Bad Directions, Wrong Turns and Wild Horses in Wyoming’s Red Desert

By Andy Treharne, Western States Director, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation

Last summer, I had the good fortune of taking a wrong turn while driving from a conference in Jackson, Wyoming to my home on Colorado’s Front Range. I had stopped at a fly shop on Route 191 to ask for some advice about where I might be able to pull off and wet a line on my way south. The shopkeeper pointed me to some lesser known waters on the south end of the Wind River mountain range.

After exiting the highway, I realized that my route and the directions I’d been given at the fly shop weren’t lining up. With daylight becoming scarce, I decided to give up on fishing, turn around and head back toward the paved road. When I found a good pullout to turn around, I found myself overlooking a huge expanse of wide open country to the south with steadily rising hills and the rugged peaks of the Winds behind me to the north.

It then occurred to me that I was looking out over the Red Desert, nearly 10,000 square miles of high desert sage brush steppe that’s home to a variety of wildlife, including a rare desert herd of Rocky Mountain elk and the largest migratory herd of antelope in the U.S. Normally, the prospect of looking out over some of the most unique and interesting wildlife habitat in the Mountain West would cause me to start thinking about how long it would take me to draw a tag for that unit, but that’s not what happened in this case.

Instead, all I could think about were horses and burros. More specifically, feral wild horses and burros. Not long before this trip to Wyoming, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation had joined a group called the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, an alliance of sportsmen’s, livestock, wildlife, and land conservation organizations and professional societies with a common goal of advocating for solutions to the myriad of problems caused by overpopulated, free-ranging horses and burros that are mostly found on and around public lands in the West. Through our work with this coalition, I was aware that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has faced a host of challenges related to managing wild horses and burros in the Red Desert.

By way of background, the horses seen roaming western rangelands today are descended from European domesticated horses, and are therefore unrelated to the native North American horses that went extinct during the Pleistocene era, long before European settlers arrived. Left unmanaged, horse populations that exceed what BLM range scientists refer to as “Appropriate Management Levels” (AMLs) threaten habitat by trampling vegetation, packing soil, and over-grazing forage plants that wildlife species depend on to survive. Long story short, areas facing horse and burro management problems tend to have fewer plant species, less vegetative cover, and an increased susceptibility to invasive plant species – all of which are problematic for wildlife, ecosystems, and by extension,  sportsmen and women.

Managing wild horses and burros is also problematic when viewed through the eyes of the taxpayer. Given that existing federal laws that speak to the management of horses and burros contradict one another, BLM managers have limited options to deal with herds that now exceed AMLs by more than 40,000 horses. Since the animals have certain protections provided by federal law, BLM often removes horses from public land and places them in off-range holding facilities that cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $50,000 to care for a single horse over its lifetime. The cost of keeping these off-range holding facilities available usually eats up somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 percent of the BLM’s budget for the Wild Horse and Burro Program in a given year – that’s not a good deal for anyone who’s concerned about the highest and best use of relatively scarce and limited federal conservation dollars.

This brings us back to Wyoming’s Red Desert, which serves as a great example of why sportsmen and women should demand significant changes to the BLM’s wild horse and burro management regime. The agency’s Rawlins and Lander Field Offices have had to endure long and expensive environmental review processes to employ even limited, expensive, and marginally effective management techniques on a feral species that causes significant harm to a place that’s important to both wildlife and hunters. Despite estimates that populations in the Red Desert were approximately 1,500 horses above AML – and left unchecked would be 4,000 above AML in four years – some continue to insist that these animals are deserving of special treatment, regardless of the consequences.

As I look back on my brief encounter with the Red Desert last summer, I can’t help but think there’s a better way to address what’s clearly become a challenging resource policy issue. Furthermore, the issue represents a tremendous opportunity to unite wildlife advocates, science professionals, agriculture interests, sportsmen and women, and other conservationists in pursuit of common goals through efforts like the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition. When these interests align, it can send a strong signal to decision-makers, though nothing can replace an elected official hearing from his or her constituents. If you care about the health of rangelands in the West, check out the Coalition’s website, http://www.wildhorserange.org/, to get more information about the impacts of wild horses and burros. If you agree that more can be done to curb this pressing problem on our Western landscapes, consider calling your representatives in Congress and ask them to support modernization of the programs and laws that guide our nation’s response to how these animals impact our wildlife, natural resources, and those who depend on them.


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