european explorers, peacefully coexisted with the other wildlife in the western US.

cattle currently grazing on the land are domesticated. left alone without humans to "protect" them from predators, they would not last long. they do not fit into the ecosystem, but are there because humans breed them and move them there every year to eat up all of the grass before they are sent to slaughter. then, more cattle are brought in the next year.

every statement in the article is a scientific fact. many scientists have studied this issue, and have published their results in scientific peer reviewed journals.

anyone can state their own opinion, but that opinion does not change the scientific facts.

3 Years Ago

There is plenty of research and common sense to back up enerything I said, and counters every lie this author tried to pass off as fact. Notice all his citations from scientifi articles? No? Because the authors opinion is countered by science, not supported.

3 Years Ago

This article is full of inaccuracies!

14 Jan 2015

The author is from Florida. Feral horses destroying the west and dieing in droves probably looks pretty good from Florida. Ahhhh, just sit back, sip that margarita and watch those beautiful horses convert another grass/forb community to shrubs and trees. Don\'t worry about the deer and the grouse and the antelope and the rabbits and birds, they will find someplace else to live. This is horse country!

Yes, sarcasms.

jamie thomson
3 Years Ago

I\'ve worked as a biologist on federal land that had feral horses which are protected under the Wild Horses and Burrows Act, but no cows, and it was amazing how much damage they had done to the ecosystem. This was a large military reservation where the mountain lion population was huge and still the horses were overpopulated. Wild horses are not wild. They are feral and, biologically speaking, should really be removed from all federal land.

ray Lyon
3 Years Ago

Like the previous poster I have never read such a pile of horseshit before. Wolves are the horses "natural Predators" Whatever...hell horses and wolves do not share even a modicum of the same habitat. Horses eat and crap all over everything denigrating the habitat for the wildlife. Cows are not much better, however this article frames the horses as some wild natural ecosystem balancer. Get a grip and take a basic wildlife class offer in the closest junior college.

Jenna Bardroff
13 Jan 2015

Hi Ray,
I appreciate the pun. I\'m curious what source you used to refer to the information in your response. Or what wildlife class did you take? Could there have been bias?

Elmer Fudd
3 Years Ago

I have never read more bull butter in one place in my entire life.
These "wild" horses are destroying the habitat.
First of all most of these are not "wild" horses. They are just horses that got away from someone. Inbred, ugly, not like the picture in this article. Horses eat four more times the feed than a cow or elk. They eat when they don\'t even need to eat, very inefficient grazers.
Kill em All.

Dorine Josselyn
13 Jan 2015

Why can\'t cattle owners graze their cattle on their own land? If you only have the cattle your land can support then you wouldn\'t have to use public land and there would be no problem and we wouldn\'t need the Dept of Land Management to be the size it is. Government is too big and we should be cutting it back. Farmers should be only using the land they own!

Jenna Bardroff
13 Jan 2015

Hi Elmer,
I\'d like to clarify that you believe horses of the west should receive less attention because they are not as beautiful as the horses presented in the picture? Does their aesthetic value matter? Do we humans eat only when we need to eat? Thank you for your thoughts.

stewart lands
13 Jan 2015

In Response to Dorine: I do not believe that Elmer has suggested that cows cannot be reduced or eliminated from public lands. Either way, the destruction resulting from cattle grazing cannot excuse similar destruction by horses. Why is it that horse advocates explain away such damage by pointing out the damage done by cattle, as if twice the damage is justified?

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