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The Debate On What Is Best For Nevada's Wild Horses

Associated Press

Wild horses are a symbol of America and the West.

They are a source of pride for Nevadans, as the state is home to about half of the country's wild horse and burro population.

But these animals are not easy to manage when it comes to their growing population and needs.

The debate about how best to manage the wild horse population and balance their needs with the livestock that also use Nevada's rangelands has been going on for decades.

The debate was reignited last week when Nevada lawmakers refused to pass a joint resolution to ask Congress for federal funding to increase roundups of wild horses and burros.  

Advocates for the horses argued the joint resolution would have led to more helicopter roundups that they see as cruel. 

Supporters of the resolution said it would have helped bring horse and burro populations down to manageable levels.

Scott Beckstead is the director of campaigns for the Center for a Humane Economy and adjunct professor of law at Willamette University. He disputes the idea of the wild horse populations being unmanageable. 

"You've got this skewed ratio of one wild horse for every 50 cattle or sheep and yet still the livestock industry and the Bureau of Land Management creates this narrative that there is an overpopulation problem," he said.

Beckstead said in Nevada there are 15.7 million acres of public lands that are dedicated to wild horses and burros compared to 43 million acres of public lands that are dedicated to cattle and sheep.

However, Barry Perryman, a professor and department chair for agriculture, veterinary and rangeland sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno, said it is not about the acreage designated for one type of animal, but it is about the fact that wild horses and livestock, plus wildlife like deer and elk, need the same small area for food and water.

"The diet preferences of these large animals that we're talking about both domestic and wild... all kind of converge on these critical seasonal habitats, usually its that late summer, late-season habitat that is most critical for all our wildlife populations and for wild horses and burros," Perryman said.

That important habitat, known as riparian zones - which means habitats along rivers, streams or natural springs, make up only about 1 to 2 percent of land surface area in Nevada. 

Perryman pointed out that ranchers control the populations of their livestock and can control where they graze, which means they can keep them out of areas that need a rest so vegetation can regrow.

That is not the case with wild horses. 

"With horses and burros for the last several decades, we've really had no way to control those populations other than gathers and that process has been truncated," he said, "These areas where horses are utilizing these riparian zones, these season habitats, and their populations are very, very high these forage plants don't get a chance to rest."

Beckstead, on the other hand, said the 'gathers' that the BLM is using are cruel. He said the helicopters used during the roundups put incredible stress on the animals, mares are separated from their foals, and animals have been chased into barbed wire fences.

Instead, Beckstead and others believe it is time for the BLM to step up its use of infertility drugs on wild horses.

"In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences did a top to bottom review of the BLM's wild horse and burro program and issued a scathing report that said that the roundups and removals are counterproductive that they may actually spur population growth and that the agency should instead focus on proven fertility control to control the growth of the population of wild horses," he said.

Perryman said contraception is moving to the forefront of population control, but he noted that it is not permanent and must be administered every couple of years.

Plus, the population is so large now that using just contraception is not enough.

"The problem is we have so many horses that the scale that we're up against to administer contraception, whether it be darting or otherwise, when you're talking about 100,000 horses on the range, half of them are mares... trying to administer 50,000 doses of product every year or every two or three years... it's so massive that's just impossible," he said.

Instead, Perryman would like to see a combination of contraception and gatherings to reduce the population to a manageable amount.

Beckstead and other wild horse advocates are now appealing to the new Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. They are asking for a top to bottom assessment of the impact of grazing livestock on public land, and they want to see the areas of public land reserved for wild horses to only be for wild horse herds.

However, a caller from Eagle Valley, which is east of Pioche in Lincoln County, said her family has been ranching in the area since the 1860s, and pushing cattle off the land designated just for wild horses will cause a problem for water rights.

"When you eliminate cattle from those then we can no longer prove beneficial use on our stock waters and so we lose all those water rights," she said, "Would you be agreeable to someone taking everything you own?"


Barry Perryman, Professor & Department Chair, University of Nevada Reno; Scott Beckstead, adjunct professor of law, Willamette University

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Kristen Kidman is a former senior producer at KNPR’s State of Nevada and is proud to be from Las Vegas.