I agree with Emily, this is a pretty even-handed look at the issue in a specific place.
Here are a couple of questions:
1. What’s best for the horses? Who decides that with what values? Who decides whether sterilization is inhumane?
2. Sabelow’s observations on a specific site vs. Koncel’s general statement. In a contentious disagreement like this, is there a place where claims and evidence can be discussed in an open forum (this reminds me of the idea of the conflict resolution technique of joint fact-finding)? But will joint agreement on facts help when values themselves are so different?
3. Degrees of “wildness”
‘IT SHOULD BE A LITTLE OASIS. AND IT’S GONE’
Out here, the ranchers who have a permit to graze cattle are required to build barbed wire fences to keep their livestock out of some of the protected springs that bubble up from the lava rock. These permanent riparian areas are critical to the long-term survival of native wildlife in this high desert.
The fences, which deer and elk are able to leap, must have a smooth wire along the bottom to allow local pronghorn antelope, which can’t jump very well, and smaller animals to crawl under.
The fences can be no match for the horses. At one site I visited, the horses pushed down the barbed wire, shearing many of the metal T-posts off at the base. The lush native grasses around the protected spring were so mowed from horses’ teeth it looked like a putting green covered in piles of horse droppings.
“This site should be surrounded by vegetation,” said Sandusky, the Modoc National Forest’s public affairs officer. “It should be a little oasis. And it’s gone.”
The horse hooves had turned much of the soft soil around its rock-armored headwaters into a pockmarked bog. Sandusky told me in other parts of the forest, the horses had trampled less-rocky springs so much that they had actually stopped flowing.
She’s not wrong about the disproportionate numbers. Each year, some 26,537 cattle graze on the Modoc National Forest under 82 federal permits issued to ranchers.
The Forest Service defends the practice, saying it’s obligated under federal law to allow grazing. Cattle ranchers are required under the terms of their permits to leave a percentage of the forage, and they’re required to keep their cattle from grazing around protected springs.
On the Modoc, the cattle are allowed on these lands only for three to five months.
“You take them to another range or you take them off the range altogether,” Sandusky said. “With horses … they’re out here 365. There’s no way to manage the overuse of the resource.”
Koncel, though, was having none of that. She insisted that cows — not horses — are responsible for the majority of the damage to riparian areas.
“Wild horses don’t do that,” she said. “They drink, and they move out.”
At the spring I visited, there were only a few cowpies scattered among the piles of horse apples, and it was clear the horses had been in there for months.
Koncel’s solution to addressing the overgrazing issue: reduce the numbers of cattle on the range, and use a type of birth control called PZP, shot from a dart, to keep the horses’ numbers in check.
While it’s shown promise in some areas, it would be a major challenge to dart mares multiple times across hundreds of square miles of rugged terrain in Devil’s Garden.
A more practical solution might be to round up mares once and surgically sterilize them — a plan the Trump administration proposed on BLM lands — but horse advocates believe that is inhumane. This month, they sued the feds over it.
Degrees of Wildness (care versus Nature)
But what about the mountain lion preying on those foals out here?
“That bothers me. But I also think if we think of wild horses as being wildlife, then we have to accept that.”
What about a bad winter causing horses out here to starve or their watering holes to freeze?
“There are areas that have been suffering from drought, and there have been emergency gathers, but one then has to step back and say, ‘OK, truly, instead of taking the horses off, why not give them supplemental hay or water and keep them on?’ ”