My invasive species is tastier than your invasive species
Nevada has a feral pet problem.
The problem is partially emotional. Many of us love Nevada’s feral pets. Speaking as a cat lover, I certainly enjoy seeing the occasional feral “outdoor” cat take a stroll by my home. They remind me of the feral cat colonies my great-grandfather always kept outside his home, which I spent so much of my childhood staring at and maintaining a sociable distance from. Sure, feral cats are rarely personable — they’re usually terrified of strange humans, and justifiably so — but it always warms my heart seeing adorable purring pouncing predators roaming the neighborhood, doing whatever mysterious cat things they do.
Unfortunately, the problem is also partially ecological. What feral cats do is wreak havoc on bird, reptile and small mammal populations (native or otherwise). They also contract fleas, ticks, worms, and various diseases, some of which are contagious to humans and all of which are contagious to my two indoor cats. They also breed aggressively, and, though they have more natural predators than your average introduced species (feral cats evolved from a wildcat native to the Middle East), there simply aren’t enough predators in our North American streets to keep feral populations in check before they starve to death — well, after they adorably genocide every bird, reptile and small mammal in sight.
Unfortunately, when people have to choose between the immediate emotional satisfaction of having free pets to look at from their homes or their cars, or preventing a predictable environmental catastrophe, it’s no surprise political solutions to our feral pet problem focus more on delivering emotional satisfaction than meaningfully reducing the damage our feral pets cause to our state.
Which brings me to feral horses and Senate Joint Resolution 3.
SJR3 is a resolution that asks the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to please, for the love of all that is good and holy, do something to meaningfully reduce Nevada’s feral horse population before they do to Nevada’s grasses and shrubs what feral cats do to Nevada’s birds and reptiles — namely, eat them to the point of ecological exhaustion. The measure is supported by a curious coalition of cattle ranchers, who want more public grass for their private cattle, and academic environmentalists, who want to save some food for the occasional sage grouse and antelope but don’t have to partner with horse advocates to politically oppose cattle ranchers.
Well, I don’t have to form any political coalitions, either; steak is delicious, and antelope and bighorn sheep are much more interesting to look at anyway. So let’s do this.
Feral horses, like all of Nevada’s pets, originally served a utilitarian function — their ancestors were literal horsepower. Those astonishingly unsanitary days thankfully ended with the introduction of the internal combustion engine, which solved various problems inherent in maintaining a horse-drawn society (sprawling acres of farmland dedicated solely to feeding horses and other draft animals, cities choked with mountains of dung and rivers of urine) and introduced absolutely no new problems whatsoever, thank you for asking.
Trouble was, once industrialization and automation put horses out of their jobs, a natural question arose — what do we do with them? Though one owner tried to teach a clever horse to code, the experiment ultimately proved to be a failure, so Americans did what we usually do with surplus labor — we turned most of them into glue or pet food.
Not all of them, though, and therein lies our problem.
As each of us drive through the deserts of Nevada, we seldom drive by feral cattle, goats or sheep. The reason for that is cattle, goats and sheep all have economic value because they’re all incredibly tasty (goat meat is highly underrated, by the way) and they each produce useful byproducts, like milk, wool, and goat yogurt (which is also underrated). Consequently, it’s important to manage their economic value by ensuring they don’t produce too many of themselves — a hungry cow doesn’t produce good milk, a hungry sheep can’t be turned into tasty lamb chops by your favorite Basque restaurant (in the United States, all sheep meat regardless of the age of the sheep is legally "lamb"), and a hungry goat is probably even more stubborn than usual, I imagine. Additionally, letting some loose and forgetting about them is literally letting money walk away — no rancher in their right mind would let their inventory walk into the desert without a plan to bring them back for slaughter.
Horses and burros, however, despite being introduced to North America at roughly the same time as cattle, sheep and goats, are quite common in Nevada’s deserts. There’s a reason for that — each of them are now literally less than worthless.
Okay, that last paragraph isn't entirely true.
