Wild Horse Annie’s Legacy

By Ted Williams

They are wild and free. They are icons of America’s past, symbols of our pioneering spirit. Eyes flashing, nostrils flaring, lips foaming, tails obscured by dust, they tear across the landscape. While they didn’t evolve on this continent, a similar species did; and, anyway, they’ve been here a long time. I am, of course, referring to feral hogs.

Having grown up with horses and burros and having fed our garbage to the neighbor’s hogs, I can attest that hogs are more intelligent than equids. And while feral hogs are horribly destructive of native ecosystems, they are no more so than feral equids. So why have we not embraced feral hogs? Why are we not spending $80 million a year rounding them up, tending them, feeding and watering them in the wild, and vainly encouraging the public to adopt them? Why are there no feral-hog support groups fighting their elimination or even diminution from public lands?

Happily for fish and wildlife, there has yet to be a Wild Hog Annie. But mobilized by a Nevada ranch wife named Velma Johnston (aka “Wild Horse Annie”), ecological illiterates all across America wrote impassioned letters to ecologically illiterate senators and congressmen, demanding that feral equids be protected forever. The upshot was the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which placed all unrestrained, unclaimed equids under government care and made it a felony to kill, capture, sell, or even annoy one.

It’s hard to blame Mrs. Johnston for objecting to the gory harvests conducted by the “mustangers.” On the other hand, she and her followers converted a resource to a pest and, in the process, subjected feral equids to far greater suffering. Equids, which evolved in grasslands, are not equipped to live in the arid and desert regions to which they’ve been relegated. (Nor is the vegetation they consume equipped to cope with meshing incisors and solid hoofs, adaptations lacking in all our native ungulates.) In a recent New York Times op-ed entitled “Live Free and Die” journalist Judy Blunt describes a typical scene: “A cloud hangs over the Nevada landscape, caused by 500 half-starved horses pounding the high desert to powder, looking for food, stamping any remaining waterholes into dust. The foals are long dead, left behind as they weakened. Cowboys under contract with the BLM set out to gather the horses and move them, but a phone call redirects them to a worse situation in another area.”

Feral-equid support groups, known collectively among wildlifers as “the horse mafia,” chant three mantras. Mantra 1: Cows do far more damage than feral equids. That’s like saying we shouldn’t worry about AIDS because more people die of cancer; and at least cows provide humans with food and income. Mantra 2: Feral equids are native because a similar species evolved in North America, then went extinct 10,000 years ago. That’s like calling elephants native because mastodons lived here 10,000 years ago. Mantra 3: The “mustangs” infesting the West are historical treasures because they’re closely related to animals unleashed by the conquistadores. They are not. They are mongrels--a genetic morass of breeds issuing mostly from recently escaped and discarded livestock.

Erick Campbell--a BLM biologist who dealt with feral equids for 30 years until he retired in 2005--offers this: “We managed everything from workhorses to Shetland ponies. Your daughter’s horse gets old or she stops liking it. So you turn it loose…. [Feral equids] are worse than cows. They do incredible damage. When the grass between the shrubs is gone a cow is out of luck, but a horse or burro will stomp that plant to death to get that one last blade. When cows run out of forage the cowboys move them, but horses and burros are out there all year. BLM exacerbates the problem by hauling water to them.”

Feral equids are proliferating far faster than they’re being adopted. BLM doesn’t begin to have the funds to take care of them, and it squanders the funds it has. “We see places where BLM has established a management goal of 15 or 20 horses when their own science indicates that 100 is the threshold for [genetic] viability,” declares Nevada Department of Wildlife habitat chief Dave Pulliam. “Why aren’t they zeroing out these herds? Horses will stand over a spring and run off other animals. In desert country, seeps and springs are the most important habitats for a whole myriad of species--sagebrush obligate birds, mule deer, bighorns, pronghorns, everything. And they are absolutely beat to mud holes. Riparian habitat has disappeared. Water tables have dropped. Horse use is excessive to the point of rendering this habitat unavailable to wildlife. Our wildlife constituents don’t get as vociferous as the horse lovers.”

“Vociferous,” is an understatement. Confronted with facts, the horse mafia spews ink like a startled squid, mostly in the form of junk science. It confounds the media, bullies the environmental community, terrifies Congress, beats up the BLM, and savages the one group which, to ease the suffering of feral equids, is trying to develop chemical birth control. That group--which appears almost rational in comparison with the horse mafia--is none other than the Humane Society of the United States.