They are icons of America’s past, symbols of our pioneering spirit. Eyes flashing, nostrils flaring, tails obscured by a cloud of dust, they streak across the landscape. I am referring, of course, to wild pigs.
More on wild pigs directly. But first some background on another wild ungulate. Few problems in the West are more incendiary than the management of “wild horses.” Advocates proclaim them “natives” who should be “wild and free.”
Opponents claim that these proliferating aliens are harming land and wildlife that belong to all Americans.
The federal management goal for these horses on public lands is 27,000. However, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency tasked with caring for them, estimates the current population at 64,604. the Wildlife Management Magazine reports 300,000 on all lands: public, private, and tribal. Federal law prevents effective management of wild horses. Unmanaged populations are increasing by 20 percent per year.
No less prolific are wild pigs. They are also “wild and free”. Having grown up with horses and pigs, I can attest that pigs are smarter than horses. And while wild pigs destroy native ecosystems, they are no more so than wild horses. So why are there no wild boar support groups protesting their slaughter on public land?
Fortunately for the native wildlife, a Wild Hog Annie has yet to turn up. “Wild Horse Annie” was the Nevada woman whose campaign to save “wild horses” inspired animal lovers across the United States to write impassioned letters to senators and congressmen, demanding that wild equines be protected forever. .
The result was the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which directed the BLM to manage these animals to “achieve and maintain a prosperous natural ecological balance.” That task is impossible. No invasive species can thrive or even exist in a “natural ecological balance.”
So we spend $160 million a year rounding up wild horses and putting them into perpetual welfare, with almost 50,000 kept permanently in pens or pastures. That’s more than half of the $300 million we spend on the 1,618 threatened and endangered species. native to the United States.
Horses and donkeys are the only ungulates in North America with solid hooves and interlocking upper and lower teeth. Most native vegetation can’t deal with it. However, in some areas, BLM range management goals call for 15 or 20 horses when their own science says 100 is the threshold for genetic viability. Why are these marginal herds not eliminated?
“Wild horses are worse than cows,” declares retired BLM biologist Erick Campbell. “When the grass between the bushes disappears, a cow is out of luck, but a horse will trample that plant to death to get the last blade. When the cows run out of fodder, the cowboys move them, but the horses are out there all year. BLM exacerbates the problem by bringing them water.”
And this from Dave Pulliam, former habitat chief for the Nevada Department of Wildlife: “Horses will stand over a spring and run toward other animals. In desert countries, seeps and springs are the most important habitats for a wide variety of species: obligate sagebrush birds, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, everything. And the horses absolutely hit the springs in the mud holes. But our wildlife constituents don’t get as vociferous as horse lovers.”
“Screaming” is an apt adjective. Wild horse groups confuse the media, intimidate the environmental community, terrorize Congress, bash BLM, and spout junk science. They are also well financed and adept at manipulating people who have dreamed of owning horses since childhood. And they sing three mantras:
Cows do more damage than wild horses. That’s like saying we should ignore Covid because more people are dying from heart disease. The only bad thing about cattle grazing is that it’s not always done right. When done right, it can benefit native ecosystems by doubling down on the bison’s range renewal role. That’s why the US Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy lease land to ranchers.
Wild horses are historical treasures because they descend from animals brought from Spain by the conquistadors. They are not. They are mostly mongrels, a swamp of domestic breeds that have recently escaped or been discarded.
Wild horses are native because a somewhat similar species was found in North America before it became extinct 10,000 years ago. That’s like calling elephants native because the continent once housed woolly mammoths.
With wild horses, facts must outweigh feelings. However, smart management is an uphill and losing battle. It is time for science and common sense to prevail.
Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writerssontherange.org, an independent non-profit organization that seeks to stimulate a lively conversation about the West. He writes exclusively about fish and wildlife for national publications.