Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Horses as a Native Species, Now

This morning, I have been mulling over the social pressure to designate free-roaming horses as a native species.  Many people appear to want the horses classified this way.  Their arguments are that wild horses were here over 10,000 years ago.  They evolved in North America.  Their life began here, and now they have come home.  I worry, however, about what might happen if horses, an animal domesticated for thousands of years, is given native status.

Since horses have been in the care of humans, they have essentially become livestock.  Husbandry changed them.  And then when they were brought back to North America by explorers, dispersed throughout the West by ranchers, miners, farmers, and Indians, they became wild once again.  But, something had changed to the ecosystem they once called home.  It was dry.  Forage was not as lush as it had been when they left.  Those that once preyed upon their flesh were all gone.  Life was good, if you were a horse.  Few deaths, high birth rates, and their population was ever increasing at a geometric rate. 

Their numbers were held in check, however. Although their numbers were once estimated in the millions and once  may have competed with the bison, they have always had a predator.  At the time when their numbers peaked, there were a few factors that allowed it.  The west was still wide open.  The cities and settlements of today had not taken root.  Also, horses were in demand.  These wild creatures running the ranges were used by the Indians, the ranchers, and the farmers. 

And then, when they became numerous and competed with livestock, horrible things were done to trim the herds.  They were run off cliffs.  They were shot.  They were corralled and left to die slowly.  Until recent history, their population was always controlled in some way.  Even now, frequent gathers prevent them from overpopulating.

Horses are an introduced species to this modern day North American ecosystem.  If the landscape was more lush, and the climate allowed it, the horses would be returning to familiar territory.  But things have changed in the 10,000 or so years they have been gone.  It was why they died.  It was why they migrated across the Bering Land Bridge into Eurasia.  This land could no longer sustain them.

The only way they can live in these arid ecosystems across the Great Basin is because of management.  If a species has to be extensively managed via gathers every four years, can the be qualified as native?  Native wildlife have predators.  They also have humans who hunt them.  Why is it important that these free-roaming horses be given the status of native?  They have been livestock for so many generations.  Even now, with management policies that control the population, we are still applying the concept of husbandry to their populations.  Without that control, however, the population will increase until there is nothing left for them to eat, and then it will crash.  The rangelands will be destroyed.  Sustainable populations of horses may not be able to come back.

I'm not sure under what terms a re-introduced species becomes a native one.  I think I want to do more research on this subject.  Perhaps, when I have the time, I will look at the Prezwalski horse – arguably the only true wild horse left on this planet.  Then I can make a comparison.  Initially, I can say the one difference is that one species lives on grasslands and has never been domesticated in its history, and the other has been domesticated in its past, and lives on arid rangelands...

I think my goal will be to look at this topic over winter break.  It might be beneficial to me in my research to look at a truly native wild horse...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ramblings of right and wrong

I get so tired of talking to people who feel they are so educated about the "truth" about how many horses are out there, or the "truth" behind the reason the BLM is removing them, or the "truth" in how they are being rounded up.  Then, I get so frustrated because I try to tell them what is right once you rip all the layers of fabrication away.  Then I am frustrated further when I am told to educate myself by visiting someone else's blog!  As far as I am concerned, one will not find the answer in someone else's idea of what the truth really is.

And then...after all this frustration, I wonder about my sources.  What do they mean?  What makes them better than theirs?  The science?  They say there sources are science!  Are mine just as biased?  Who really knows the truth?  What really is going on?  Why is it two people can take the same facts and still come out with a different conclusion based on how they interpret it?  With that being the case, how do we know what the truth really is?

Are the horses being removed to be replaced with cattle?  -- I do not think so as it just does not feel right, or make any sense.  Are the horses being removed to control population?  -- Yes, I certainly believe that.  That makes sense.  Based on all my knowledge about how populations grow and what horses and large mammals can do to a landscape not accustomed to grazing, it makes sense that they (the BLM) has to act as "predator" by removing some.  Do the cattle also have to be managed?  Yes - and they are, correct?  Grazing permits control the population of cattle.  Why do cattle outnumber horses?  Is it because of the time the spend on the rangelands?  The amount of forage that is available while they are there eating with horses and native wildlife?

Maybe I should do my thesis study on cow and horse utilization of the rangelands.  Maybe it would answer some of these questions that I have, and put to rest this theory that cattle are taking over horse lands.

