Saturday, September 21, 2013

Horses running wild

Reaping the harvest of an unbalanced ecosystem.

A fascinating review in Science recently laid out the condition of the federal Wild Horses and Burros program. It isn't a pretty sight. The program is severely fenced in by its legal structure. Firstly, the number of wild horses must be kept down to about 30,000, over various Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands centered around Nevada. This limits both competition with ranchers, and prevents disturbing scenes of mass starvation and overpopulation were the herd to expand to its ecological potential. Second, the excess horses can't be killed, but must be put up for adoption or put out to (non-wild) pasture on the BLM dime, in perpetuity.

Map of BLM lands with wild horses.

The BLM at this point is offering prospective owners $500 to adopt their mustangs, but still can't find nearly enough takers. The agency maintains a population of roughly 43,000 horses (males are castrated) in captivity, having removed a total of 200,000 horses from the wild over the last forty years. And it spends about $46 million on its captive horses, a number that is destined to go up, by the analysis of this article, due to increasing reproduction and capture rates from the wild herds.

This is all a little nuts. While it is admirable that US citizens, speaking through their representatives, dislike the prospect of killing horses that we capture from the wild for a wider ecological (and rancher) benefit, this squeamishness is very expensive, and hardly prevents much suffering, assuming that not all the captive pastures are run under ideal conditions, and that humane methods of killing (let's say euthanizing!) the horses exist.

Now the article authors and others (humane society, NRC) call for massive contraceptive intervention on the wild herd, shooting them up with a vaccine that can reduce reproduction when properly applied to domestic horses, though how it would actually be carried out from a distance (say, helicopters) is not at all clear. Again, another enormous commitment in perpetuity to manage a population that lacks the key element needed for natural balance: an appropriate predator.

Where is the wolf? Extirpated in Nevada. Where are the cougars? In the mountains, and not very interested in hunting horses. They are also managed closely and have their paws full dealing with an enormous population of deer. Where are the cheetas? Back in Africa.  Where are the bears? Mostly extirpated. So it is either us or disease & starvation that is going to limit the wild horse population.

It brings to mind the question of why horses died out in the Americas in the first place. We really have no good explation. After evolving here for tens of millions of years, the horse left for good around 12,000 years ago, along with the rest of the American megafauna. One gets the distinct impression that they were hunted to extinction by our less-squeamish ancestors, but it is rather hard to square such a theory with the horse's subsequent success across Asia.

We have no problem killing untold millions of other animals- cows, sheep, chickens- to eat and wear, and even manage to euthanize our pets. Why not horses? We seem under the spell of an archetype here- of the wild, born-to-be-free animal totem of a world that is long gone. I for one would be all for restoring a bit of that world in the form of predators to make up a more balanced ecosystem. We need more wolves. But if we don't want wolves on the prowl through the Western ranges, we need to step up and do the job ourselves, rather than telling a bureaucracy to do the impractical or impossible, to hide the problem in far-off corrals and pastures.

"So what happened on October 10 [2008]? The finance ministers and central bank governors of the Group of Seven leading high-income countries, meeting in Washington, declared that they would “take decisive action and use all available tools to support systemically important financial institutions and prevent their failure” (my emphasis). The core global financial system became the ward of the states. The idea that this was a private system was revealed to be an illusion. Taxpayers woke up to discover that bankers were exceptionally highly paid and out-of-control civil servants."
  • And, from Edward McClelland:
"Between 1970 and today, the share of the nation’s income that went to the middle class – households earning two-thirds to double the national median – fell from 62 percent to 45 percent."

1 comment:

  1. On a more balanced note, one can say that the BLM will be dealing with the problem in any case, either by contraception, or by euthanasia, or by collection and maintenance of excess horses (or, by introducing and managin predators, introducing another set of headaches). Alll in all, the persent method of collection seems the worst option, most wasteful and unsustainable. But collecting enough to meet true private demand for mustangs (if any) is certainly sensible, along with implementing some of the other options.