Newspaper column: What to do about wild horses? Part 2

In his newly published book, “Wild Horse Country,” writer David Philipps offers his suggestion for what to do about the overpopulation of wild horses in the West, which are overgrazing the open range: “The solution is mountain lions.”

Realizing that this will leave horse-huggers aghast and cause cattle and sheep ranchers to gasp, Philipps forges ahead, “For decades, the BLM has said the wild horse has ‘no natural predators.’ … But the same people who have long dismissed using predators to control horses as impossible have never made an attempt to understand it. They have likely been too busy rounding up and storing horses. If they took the time to look into the idea of mountain lions, they would see that research on the ground contradicts the conventional wisdom.”

Philipps came upon this audacious “solution” after visiting Dr. John Turner at his summer digs in Montgomery Pass near Boundary Peak and the California border west of Tonopah, where the researcher observed wild horses and their environs. Turner spends his winter months working in a lab researching fertility drugs such as PZP, which is being used experimentally to dart mares in an effort to keep herds in check.

The book notes that Turner first came to Montgomery Pass in 1985 intending to do research on herd dynamics that might aid fertility drug studies. Then he learned about mountain lions.

“The BLM was saying there was overpopulation and there was actually underpopulation, because the mountain lions were just going crazy. This was something totally new,” the book quotes Turner as saying. “The old timers around here knew cats were hunting horses, but no one in the scientific community really realized it was happening, or that it could happen.”

Turner told Philipps that the highly adaptive lions, which weigh from 100 to 180 pounds, had learned to lie in wait near watering spots and would spring on the backs of foals, sinking their claws into the flesh and biting the neck, severing the spine in seconds.

The researcher learned this by attaching radio collars to some lions and tracking them for five years. His team discovered that mature horses were too big for the lions but they found foal carcasses near watering holes. In some years nearly two-thirds of the foals were eaten. “You would have some lions eating a foal every other week or so,” Turner told the author.

Philipps also related that in 2005 a University of Nevada, Reno a graduate student started tracking wild horses in the Virginia Mountains. She managed to attach a radio collar to one mountain lion and follow it for 10 months, finding that 77 percent of the lion’s diet was horse flesh. Despite this, according to Philipps, the BLM expressed no interest in the findings.

Meanwhile, the Nevada Division of Wildlife is spending $200,000 this year to kill lions.

“The economic tangle of killing predators while storing horses is mind-boggling. The Bureau of Land Management warehouses thousands of horses each year,” Philipps writes. “Each of those horses costs on average $50,000 to capture, house, and feed over its lifetime. At the same time, we are spending millions to kill mountain lions in the West. It is fairly safe to say that every dollar spent taking out mountain lions in Wild Horse Country drives up the cost of storing wild horses.”

While Philipps’ solution has a certain appeal for being a natural population control method, we suggest that in an earlier chapter he reported an even better and more economically viable solution offered by a Eureka rancher. Besides, foals, calves and lambs probably taste the same.

In 2010 George Parman posted a letter on the Internet, “No, what we need to do, is to let the ranchers and the mustangers take care of the problem, just as they did in the old days, back when, along in the Fall a handful of cowboys would take their saddle horses — throw a bunch of grub and their bedrolls in the back of a pickup — and off they’d go to do a little mustanging. … The horses were automatically kept at reasonable numbers. It cost the taxpayer nothing. The best of the horses were put on the market for people to use and enjoy. The remainder of the older and less desirable animals were euthanatized via a facility that made good use of the end product. … The cattle had plenty to eat. The horses had plenty to eat. Wildlife did well.”

Both solutions make too much commonsense to ever be tried.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

15 comments on “Newspaper column: What to do about wild horses? Part 2

  1. deleted says:

    I like idea of restoring mountain lions and it’s funny that the ranchers lobby arm, otherwise known as the BLM lies about the “overpopulation” of lions so that political cover can be had while they go around killing all that they can at taxpayer expense, and all because the ranchers worry (and understandably so even though it’s still a lie) so their cows don’t get eaten.

    That whole shooting horses thing though is wrong on lots of levels. For one, those horses don’t belong to them. They belong to us, and MAYBE if those cowboys were only shooting horses that got onto their little piece of land it would be wrong but more understandable, but they don’t limit that way.

