Thursday, December 2, 2010

My draft thesis proposal

INTRODUCTION
The horses on public rangelands have many connotations. They are “wild horses,” “feral horses,” “mustangs,” “national treasures.” They are considered pests, legends, symbols of American freedom, and the old west. Some even call them a living legend, our heritage, and are viewed as a valuable cultural resource. They are a romantic vision as they gallop across a landscape on which they appear to belong, with their mane and tails flowing out behind them. However, this is not a realistic view, as stated by Tim Findley in a recent article featured in Range Magazine. Horses have only occupied areas of the Great Basin for approximately the last five hundred years. With the ranges unaccustomed to such grazing pressures, it must be considered that they have a significant influence on the arid ecosystems they inhabit (Beever 2003).

The horse family appeared 60 million years ago in North America during the Eocene. Eohippus was the size of a fox and lived after the herbivorous dinosaurs had long gone. They were the true wild horse and lived in North America when it was semi-tropical woodland and contained lush vegetation (Wyman 1945). Each genus of the horse species was larger than the previous. Modern-day Equus rose up during the Pleistocene, where they were abundant until they went extinct along with many other taxa (the saber-toothed tiger, dire world, mammoth, giant sloth, and camels, to name a few). Theories lean towards climate change and resulting vegetation shifts, but over hunting has also been a theory (Berger 1986). Therefore, once a part of the North American ecosystem, the horse was re-introduced into the southwestern United States by explorers, about 10,000 years after they disappeared (Beever 2003). Freed or abandoned by the U.S. Calvary, ranchers, farmers, and others, these horses easily adapted to North America, where they thrived (BLM 2010). By the end of the 19th century horse numbers were estimated to be between 2 and 7 million (Beever 2003). It was likely they were as numerous as the buffalo in some places (Wyman 1945). These equine pioneers were called the mustangs.

Quite literally, the term mustang, derived from the Spanish word mesteño, means stray livestock. In the early twentieth century, these stray horses were rounded up by pioneers and ranchers for use as general saddle horses because of their keen intelligence and quickness. Not only were they sought after for these valued traits, but also because they were free for the taking, therefore the mustang was a prize to own (Morin 2006). On the other hand, ranchers also found the wild horse to be a nuisance. They caused unwanted competition for forage and water for their profitable cattle. Free-roaming horses also enticed their saddle horses to join their bands. For these reasons, wild horses were shot, run off cliffs into the sea, or corralled and left to starve (Wyman 1945). In the years following World War II, they were rounded up for the pet food industry (Morin 2006). The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 also facilitated the removal of many free-roaming horses during the early twentieth century (Beever 2003). These roundups, as well as horse slaughter, were often done inhumanely. The horses were killed and removed from the ranges as cheaply as could be done in order to receive the most profit. As a common resource, they were exploited. However this was a form of population management that kept their geometric growth in check.

Velma Johnston, also known as “Wild Horse Annie,” devoted her life to the protection and humane treatment of wild horses after witnessing a truck load of bleeding horses en route to a sale yard. Thinking that they were cattle, she followed behind so that she could inform the driver. She was appalled when they reached their destination to find many injured horses that were only able to stand because of how tightly they were packed. This began her lifetime pursuit to humane treatment of free-roaming horses (Cruise 2010). Her efforts and pure determination led to the Wild Horse Annie act of 1959, which prohibited the use of motorized vehicles to capture horses on public rangelands. Eventually, her work further led to the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro act of 1971, which stated that feral horses were an “integral part of the natural system” and must be protected from harassment, capture, or death. With this act, the once commonly owned free-roaming horses fell into public ownership to be managed by government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and United States Forest Service (USFS). The law prohibited the commercial exploitation of these horses, which had previously managed their numbers, and so their population began to increase from approximately 24,000 in 1971 to 60,000 by 1982 (Findley 2010). This growth conflicted with the livestock industry, which demanded that something be done to control the feral horse numbers (Garrott, Siniff, & Eberhardt1991). To achieve ecological balance, management had to be based on how the feral herds used and divided the resources available to them and other ungulates. This wild horse and burro act ultimately began the study of the feral horse ecology. The research is still ongoing to find best management practices to maintain horse populations on rangelands.

PROBLEM
The management of free-ranging horse herds has always been a controversial subject. In recent years, the horse named Cloud, brought to the public in his own documentary, and disneyesque movies giving horses human characteristics, have failed to mention horse overpopulation, drying up water holes, and harsh winters. Social media in the form of blogs, and even Facebook, have wrapped up wild horses in a romanticized image, burdening the plight of the free-roaming horse in myth and distortion (Findley 2010). The real plight of the horses running free on public rangelands is not the threat of extinction due to gathers conducted by the BLM, but a high growth rate and few predators – overpopulation. This leads to decreased forage, which threatens starvation for not only the herds, but native wildlife. Free-roaming horses have been found to decrease percent cover of vegetation, increase soil penetration resistance to water, and increase erosion (Beever, Tausch, & Brussard 2003). Horse grazed areas have more deer mice, but typically fewer populations of small mammals and reptiles (Beever & Brussard 2004). Therefore, management by the BLM strives to maintain appropriate management levels (AMLs) on the 180 herd management areas (HMAs) in 10 western states in order to achieve ecological balance (BLM 2010).