Why do people paint the horse as this perfect animal that could not possibly do any damage to the range?  It's all cattle -- it's all the BLMs fault.  Why can't people provide assistance instead, and approach in a helpful way, rather than a "you're doing a horrible job, do it this way."  It is no wonder that the BLM may not listen to some people.  When approached like they are doing everything wrong, of course they will get defensive and not listen to what a person might have to say. 

But when I talked on the phone with the rangeland specialist the other day, he truly wanted to use me to answer some of the questions brought up in comments they received.  That, I believe, is effort on their part to do what the public wants, to make a change, to make the program better.

Why can't "activists" find a way to help the BLM, rather than hinder them?  If they really want to help, they need to volunteer, go to school in rangeland science, wildlife management, something that will make them useful to the horses.  I know there are many advocates out there that do, and the BLM appreciates them, I'm sure.  But these people who cause all the law suits, why can't they step in and provide a helpful hand?

I am very frustrated and confused tonight.  How do we  educate people about horses on public rangelands? They believe the more sensationalized version of the story because it invokes more emotion and grabs their attention.  And that makes it hard to try and convey anything that opposes what they think is right.

And then I again question...who is right?

Can I scream?

The Warm Springs Gather Wrap-Up

Here are the BLMs facts after the Warm Springs gather a couple weeks ago that resulted in the horse that broke her neck. An unfortunate event...

The goal for the future of gathers, I believe, is to eventually not have to do quite so many, or to remove as many. This method of management is expensive and unless more adopters step up, placing the majority of these animals in long term holding is certainly not sustainable. This is where gelding some of the stallions, administering PZP fertility control to some mares, and then releasing them back onto the rangelands comes in. The hope is that fewer round ups will have to be conducted at some future point. However, there is concern for what this will do for herd dynamics...again, maybe this is my thesis study???

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Phone conversation with BLM, 11-18-2010

I just got off the phone with the Burns District Rangeland Management Specialist.  Though I hoped to walk away with one great thesis idea, he gave me several that I hope to settle on over winter break.

The first that he suggested was looking at herd dynamics.  They've (BLM) has received a lot of comment (on the EIS I'm assuming) about the national policy of 60/40 stallions to mares, the use of PZP, and gelding.  It really sounded like this is where they need more research so that they can respond to those comments.  While it sounds like a great thesis topic, I'm not even sure how I would approach this topic in field research, etc.....

Another place where they could use more research is in the herds' distribution.  However, I can incorporate this into any subject of study I choose.  While studying the horses, I could look into their distance to water, roads, and also look at vegetation and slope utilization.  This would help the BLM in knowing where the horses are located.

A place where he said would be really great for research and field work is utilization.  They've received many comments about horses vs. cows.  Who does the most damage?  Because of time constraints, this has been a study that is lacking in field research.  I don't know that I would have the time for this either.

Lastly, we talked about sage grouse habitat.  In my last conversation with my adviser, we had kicked around the thought of how horses might impact sage grouse.  Since they are a declining species (in Washington, there are only two populations left), it would be an interesting topic to see how horses might influence sage grouse.

We also talked about some of the controversy going on.  He introduced me to the name: Craig Downer and that he is a wild horse ecologist, but the paper that he wrote has no scientific backing.  This paper has caused a lot of issues -- at least that's the impression Bill gave me.

I have a lot to think about.  It was a great conversation, though.  It gave me a fresh dose of excitement to start my research.  I am really trying to figure out a way to get down there to Burns, Oregon over winter break.  He said we could talk more, he could show me some of the comments they've received, and take me on a tour to some of the HMAs.  I have the time to do it, that's for sure.  The $$$ aspect of it is the challenge!!  But, it is important I think, and will help me decide what I want my research topic to be centered on.  So, someway, it must happen!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Annotation: Management Implications of the Ecology of Free-Roaming Horses in Semi-Arid Ecosystems of the Western United States

Beever, Erik A. (2003). Management Implications of the Ecology of Free-Roaming Horses in Semi-Arid Ecosystems of the Western United States. Wildlife Society Bulletin 31(2). 887-895.

In this commentary, Erik Beever, draws from his research in 9 Herd Management Areas (HMA) to highlight the influence free-roaming horses have on the landscapes of the Great Basin. He has studied many aspects of feral horse disturbances, from percent cover of plant species to small mammals.