First, yes, as horse advocates love to insist, there were horse-like equines (or burro-like equines if you’re reading this in Southern Nevada) in the Americas until roughly 10,000 years ago, give or take. Consequently, so their logic goes, horses and burros aren’t an introduced species at all — they’re a re-introduced species which European settlers successfully restored to their native habitat.
First off, the climate is a little drier today than it was 10,000 years ago, which might help explain why Burning Man takes place on a playa instead of on rafts in the middle of Lake Lahontan and Lake Manley is now better known now as Death Valley. Secondly, the native predators that might have eaten indigenous horses, like sabre-tooth cats and American cave lions, also died off along with America’s last indigenous horse approximately 10,000 years ago. Finally, modern feral horses have about as much in common with long-extinct American horses from the pleistocene as your average labrador retriever has in common with an American wolf, which is why Old Yeller was shot instead of released into the tundra to return to his own kind.
The assertion that feral horses are somehow indigenous to Nevada was most recently repeated and distorted in an especially galling op-ed in the Sierra Nevada Ally last week, which misrepresented the published science linked to in the article to infer that the two to seven million wild horses living in the Great Basin in the early 19th century were wild and indigenous to Nevada. Erik A. Beever’s and Cameron L. Aldridge’s Influences of Free-Roaming Equids on Sagebrush Ecosystems, with a Focus on Greater Sage-Grouse, however, actually said the following:
Equids were absent from North America until the end of the 15th century, when horses and burros were introduced by Spanish conquistadors into what is now the southwestern United States. Free-roaming horses spread rapidly across the Intermountain West, and populations reportedly peaked in the United States at 2,000,000–7,000,000 animals in the late 1700s to early 1800s (Ryden 1978, Thomas 1979).
And a quick read of the first sentence of Beever’s and Aldridge’s article, in fact, reveals the authors, a pair of academic environmental scientists, want to make an entirely different point:
Free-roaming equids (horses [Equus caballus] and burros [E. asinus]) in the United States were introduced to North America at the end of the 15th century, and have unique management status among ungulates.
That unique management status, however, brings me to something else I said earlier which isn’t quite true. Nevada’s feral horses and burros are not less than worthless, exactly — at least, not in the aggregate.
Individually, feral horses and burros are indeed worse than worthless, which is why the BLM paid anyone who wanted one up to $1,000 in 2019 to adopt an untrained feral horse or burro. Paying people to adopt feral equines, however, is far cheaper than keeping them in off-range corrals, pens and pastures, which consumes 67 percent of the BLM’s roughly $90 million and growing Wild Horse and Burro Program budget. As Ben Masters reported for the National Geographic in 2017 in an excellent four-part series on feral horse management, the BLM’s off-range corrals, pens and pastures might be more humane than starving in the desert, but that doesn’t mean they’re good:
As of March 1, 2016, there were nearly 13,500 wild horses and burros living in feedlot-type short-term holding pens and another 31,500 living in long-term pastures. Take a minute and let those numbers sink in. All 45,000 of these wild animals were gathered off the range, segregated by sex, castrated, branded, given shots, and doomed to sit in a feedlot for about five years. They have been or will be released onto a foreign pasture in the Midwest bearing no resemblance of their former wild lifestyle. Each horse will live on that long-term pasture until he gets old, or has organ failure or an injury. Then he will be destroyed in as humane a manner as possible.
Collectively, feral horses and burros are symbols — valuable ones. The New York Times recently reported, for example, that the feral horses roaming the hills near the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center are used as a selling point by entrepreneurs to attract workers and to demonstrate how environmentally sensitive their company’s operations are. Feral horses are also featured as one of the “12 Icons of Nevada” on Travel Nevada, a website maintained by the state Division of Tourism. The phrase “wild horse” and the word “icon” frequently go together in news coverage on feral horse issues, in fact, like in the Washington Post’s coverage on feral horse management last November.
That iconic status is why, politically speaking, feral horses and burros are worse than worthless — they’re priceless.
