Joint Senate Resolution 3 (SJR3): Postscript and Sayonara
Recently, the Sierra Nevada ally hosted counterpoint pieces regarding SJR 3, a now deceased cut resolution before the Nevada Legislature urging Congress to reduce the number of wild horses and burro in the state.
Dr Jim Sedinger, longtime professor at UNR, presented the view generally shared by breeders, athletes, the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners and others who oppose wild horses, or the less than the current numbers of the animal population. One of his claims was that wild horses and burros damage wildlife.
Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project represented conservation interests. He suggested that wild horses and burros come under more scrutiny than domestic cattle that use public land in far greater numbers.
Let us take a closer look at three aspects of this question.
Dr Sedinger’s reference on the sage grouse
To build on his argument for SJR 3, Dr Sedinger included a reference to the sage grouse, which is widely known to face habitat issues critical to its survival. Peter Coates, Ph.D., UNR graduate and leading sage-grouse researcher (known for his studies of raven / sage-grouse nest depredation, not the impacts of wild horses on the bird ) reportedly told the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council that Sage-grouse lek use (important for breeding) has improved with fewer horses in the area.
While there may be circumstances where the densities of wild horses and burro around sage-grouse leks are problematic, wild horses and burros take a back seat to several bigger threats such as cattle grazing, mining, cheatgrass, fires, energy exploration, loss of sagebrush habitat and low vegetation, conifer encroachment, climate change and more.
Dr Sedinger did not mention that the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) sanctions an annual hunting season for the sage grouse. Hunters have killed thousands of birds ten or two years ago. The current death toll (1500-2000 birds) is less than 10% of peak years in the 1970s. Greater Sage-Grouse chick production was poor during the last years. Yet the hunt continues.
Hunters are told that their killings are “compensatory”… meaning that each bird killed by a hunter leaves the ground conditions a little better for the remaining birds… leading to better survival, increased fertility… and… hey… more of birds! Yet, according to these same authorities, horses hanging around a lek, or a crow taking an egg from a sage-grouse nest, means disaster.
The other possibility is that the mortality caused by the hunters is “additive”, which further reduces the number of sage-grouse. Why would a crow taking an egg from a nest have a greater impact on the bird than a hunter killing a perfectly healthy hen, capable of laying eggs for years to come?
Do wild horses and burros damage wildlife?
When Dr Sedinger and others: sportsmen, NBWC, Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), breeders and athlete advocacy groups use the term “ wildlife, ” they are almost certainly (even exclusively) referring to sometimes) to four species: mule deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep.
These are the four great ungulates (hoofed animals)… the species that form the backbone of wildlife management in Nevada…. species that consume hours and hours of deliberation during CNBT meetings. Their economic importance to NDOW cannot be overlooked… License and label sales represent a decent percentage of NDOW’s annual budget of around $ 53 million.
When he said wild horses and burros were harmful to wildlife, Dr. Sedinger certainly had the “big four” in mind. Here’s what he didn’t tell you about their status:
- Pronghorn and bighorn sheep numbers are at historically high levels. Elk numbers are slightly lower due to NDOW’s decision to reduce elk numbers due to complaints of depredation (eating haystacks).
- The mule deer numbers are well below historically high levels in Nevada (and the West) due to habitat and climate conditions. No one is speculating that wild horses and burros are the cause. Mule deer are browsers (the bitterbrush being a preferred shrub); wild horses and burros are grazers, consuming grasses and other plants not used by deer.
- Mule deer and elk were essentially absent from Nevada in the early days, when explorers and early travelers crossed the state.
Other wild species pursued and killed by sportsmen: highland game birds (chukar, quail, doves), fur animals (coyotes, bobcats, muskrats, beaver, foxes), waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans) ), crows, rabbits, etc. free from any negative impact claims by wild horses and burros.
Bigger is not better
Why are the following facts not more widely appreciated?
- Range cattle can weigh from 1000 to 1300 lbs. and more; wild horses are generally in the 700 to 1000 lb interval (with some exceptions). On average, cows are significantly larger and heavier than wild horses.
- The design of the hooves of the two animals is radically different. Horses have a flat, round-oval crepe-shaped hoof; cows have a V-shaped forked hoof with both ends facing down.
- The combination of heavier weight and Cattle V-shaped hooves produce much more damage to the fragile ground cover between sagebrush plants, wet meadows, unfenced spring heads, stream banks and other sensitive surfaces than does the more benign hoof structure of wild horses and burros. Any casual observer, even naive in the face of this question, can easily make this simple observation.
It might come down to this:
- Public lands need protection and management. All user groups…. human and non-human species… contribute to management needs.
- Wild horses and burros have a legal right to exist on public lands in the West. It is their only home.
- Over 95% of all domestic livestock in this country live on private property. Public lands in the West are home to about 3.5% of all cattle in the U.S. Nevada’s contribution to the country’s livestock census (about 100 million cows) is, at most, 0.5%.
Is it difficult to see where management efforts to preserve and protect western public lands should be directed?
Don Molde has been a resident of Reno for 50 years, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former member of the board of directors of Wildlife defenders, and former member of the board of directors of Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in the defense of wildlife for 45 years.
The views expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada ally. Our editorial staff remains completely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions promote public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, to act independently of corporate influence or politics.