Since these herds can double their numbers in as little as four years, overpopulation is a problem. There are a few different ideas of horse management when it comes to the public. Some would prefer that the BLM do little in management -- no gathers, no fertility control, and no sex-ratios to limit population growth. Others just want more humane methods as they find the use of helicopters to gather excess horses about every four years inhumane (Findley 2010). The problem with the management of free-roaming horses is that there is much debate over their care and management by BLM. In June 2010, a government document was released: Draft Goals, Objectives and Possible Management Actions (BLM 2010). Public comment was encouraged to provide opinions, suggestions, and possible management actions to be considered by the BLM and presented in the 2010 Report to Congress (BLM 2010).

With the general idea of what these comments were, thanks to a phone conversation with William Anderson, Burns District Rangeland Specialist (November 18, 2010), I have formulated several questions. What impacts do feral horses have on rangelands? What are the current strategies to manage horse populations? What implications do these strategies have for horse herds?

PURPOSE
The purpose of my study is to help the Oregon BLM in their management of HMAs by providing field research on herd dynamics. This information will pertain to the BLM's use of fertility control in mares, gelding stallions, and controlling sex ratios to limit high growth rates. It is hoped that contraception is the answer to solving the feral horse overpopulation dilemma humanely (Garrott et al 1991), but its potential side effects are now being scrutinized. Based on personal interactions with horse advocates, there is concern about mares continuing their heat cycles. They fear this will cause more injuries as stallions continue to fight over them and breed them. Another concern is that there are too many stallions harassing the mares as a result of skewing the sex ratios in favor of males. These were some concerns found in the comments in response to the BLM document Draft Goals, Objectives and Possible Management Strategies (2010). Due to the amount of comments pertaining to the subject of contraceptives, the Burns District Rangeland Specialist suggested a field study on herd dynamics as my thesis topic that would also benefit them (W. Anderson, personal communication, November 18, 2010).

The objective of this is to provide needed field studies in an area where knowledge of herds is lacking. The ecology of free-roaming horses is still growing. There are still many things not known to those managing them or those who love seeing them in the wild. As Beever stated (2003), it is important to enlighten concerns with ecological data. My study will provide information to the BLM and society concerning effects of fertility control, skewed sex ratios, and gelding stallions on herd dynamics.

SIGNIFCANCE
My research will help the BLM gather field data to respond to comments they have received on Draft Goals, Objectives and Possible Management Strategies. The BLM is under scrutiny by the public, and public concern is what drives the policies of horse management (Findley 2010). Therefore, my field studies will hopefully quell public concerns by providing field data from observing the dynamics of horse herds and how fertility control might alter behavior. It will also provide information for future management decisions.

Further significance is the importance of knowing individual herd dynamics when applying fertility control to mares, gelding stallions, and controlling the sex ratio. Applying a general understanding of the dynamics to all herds could result in either increasing the growth rate, or drastically decreasing the growth rate.

I hope that my proposed research will join the collection of other data that has been gathered concerning feral horses and have importance in future management decisions.

STUDY AREA
My study area is in the Burns District, within southeastern Oregon, Washington. They have 8 herd management areas comprising of approximately 1,000 horses. Within their district are the Heath Creek/Sheephead, Palomino Buttes, South Steens, Stinkingwater, Warm Springs, Riddle Mountain, Alvord-Tule Springs, and the famous Kiger herd management areas (BLM).

LITERATURE CITED
Beever, Erik A. & Brussard, Peter F. Community- and landscape-level responses of reptiles and small mammals to feral horse grazing in the Great Basin. Journal of Arid Environments (59). 271-297.
Beever, Erik A., Tausch, Robin J., & Brussard, Peter F. (2003). Characterizing Grazing Disturbance in Semiarid Ecosystems across Broad Scales, Using Diverse Indices. Ecological Aplications (13)1. 119-136.
Beever, Erik. (2003). Management Implications of the Ecology of Free-Roaming Horses in Semi-Arid Ecosystems of the Western United States. Wildlife Society Bulletin (31)3. 887-895
Berger, Joel. (1986). Wild Horses of the Great Basin: Social Competition and Population Size. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Bureau of Land Management. (2010). Working Toward Sustainable Management of America’s Wild Horses and Burros: Draft Goals, Objectives, and Possible Management Actions.
Cruise, David. (2010) Wild Horse Annie: The Last of the Mustangs. New York City, New York: Scribner.
Findley, Tim. (2010). Special Report Mustang. Rangeland Magazine, Winter 2011. M1-M24.
Garrott, Robert A. & Taylor, Lynne. (1990). Dynamics of a Feral Horse Population in Montana. The Journal of Wildlife Management (54)4. 603-612.
Morin, Paula. (2006). Honest Horses: Wild horses in the Great Basin. Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Press.
Wyman, Walker D. (1945). The Wild Horse of the West. United States of America: Caxton Printers, Ltd.

4 comments:

  1. I can hardly wait to see what you come up with! I actually feel inspired to go for a master's degree when I graduate so I can do some heavy-duty research on this subject.

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  2. Awesome! It is great to be going to school studying something you love, rather than just getting a degree. I've actually been thinking about getting a few years work experience after I graduate and then going on for my PhD...we'll see!

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  3. Did you already finished your thesis paper? Well, I wish you published it online for us to read it. It would be a great source of information to create good thesis ideas for people who are also on the same field as you. Anyway, I hope everything went according to what you wanted it to be.

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