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When a Sacred Animal is No Longer Cared For
~ Chase Voirin
I have had multiple discussions with colleagues,
family members and friends over the years
regarding wild horses. Those discussions have
ranged from biological perspectives to those of
a more spiritual nature. I’ve even seen some
folks become mildly heated when the term “wild”
horse is used instead of “feral” horse. The former
of which implies that this species carries the
same status as native wildlife instead of an invasive nuisance that is described by the latter adjective. Nonetheless, horses that are no longer domestic and are roaming about on the landscape have spurred a contentious issue that seems to be growing in popularity by the year. And this issue is becoming increasingly larger among Native American tribes, especially in the western half of the U.S.
How have wild horses been able to populate the western half of the U.S. so freely, so to speak? The answer to that lies in the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, where wild horses were lumped into a piece of legislation with another species called the burro, which is a species of donkey. Through this Act, Congress declared that “wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people…and shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death…” and are to be considered “an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”1. And within this piece of legislation, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is tasked with managing, protecting and controlling wild horse and burro populations on public lands, including the removal of excess horses and burros that are deemed to push the overall population past the Appropriate Management Level (AML), essentially so as not to cause harm and degradation to the rest of the natural environment, which is held in public trust. And therein lies the current issue.
Simply put, wild horse populations have long ago exceeded AML and practical management levels, and the general public and government agencies have increasingly taken notice. For example, total population estimates for most of the Rocky Mountain states (i.e. Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, and New Mexico), including California and Oregon, produced by the BLM between 1996 and 2012 show that wild horse populations ranged from a maximum of 43,629 individuals in the year 2000 to a minimum of 25,689 as recently as 20072. However, populations have risen to nearly double the average levels of the aforementioned timeframe to 66,976 individuals estimated for 20183. This also doesn’t take into account burros, which currently contribute about another 15,000 individuals on the landscape3, and of whose population has nearly tripled since the period between 1996 and 20122. Combining wild horse and burro population estimates brings the current total to over 81,000 individuals on public lands within the aforementioned western states. All of which is a 13% increase in population from 2017 levels3. In 2012, the BLM started taking more action in removing individuals from public lands in these western states in an effort to reduce the overall population, removing just over 4,200 individual horses and burros on average per year from 2012 to 20173. But since wild horse and burro populations can increase nearly 20% every year4 (http://www.wildhorserange.org/myth-busters.html), there is little hope these populations will decrease to previous levels in the near future.
So what’s the big deal?? Indeed, one must look at the positives and negatives for having wild horses and burros on the landscape, but the purpose of this article is to investigate this question from a Native American standpoint. It is true that these current horse and burro populations have been on the North American continent for a long time. To clarify, these current species were introduced by Europeans, and are not the same species of tiny horse that went extinct just over 11,000 years ago during the Pleistocene era4. It is in fact arguably true that the introduction of these species changed the entire Native American social structure, as it no doubt increased traveling capabilities and social status within many tribes, including those in the aforementioned western states. So much so that the horse was integrated into Native American culture as a culturally important, sacred animal. But eventually, as with many sacred species, the decrease in dependence on wild horses for travel and social status has led to an increase in wild horses, and burros for that matter, on the landscape, and a general apathy as to their increasing populations until now. There are many people who do an admiral job in raising, caring for, and utilizing their horses, including those on Native American lands. But wild populations that were let loose to roam free on the landscape have slowly taken over certain areas of the west, including ecosystems on Native American lands.
To not stray from the original question, “So what’s the big deal??”, from a Native American perspective. Well, horses and burros are persistent in that their populations can multiply greatly in a relatively short amount of time. So much so that they’ve become and “invasive species” on many tribal lands. They are herbivores and they can eat a lot of natural plant vegetation on the landscape, which can leave less vegetation available for wild animals and domestic livestock, therefore decreasing economic productivity and food security for tribal communities on tribal lands. Wild horses need water on a daily basis and have been known to crowd around water sources keeping other wild animals and livestock from having access to those sources. Horses and burros, when in high population, could not only overgraze native vegetation, but also stamp it out and hardpack the soil enough with their hooves to make it nearly impossible for that vegetation to fully recover4. Couple all of this with a strong drought, higher and drier temperatures, and increasing evidence of climate change, especially in the western U.S., and you have a serious ecological problem. And it should be noted that those aforementioned BLM wild horse and burro population figures may not include populations residing on large Native American reservations, such as Navajo. So that total figure may be an underestimate of tens of thousands when including reservation lands. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) may be tasked with generating figures and aiding in wild horse and burro removal on reservation lands, but these efforts have been highly inadequate.
This issue doesn’t seem to have a clear solution, especially since wild horses and burros have such strong Congressional protections along with significant public empathy. But consider this: the BLM estimates that the natural ecosystem in western states can support a maximum population of just over 26,000 wild horses and burros, so as to prevent harm and degradation to those natural landscapes, yet over 81,000 horses and burros persist, meaning there are about 55,000 individuals too many on the western landscape…And there is no clear population reduction plan in sight. Fortunately, Congress has slowly appropriated more funding to increase BLM’s impact in reducing these populations through capture and adopt programs to utilizing contraceptives. Not to mention, congressional subcommittees have been created to bring this issue to a more frequent discussion, at the behest of many western states demanding this issue be dealt with. It is time for Native tribes to take action and echo these sentiments from tribal lands. My personal experiences on working with tribes on natural resource issues on tribal lands helped me realize that overpopulation of wild horses and burros is very much an issue on tribal lands. I encourage Native American tribes and individuals to contact their tribal councils and governments to express this issue, so that it may be dealt with in the tribe’s best interest. Understanding the horse carries a sacred aspect with it to tribes, perhaps there is a unique way each tribe can handle the issue where the overall population is decreased, yet in a respectful manner that is in the best interest of the horse as well. And while I can’t speak for every tribe, I can say that I was taught within my own Navajo culture that it is wrong to not take care of your horse and be responsible for its life. And if a horse, or burro for that matter, that was meant to be domestic and cared for is roaming around and suffering on the landscape, I don’t see how that animal carries a sacred significance with it anymore. Perhaps it was meant to be in the care of people, and therefore perhaps it is our responsibility to bring it back to full domestication and off of the wild landscape.
1The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971
2BLM Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Population data tables: 1996-2012.
3BLM Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Population Program Data. 2018.
4National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition. 2015.