Elk NetworkA “Wild” Horse Story

Conservation | December 13, 2017

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation remains greatly concerned about the growing number of wild horses and burros on the landscape and their detrimental impact on wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Anyone who has spent time in the Southwest, or even listened to the famous U2 album, can recognize the distinctive Joshua tree. Scientific name: Yucca brevifolia. Yucca is a type of cactus. Brevifolia roughly translates into little foliage. A Joshua tree is a cactus with few leaves. It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that the Joshua tree, while an icon of desert landscapes, is not generally considered a forage species for livestock consumption. The blossoms may have some potential, but the trunk of the trees is rough and dry – not appetizing. Why then, has the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) documented wild horses near Las Vegas stomping Joshua trees down to eat? The answer: the horses are starving and desperate.

The Wheeler Pass Herd Management Area (HMA) near Las Vegas is home range for the Cold Creek wild horse herd. Wild horses share that HMA with wild burros. Because of the proximity to the human playground in Nevada, the HMA is a well-known horse lookout area. In 2014, the horses in the area were overpopulated, in poor body condition, and desperate for feed. The survival instincts of the federally protected equines led them to stomp Joshua trees to the ground so that they could eat the softer, wetter inside material.

As a result of the desperate condition of the Cold Creek herd, BLM held an emergency gather in late summer of 2015. Using a method called bait trapping, the wild horse specialists easily gathered 234 wild horses off of the Wheeler Pass HMA. Wild horses and burros are supposed to be managed to stay within appropriate management level (AML). BLM set the AMLs for their HMAs by applying range science to calculate the number of animals the range could sustain. Managing at AML allows for healthy horses on healthy rangelands. When herds raise above AML the herds, the rangelands, and the wildlife suffer. On the Wheeler Pass HMA in 2015, the horses were so far above AML, 47-66 horses, that the BLM gathered 234 horses. Bait trapping is a humane gathering method where horses are lured in with feed. Cold Creek horses were hungry in 2015, so they were easily lured to the feed. The 234 horses were removed from the Wheeler Pass HMA, with most of them being sent to holding facilities to live out their natural lives in pens eating hay purchased with taxpayer dollars. No more Joshua trees for the gathered horses.

BLM estimates that the remaining Cold Creek horses on Wheeler Pass HMA were in mid-range AML, around 60 head. At the time of this writing it is late 2017, scarcely more than two years after the emergency gather. How is the Cold Creek herd doing? Is the Wheeler Pass HMA in healthy enough condition that horses can choose better feed than Joshua trees? Sadly, the BLM has again found recent evidence of horses stomping Joshua trees. By BLMs estimates, the herd is at about 108 this year – roughly double AML. The emergency gather didn’t even offer two years’ worth of relief for the range.

Today (December 13) is the National Day of the Horse. Today, to honor horses, call your senators and your congressional representative and demand better management of the wild horses. Anyone who loves horses should demand better for them than having to stomp Joshua trees for feed. On the National Day of the Horse, you can prevent horse starvation and even save some Joshua trees. Congress must remove the congressional riders that limit BLM’s management tools and prevent management that maintains AML. The only acceptable goal is healthy horses on heathy rangelands. The only path to that goal is removal of the excess horses and burros and then implementation of better population control.

(Photo source: Bureau of Land Management & a private citizen)