It's Complicated: Protecting
Wild Horses in the American West

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Courtesy of Amy Dumas
Amy Dumas, who leads the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program in California, has adopted several mustangs herself.
The sagebrush-spattered deserts of eastern California, where the state butts borders with Nevada, are home to perhaps the most complex wildlife management challenge in America. And Amy Dumas M.E.Sc '95 is one of the lucky scientists at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who get to untangle it.
 
Dumas is head of BLM California’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, the group responsible for managing the thousands of free-ranging equids that wander the state in 22 separate herds. Recognizing these animals as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” U.S. law protects them from capture, harassment or killing.
 
But unlike other protected species, the primary threat to wild horses isn’t hunters or habitat loss — often, it’s the horses themselves.
 
Eastern California’s arid climate and sparse vegetation provide harsh conditions for wild horses, which can drink up to 10 gallons of water and consume 18 pounds of forage per day. Left to their own devices, says Dumas, horses can rapidly multiply, and may effectively eat and drink themselves — along with other wildlife and livestock — out of house and home.
People don't understand the true complexity of what we do, all the different restrictions we have to work under.
— Amy Dumas
“Our mandate is to balance the population on the range with what the habitat can support,” Dumas explains. While native horses roamed North America until roughly 10,000 years ago, the contemporary herds are descendants of Spanish stock introduced during the 15th and 16th centuries. And the modern-day West bears little resemblance to the plains of the Pleistocene.
 
“There are no predators on the range, no checks of any kind,” Dumas says.
 
In lieu of natural controls, she and her colleagues are tasked with keeping populations from soaring past their habitat’s carrying capacity. When herds get too large, the BLM performs a “gather,” in which helicopters are used to herd the horses into corrals. From there, the excess animals are sent to a holding facility, where they are dewormed, vaccinated, and put up for adoption.
 
These gathers have long taken fire from every direction. Horse advocates complain that the helicopter roundups traumatize the animals. Critics of government claim that the holding facilities are a wasteful expense. And hunters and ranchers gripe that the horses squeeze out other animals and should be dispensed with altogether.
 
For Dumas, managing these irate factions is as challenging as handling mustangs. While she acknowledges that the program’s detractors mean well, she also believes that the criticism stems from sensationalized media accounts and misinformation. “People don’t understand the true complexity of what we do, all the different restrictions we have to work under,” she says. “They’re looking through a peephole at a big program.”
 
Many horse activists, for example, promote fertility control as a means of regulating horse numbers without resorting to roundups. What they don’t realize, says Dumas, is that fertility control only works for one year, maybe two — and that to administer the requisite drugs, the horses have to be rounded up anyway.
 
“We’ve been doing fertility control for years, but it’s only one tool,” she says. “You just can’t apply the same technology to every herd.”
The activists are activists because they're passionate about horses, just like the people who work with me every day.
— Amy Dumas
Another challenge is attracting enough people to adopt the horses the BLM gathers. The price of hay has risen with the cost offuel, and owning a horse is more expensive than it used to be. Dumas, who has herself adopted four horses and a burro, fears that declining adoption is merely a symptom of more disturbing trends, like the disappearance of open space and an increasingly litigious society. “Kids don’t learn to ride because horse owners are afraid the kids’ parents are going to sue if they get hurt,” she says.
 
Dumas, a Delaware native, grew up riding horses and scrubbing out stables. At Yale, she studied conservation biology, and was surprised to learn that the discipline emphasized human relationships just as strongly as ecological ones. “The concept of managing resources while keeping other factions in mind has proved incredibly useful,” she says. “You’re not the only player on the field.”
 
While Dumas’ conservation training has proven invaluable, she also recognizes that the wild horse program has no real equivalent: Wild horses are non-native species that are federally protected, fecund to the point of destructiveness, and, unlike most wild animals, can ultimately end up in private hands.
 
And, of course, the wild horses and burros are capable of inflaming human emotions in ways that few other animals can. “The activists are activists because they’re passionate about horses,” Dumas says, “just like the people who work with me every day.”
DSC 0133 web
Courtesy of Amy Dumas

Amy Dumas with Eisen, a mustang she purchased from the Sheepshead horse management area in Oregon.

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Courtesy of Amy Dumas

Dumas with a horse at Hope Valley, California.

About the Author

Ben Goldfarb is a 2013 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he served as editor of Sage Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, OnEarth Magazine, Yale Environment 360, and elsewhere.

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PUBLISHED: October 22, 2013
 

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