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.
“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.