    Unless these guys want to allow me to shoot their cows, on their land, shooting our horses, on our land, ain’t legal,mor right, in any way.

  2. John L. Smith says:

    Mule deer is their meat of choice, but horses are also good. The problem with the idea isn’t that lions will eat horses, but whether people will stop killing the lions (including a lot of ranchers, traditionally) and whether any amount of lions would be able to thin the horse population to the needed extent to actually preserve forage and water sources, etc. Good piece.

  3. Bill says:

    I was told by a F&G warden several years ago that a lion takes about 75 mule deer a year as prey. Lions normally do not prey on mature horses or cattle. They will take young ones and have a bad habit of killing more sheep than they need.

    There is no lion shortage. We don’t need to “restore” lions. There are already quite a few lions out there. If memory serves me correctly, we have had a number of lion sightings in urban areas lately, including down town Reno.

    George Parman is precisely correct. Let us return to the days when it was O.K. to mustang. You will see an improvement in the health and quality of the herds.

    Also, return to providing inspection and and permit the sale of horses for consumption as both animal and human food. Do so, even if private citizens are not permitted to gather the animals. Instead of keeping the animals in crowed pens and denying them conjugal rights, all at millions of dollars in tax dollars that could be used for humanitarian purposes, dispose of the unadoptable government horse and burro wards.

  4. Jim Falk says:

    Going back to the old ways makes sense in me. But then who ever expected anything the government mismanagers do to make sense? Jim F

  5. That would be both humane and less costly … even a boost to the economy.

  6. deleted says:

    Mustanging is the killing of the property of another, usually done on the land of another, and in gruesome fashion.

    And the response here is….that’s a good idea?

    Like I said above, would the people supporting this support people going our to a ranch somewhere up north an picking off a few (or a lot) of some ranchers cows from the back of a pickup truck? So how to justify the same thing done to horses on federal land?

    The things people say today.

  7. I thought we all owned them. Just collecting their share.

  8. deleted says:

    That’s certainly ridiculous.

  9. Bill says:

    Jim, actually the government does have one good policy about animals on public lands and that is the prohibition of feeding bears. Seems it makes bums out of them as it disincentives them to work for their dinner. Think what it would be like if that policy were carried through and applied to other facets of the government.

  10. A.D. Hopkins says:

    Harvesting at will by any and by any means almost wiped out wild herds. But if they were managed like native game, with a permitting process, capture limits, and laws governing what is fair chase, it might work. (I remember when we were in process of passing the Wild Horse Annie Bill, one of the arguments for it was the unfairness of using aircraft to chase horses. But I guess it becomes fair when the BLM does it.) As I envision it, the system would look more like the old ways than the current ones.

  11. Bill says:

    The current cost of maintaining the current wild (feral) horse and burro programs are astronomical. One BLM estimate is up to $50,000 over the life of an animal and on a projected basis over the next 10 years. perhaps a billion dollars for the entire program. At what point does this become an insanity? What worthwhile needs go underfunded due to this diversion of tax dollars for this feel good “animal rights” program over human needs?

  12. Bill says:

    I strongly agree A. D. to your comment. Ironically another responder inadvertently made the point that resources spent on this program are to the detriment of others, by posting pictures of hungry poor people. But for the aesthetics of it all, wild horse and burros would provide a readily available source of protein as they already do in many societies world wide. As for “heritage” maintenance, we could still be using the pony express for mail as that is part of our heritage. At what point does common sense and intelligent management overcome emotionalism?

  13. deleted says:

    I figure the cost of the program could be mostly offset, whatever the actual figures are, by taking up the ideas of some posters here in part.

    Which is to say, sending out government paid workers to shoot and kill, whether from helicopters or the backs of pickup trucks, cattle that have either wandered onto federal land, or even those “temporarily” on some ranch land, and selling those cattle which are aurely worth a lot more than any horse might be.

    Solves two problems at once; the cost of maintaining the wild horses, and increasing the forage available to the remaining population of animals.

    Hard to believe the posters above are the first to come up with this idea.

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