These animals have a high level of protection due to the public’s perception of them

Some thoughts on wildlife and livestock management

Sep 03, 2019

There’s been a long-running controversy in the Western United States. This involves three factions. They are wildlife enthusiasts, the cattle industry, and those that champion the wild horse and burro populations.

Wildlife people have a straightforward desire to increase wildlife but this excludes invasive species. The cattle industry also has a fairly straightforward goal and that is to produce cattle to make a profit. The people who champion wild horses and burros have a somewhat different set of goals they want to maintain a connection with the historic past.
While some want to protect what they perceive as wild animals, others see it more as a animal-rights issue. For the most part wild horse and burro people are willing to do this at the expense the cattle industry and wildlife populations. Most of the people that promote wild horses and burros do not like to talk about the cost to wildlife, though this is the central controversy they must deal with while promoting wild horses and burros. Sometimes the individual people and the issues between these groups are very clear, other times the individual people or the issue can be vague and difficult to define.

The damage done by wild horses and burros to the natural environment is immense, but generally goes unnoticed by the public due to the fact the public does not really comprehend the amount of missing wildlife. Nor does it have an understanding of the damages been done to archaeological sites, such as ancient game trails and small prehistoric campsites. These are some of the main reasons the general public views these animals as wildlife rather than what they are, domestic livestock. Another major factor contributing to the public’s point of view is that there is no profit in wild horses and burros, whereas the cattle industry is for profit, therefore cows are not viewed as wildlife. For the most part the public supports a large vibrant population of wild horses and burros on public land. If a person does not see wild horses and burros as wildlife they are very likely to see them from an animal rights perspective, that is to say they have a right to be there. I have been out with groups of people that actually had the term wilderness as part of their group’s name that were thrilled to see the wild and majestic burro. My efforts to educate them was met with rejection and disdain. For these reasons the public has long resisted any direct method of population control such as shooting them or rounding them up for slaughter, in spite of the efficiency of these methods. This has led to a long running conflict between the people who want to take care the land and the indigenous wildlife, and those that want to take care of renegade livestock, horses and burros.

A wild burro can weigh anywhere from 400 to 600 pounds therefore one can roughly estimate this is the amount of water and feed for the equivalent amount of natural herbivores such as rabbits mice and small birds. Yet in this form, that of the burro, It does not feed the foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and birds of prey that these other animals would have. If all this were not enough, presently the BLM alone spends a staggering $75 million a year on programs that are ineffective or designed to maintain this problem. One can only imagine the benefits if we ended this problem or reduced it to such a point there was no longer an environmental issue, and then spent the $75 million on wildlife. For a rough perspective on what this amount of money could do spent on the Western United States, a mountain range that had say 300 wild sheep might receive a budget of $100,000 to $300,000 per year for that herd alone. Regardless what one might view as the accuracy of these figures they do not account for what the Park service and the forest service will spend on this issue.

I believe that there is an answer that would be effective environmentally, economical, and acceptable to the public. And that is to design a plan that would regulate exclude and modify mineral sources that these animals use.

The first step would be to get a group of professionals up to speed on the mineral requirements that affect reproduction and survivability for the various species that inhabit the Southwest. This would include horses, burros, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep and so on. Without a doubt the mineral requirement for proper health distribution and reproduction would have similarities and differences. Until we possess this knowledge we do not have the wherewithal to effectively manage any species or their habitat on public land. While this might sound outrageous I believe eventually this will be the prevailing point of view. Once we’ve acquired this knowledge we could engineer a solution that takes into account the particular species that is targeted for reduction or eradication from the environment and at the same time design one that is advantageous for the indigenous species. With this basic information I believe we will find many situations where fencing off a single spring and its associated mineral source will reduce the population of horses and burros immensely. While the effects of this will not be immediate it will be effective in both population control and reducing the geographic area the target species inhabits. In some places a number of springs and separate mineral sources may have to be fenced off to be effective. This can be done in a way where the burro is excluded from the resource and the wild life is not. The design for such fencing is readily available and has been used effectively for many years around water sources. Though I know of no incident where this has been used to control or eliminate a mineral resource for horses and burros. I believe there will be examples that by fencing off a single water/mineral source the effect will be relatively quick in making a large continuous population into two or more island populations. These smaller island populations will be easier to manage whether the goal is eradication or preserving a small representative population. The first round of such a management plan will inevitably show where other key water/mineral sources exist. With this knowledge it will generally make the second round easier and more effective.

Monitoring and adjusting an up-to-date modern mineral program will no doubt be done with equally modern technology, that we have on hand, such as trail cameras, GPS collars, and even sampling the animals blood or hair. This will tell the story of what’s actually happening. The first pilot programs will no doubt provide a wealth of information and put wildlife management in to a whole new era of effectiveness.

In many areas where this conflict of burros, horses, cattle, and wildlife occur the cattle operations put out salt blocks. Of course they do this for the benefit of the cattle. Currently I don’t know of any study or accepted mainstream concept that has an accurate and proper understanding of how this affects directly or indirectly other species. No doubt wild horses and burros utilize these salt blocks giving them an otherwise lacking and essential commodity, thus allowing them to successfully compete with all the other species for water and feed. Most salt blocks today are some sort of multi- mineral formula. They are not just sodium chloride, though these are available. In areas where there’ is a cattle operations it is very likely that the minerals/salt blocks are optimum or near optimum for the wild horses and burros. Finding measures for the cattle operations to exclude wild horses and burros from these artificial salt/ mineral sources may go a long ways to reducing the problem of wild horses and burros.

While some of this knowledge is of a general nature that is it is already known to veterinarian science, a lot of this knowledge will be developed that is specific to a geographic location. For instance some areas you might put out salt blocks that only have sodium chloride in them or perhaps even sugar to draw the horses and burros into a specific area due to a wide range of factors. As an example it may draw them away from an area that has natural mineral sources that give a full spectrum of minerals that the animals need to optimize reproduction. One can also fence in water sources that are just water sources. That is they don’t have a geologic mineral component associated with them but rather a food water resource. By doing this you will reduce their ability to get proper food and water in one place. This type of knowledge for the most part does not presently exist but can be developed. Once this knowledge is gained and applied we will see dwindling populations of horses and burros and increasing populations of wildlife.

This type of population reduction will not be immediate as shooting them or rounding them up, rather it will take years and even decades. There is however advantages to this slower method, no one animal will suffer the consequences of being shot, starve, or thirst to death and few if any of these animals that are reduced under such a program would ever live out the majority of their life in a small crowded corral. I believe that such a program due to its humane nature and slow measured benefit to wildlife will not be opposed by the general public. Furthermore I believe that if handled right in the modern media it will gain a lot of public support. In all likelihood the media component of this mineral plan can only get the credibility it needs by the volunteer environmental groups. It is critical to understand that this idea is not just a biological and land management program, it must have as an integral part of it, a proper modern media narrative. One of the many benefits of properly designed and narrated program is that once it’s initiated it will include a large number of people and motivate them in to a deeper understanding of the environment of the Southwest.