Icons, it turns out, can’t be slaughtered commercially. They can’t be euthanized. They can’t be trapped, spayed or neutered, and released. Even putting icons on birth control is nearly out of bounds — at least, if voters and advocacy groups have anything to say about it.
And they have, for five decades now.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, originally passed in 1971, begins with a congressional finding and declaration that, “it is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death.” The Act, however, does not technically ban euthanasia, nor does it unconditionally prohibit slaughtering horses for meat. Instead, the Act simply requires the BLM to attempt to offer for adoption every feral horse and burro captured by the BLM. If a horse isn’t adopted, the BLM is legally allowed to, shall we say, explore their options.
Those options, however, have been reduced substantially over the past two decades.
Though the BLM might be legally allowed to euthanize a healthy feral horse the way animal shelters are allowed to euthanize a healthy stray dog or feral cat, budget appropriations through the past decade have routinely featured a rider prohibiting the BLM from spending any money on euthanizing or selling healthy horses and burros to commercial slaughterhouses. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration has been similarly curtailed against budgeting money towards inspecting horse processing plants, thus making such facilities impossible to legally operate domestically.
Animal shelters have other options, of course. No-kill shelters routinely neuter or spay feral animals before adoption or release. The BLM could theoretically do that to feral horses as well. Unfortunately, this, to put it mildly, is incredibly unpopular among horse advocates, who argue that sterilizing feral equines alters their behavior and reduces their sociability with unsterilized feral equines. These arguments are frequently delivered through expensive lawsuits.
The final option, then, is to inject birth control into female equines during their decades-long breeding lives. The process is similar to a two-stage COVID-19 vaccination — feral mares are shot with Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP), given another shot four to six weeks later, then given a booster shot once per year. Conceptually, this is about as easy as attempting to control COVID-19 by forcefully vaccinating a motorcycle rally — horses, like motorcycle riders, like to roam, they don’t always roam with the same groups, and they don’t always carry identification.
Unsurprisingly, this isn’t working very well. Also unsurprisingly, even this method of population control has its critics. For many feral equine advocates, the problem isn’t that there are too many feral equines on Nevada’s public lands — it’s that there are too many non-feral cattle, sheep and goats competing against their feral icons for food and water. Scaring feral horses half to death by darting them with birth control from a helicopter (the BLM’s preferred method of birth control delivery) prevents feral equines from roaming free across Nevada’s dry and parched landscape.
Feral equine advocates aren’t wrong. Livestock grazing isn’t uniformly great for Nevada’s lands, either, even if it’s an admittedly clever way to turn difficult to irrigate desert into food, or to reduce fire fuels near urban areas. That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed all feral equines and banned livestock grazing in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge approximately a decade ago. The results were immediately striking. Grasses and watersheds recovered almost immediately, followed by increases in native sage grouse, antelope, and bighorn sheep populations within the refuge.
However, livestock populations aren’t the problem today. Livestock are inventory. They’re branded. If there are too many of them on public lands, their owners can be called or even taken to court. Feral horses and burros, however, have no owners — and since nobody owns them, nobody’s responsible for them. That’s the issue SJR3 tries to address.
SJR3 is a step in the right direction towards controlling feral horse and burro populations the way we already control stray dog and feral cat populations, but it won’t protect our state mammal’s habitat alone. In order to meaningfully manage our feral horse population, the federal government needs to at least let the BLM use the same tools to manage feral horses and burros our county animal control departments have used to manage feral pet populations for decades. This includes trapping, spaying and neutering, and releasing feral equines, and yes, also includes euthanasia. Additionally, the federal government needs to stop prohibiting commercial sale of feral equines and needs to stop functionally prohibiting the permitting of domestic commercial slaughtering facilities.
That, however, requires us, as voters, to see feral equines as they actually are — not as icons of a pristine wild west untouched by western man, but as living icons of our longstanding habit of dumping our appliances in the desert once they're no longer useful to us.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and is an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].