IT’S A FAMILIAR SIGHT OUT WEST: wild American mustangs. They seem to be the perfect symbol of the American west — free, wild, and powerful.
But to many ranchers and cattle owners across swaths of Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and California, the sight is an unwelcome one: wild horses take up space, forage, and water that they could be using for cattle. There are currently 33,780 wild horses and 6,825 donkeys roaming 250 million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service. Some of this land is shared with the cattle ranchers.
According to the BLM’S cattle program, ranchers pay $1.35 per cow per month to graze on BLM land (compared with $17 per month on private land). Ranchers claim that wild horse herds are overpopulated and degrade cattle grazing land, and are imploring the BLM to take action. Right now, it’s hard to say what the cause of the land detriment is, especially considering record droughts and the questionable sustainability of either species.
Horses are probably better for the environment than cattle — but still aren’t great
Horses have evolved to exist in ecosystems characterized by poor quality vegetation, foraging and drinking across wide ranges to avoid trampling – usually up to 8 or 9 times as far as cattle. In addition to their wider range, horses consume dry forage cattle typically don’t eat and which could potentially fuel brush fires. They also redistribute undigested seeds through their manure while fertilizing the soil and increasing water content.That said, they are still technically an invasive species in the United States, and can do serious damage to grasslands.
Cattle, on the other hand, tend to graze and hydrate in much smaller areas, and unlike horses with trimming incisors, destroy whole root systems when they graze. Cattle also digest seeds to the point where they are botanically ineffective. Consider also the methane release from cow manure (which contributes significantly to climate change), and it can be understood that cattle aren’t the most sustainable herds.
A massive cull of wild horses may be in the cards
The BLM has taken an objective approach, and has in the past asked ranchers to reduce the sizes of their herds. They’ve refused. Independent analyses indicate that BLM allocates 18% of grazing for wild horses while dispensing 80% for cattle and sheep. Last year they invested considerable tax payer money in wild horse management, up to $71.8 million in 2015 — largely to protect their taxpayer funded cattle grazing program. This includes expensive roundups, spaying the horses, and housing/feeding thousands of them.
Recently, the debate has reached critical mass and the BLM is now considering slaughtering up to 45,000 wild mustangs it has in its storage facilities. (Recent articles have claimed that the BLM has already decided to do so — this isn’t accurate. An advisory board offered the cull as a suggestion, so the possibility is on the table, but the BLM hasn’t made any such decision yet.)
The outright killing of the wild horses is rare and avoided whenever possible. The BLM is seeking to reduce the population via other means such as ‘adopting’ them out and spaying, and they are trying to do so in a cost-effective manner. The population is growing too large to remain stable in the current range that is available to them while also impinging on the bottom line of greedy ranchers.
Our love of hamburgers trumps all
It’s a complicated issue, the needs of humans (ranchers, farmers, whom we rely on for food) put in competition with the needs of wild animals. It’s a precarious balance, and it’s an emotional issue — which makes it tough to compromise on. American ideals are pitted against each other in a rodeo of beefy capitalism vs. symbolic freedom.
Horses have been enduring symbols of American freedom long before Dylan, Johnny Cash, Springsteen, and Paul Simon paid tribute — but their range land is getting smaller and smaller thanks to our love for beef. Five Guys is great, but do the horses (and yourself) a favor and cut back on the beef.