Due to the history of feral horses, and the policies surrounding their management, they have have a unique influence on rangelands. Horses evolved in North America, but disappeared between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago. The current theory for their disappearance, along with many other taxa that also went extinct, is that the climate changed, which resulted in vegetation shifts, and they were also hunted by various predators, including humans. In the 16th century, domestic horses were brought to the southwestern United States by the Spaniards. From this initial introduction, and the relationship humans had with horses, their population peaked at 2-7 million in the 19th century. Then the Taylor Grazing Act 1934 initiated persecution, capture, and removal of horses. 

Following this, their populations declined through the late 19th century and through to the mid-20th century. Their populations again began to rise after the Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed in 1971. This act began the study of the ecology of free-roaming horses.

Feral horses are more socially dominant than cattle when interacting with native wildlife. This effects native wildlife use of the area. Studies of horse and ungulate interactions have been conducted, and are improving greatly. However, interactions that horses have with non-ungulates is only beginning and such studies will be important in understanding how horses affect various components of their environment.

Horses have a unique influence on the landscape, this is important to understand for management purposes. Many compare their influences to cattle use of the rangelands, but horses are unique. They are cecal digesters, which means that they are not selective in their forage. A low-quality diet means that horses will consume 20-65% more forage than a cow of an equivalent body mass. Horses also use the landscape heterogeneously, leaving many trails that are used repeatedly and go long distances. Cows, on the other hand, use the landscape in a more uniform manner. Their trails are not as used, nor as long – as Beever observed. As a result of this, horse occupied sites have greater soil penetration resistance. Further differences between horses and cows are as follows: horses have a flexible lips and upper front incisors when compared to cattle. Such differences mean that horses can graze vegetation much more closely to the ground than cattle.  This will delay the recovery of vegetation.

Now that we know their unique influence on the landscape, they also have unique management plan when compared to cattle, and native ungulates. Horses are not as intensively managed as cattle. Cattle are managed on public ranges with fencing exclosures, rotation grazing, herding, and they are supplied with water. Horses are not fenced, and are managed with minimal strategies. Unlike with native ungulates, hunting of horses is not permitted, as they have federal protection under the Wild Horse and Burro Act, 1971.

In conclusion, Beever's purpose was to highlight the differences of horse influences when compared to cattle and native ungulates. He argues there needs to be careful monitoring for ecosystems that have had little, or infrequent, grazing over evolutionary time in order to avoid deterioration.

This was a great commentary of what Beever has researched and studied in the past. Compared to another article he wrote on characterizing the grazing disturbances of horses, he went into more detail here about soil penetration. In his former article, he never outright discussed or addressed the increased soil penetration in horse occupied sites compared to horse removed sites. As a result, I found this article to be great for my research as it explained the unique influences horses have on the landscape when compared to other ungulates, and also the unique way they are managed.

Beever was trying to reach managers, biologists, and the general public, who perceive the ecology of free-roaming horses to be comparable to cattle. His article addresses the differences that these two ungulates in fact have on the landscape, and that horses have a unique influence. This is important to understand for management purposes in deciding appropriate management levels of horse herds.

Friday, November 5, 2010

New focus

It seems that one of the Yakama Nation's own members is doing a study on their free-roaming horse problem. Since the tribe will be more likely to allow a member onto the reservation for research, versus a non-tribal member, I've opted to switch my study area.

There was the option of doing a project on any of the other northwest tribes facing horse problems, but since my base knowledge is on feral horses on public lands, it makes more sense to follow that. Also, so much of my undergraduate study was conducted on BLM horses that I'll just be building my thesis on that.  So this is a plus!  I won't have to learn the history of horses and Native Americans - just about the horse history on public lands, which I already know!

One of my professors planted the seed about doing my research with the BLM.  He was concerned that I'd never had any dealings with tribal nation's before and that they may not want to work with me.  It sounds like I probably could have done some sort of project on the other member tribes of the Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition.  However, the reason I'd settled on the Yakama horse herds was because of the close proximity to CWU.  If I'm going to have to drive anyway for my field research, I'd rather go with the for a project with the BLM.  I have, for the most part, already done a lot of research in this area.

My new proposal, for now, is to find out what conflicts or issues the Oregon BLM might be having with any of their horse herds. I'd like to learn if there is a study they haven't done, but would like to see researched.

Wish my luck in my efforts to contact people in pinpointing a research problem for my thesis!