The Difficulties of Grazing Management and Wild Horses

Managing range lands can be difficult. As far as my job goes; it can be difficult to get close enough to cattle to identify brands and to get clear photos of them (each rancher has their own brand), constantly finding cows that are in the wrong pastures, a.k.a. out of compliance, can be frustrating and require a lot of paperwork. For my manager, and other full time range technicians, it can be tough to tell ranchers to move their cattle in a pleasant, but not overly passive tone. Being told what to do can be frustrating, and frankly some of the ranchers really don’t like the Bureau of Land Management, and frequently resist cooperation. I met a rancher who came out to help our crew find some past monitoring transects. He seemed agreeable enough, and was obviously kind enough to help out some BLM workers. But near the end of the day he made some comment about how the ranchers would do well at managing the land without the BLM telling them what to do. This might be true for some ranchers, but definitely not all. The data that my coworkers and I have gathered shows that overgrazing is currently occurring.

To give the ranchers the benefit of the doubt, it can be tough for them to keep track of all of their cattle while they roam thousands of acres of land, and moving the cattle seems like an ordeal that requires a significant number of people and resources. In addition to the inter-relational challenges of range land management, there are the effects of wildlife on the land. Cows are not the only animals grazing the public lands of south-central Wyoming. The presence of grazing wild animals can be a source of tension and ambiguity between ranchers and those monitoring the land. The BLM may attribute the degradation of the land to a lack of cooperation from ranchers and their cattle, while the ranchers claim that the impact of wildlife is to blame. Not all grazers play a role that directly competes with that of cattle. There is one animal that is of primary concern, that is horses. Namely, wild horses.

Horses feed in the same areas as cattle, and they share similar diets. One study suggests that the dietary overlap between horses and cattle during the summer averages 72 percent and in the winter increased to 84 percent (Krysl et al., 1984). And I would assume that since horses like riparian areas, their trampling of saturated, bare ground can have the same detrimental effects on stream banks as that of cattle. The population of wild horses is supposedly above carrying capacity, but there is no clear, ethical method to control them. Euthanasia can be viewed as inhumane, and thus, controversial, and rounding up horses and moving them to less populated areas is not enough. Adoption does seem to be a valid solution to controlling numbers of wild horses, but there is just not enough of it. Getting the word out to the public seems like a clear way to take a step in the right direction.

On a lighter note, the background of wild horses is pretty interesting. Horses are not really native to North America, at least not modern day horses. Horses were native to the continent but died-out after the last ice age. We can thank Spanish explorers and other European settlers for bringing the horse back to North America. But very few wild horses we see out west are descendants of those brought over by Cortez and Coronado. Most are descendants of horses that escaped from their owners only in the past 100-150 years. The term “wild” is not technically correct either. The horses are “feral,” like an escaped house cat that has learned how to survive without human assistance (Crane et al., 1995). But “wild” sound better, it’s more romantic…I doubt the Rolling Stones would have had a hit with “Feral Horses”.

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