As I have said previously, the wild horses of America's eleven western states are caught in a battle of competing interests for the land on which they live, chief among those competitors, according to horse advocates, being cattle and sheep ranchers and their agents. And why is this? According to the ranchers, even with 160 million acres (the BLM actually administers 256M acres, but only 160M are allocated for grazing) to divvy up between them and the wild horse herds, this country just ain't big enough for the two of us.
There are some excellent, informative articles that address this tug-of-war and its financial impact on American citizens. You should definitely read them. It's all coming out of your hard-earned wages by way of your tax dollars -- don't you think you ought to know what it is you're paying for?
So, just for fun (and so as not to reinvent those already wonderfully-sculpted wheels), let's look at the plight of America's free-roaming wild horses from a completely different angle: manure. No, I'm not joking. What the wild horses leave behind is, in some respects, even more significant than what they take away. Wild horse artist and advocate, Karen McLain of Tempe, Arizona, explains:
During my five years searching for wild horses, I have observed how the digestive process of cattle is so different from horses. Cattle actually have more efficient digestive systems than horses do, breaking everything down as their food cycles through all four of their stomachs, whereas the seeds that horses consume as they graze, pass through them pretty much intact. Those seeds are left behind each time a horse defecates. It's very common to see those seeds sprouting in the manure -- essentially their own compost pile -- starting the cycle of vegetation all over again.
In other words, horses may eat a lot, but they recreate their own food sources as they walk on by. Cattle and sheep do no such thing.
Prior to publishing this article, just to make sure I would not misstate anything, I did some research, and what I learned, per "The efficiency of chewing during eating and ruminating in goats and sheep" (British Journal of Nutrition, May 1991), is that goats' digestive systems are so efficient that, by the time the seeds have been chewed and ruminated, it is not possible for them to sprout anything at all, and a sheep's digestive system is even more efficient than that of a goat.
All of which means (trying not to be too indelicate) that nothing "growable" comes out of cows, goats, or sheep after they are finished digesting.
So, what a herd of wild horses leaves in its wake is balance. Life. What cattle, sheep and goats leave behind is wasteland. (The word "wasteland," by the way, is not synonymous with "wilderness" -- always keep the difference in mind.) Horses continuously recreate the wilderness' ecosystem, simply by virtue of being alive; the competing livestock does precisely the opposite.
Generally speaking, ecosystems work fine until human beings start messing around with them, and we all know it. Anytime humans inject themselves and their "preferences" (or their "accidents") into the delicate balance of an ecosystem, regardless of where that ecosystem is, bad things happen. Look at Guam. We don't need to go that far from home, but this is one glaring example, the effects of which are still plaguing the island's residents, human and otherwise, nearly 70 years later.
For centuries, Guam was an island paradise, like Hawaii, but shortly after World War II, quite by accident, brown tree snakes, apparently hitching rides in the holds of cargo ships from New Guinea, Australia, and/or the Solomon Islands (as per the U.S. Geological Survey), found their way ashore. The island birds, having no natural defenses against the interloping predators, are nearly all gone -- ten of the original twelve bird species have been hunted to extinction by the brown tree snake, and the two remaining species are endangered. And the snakes, being foreign to the island and therefore having no predators at all, have experienced a population explosion.
Further, with no more birds to control the island's spider population, it, too, exploded. So now, if you go to Guam, what you find is an island overrun by snakes and dripping with spider webs. Oh, YUM!
Additionally, aside from the spiders, which give me the willies no matter where they're located, the birds were the natural distributors of seeds throughout the island. Now, with most of the birds gone, Guam's natural vegetation has also been seriously, adversely affected.
Closer to home are the boa snakes of Florida (no, they are not native to Florida, they are not even native to North America) which people purchased as pets, then decided they didn't want them and, rather than euthanizing them, simply set them free.
These snakes, which now number in the thousands, again, because of breeding and lack of natural predators, are responsible for the extirpation of 10 native songbirds, several different lizards, and bats. They grow fast and they grow big -- as long as 20 feet and as heavy as 200 pounds. They can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and habitats, including human habitats, serve as hosts for parasites and diseases, and have so far proved all but immune to all attempts at trapping, removal or eradication.
Need more? How about the Cane Toads of Australia. It all started in June of 1935 when well-intentioned but misguided scientists brought 102 of them from Hawaii to control the grey-backed cane beetle infestation which was destroying Australia's sugar cane crops. The plan was for the toads to eat the beetles. Unfortunately, the toads never got that memo. Nor did they get the one which read, "Stop procreating so much!" These little guys -- and they're not so little -- these bruisers weigh in at four pounds! -- reproduce like bunnies. Worse. The females lay 20,000 to 30,000 eggs at a time.
So far, nothing -- and I do mean nothing -- has stopped these invaders. No fences, no trapping, not even electricity. And without any natural predators, their population has exploded from 102 individuals to 1.2 billion, spreading out about 1,000 miles (that's even further than the distance between New York City and Jacksonville, Florida -- with no end in sight.
One final example: the Common Starling, a small bird. We've all seen them -- they're pretty much everywhere. But they weren't before. The were introduced into New York City's Central Park in 1890 by Eugene Schieffelin, who decided he needed to bring over ever bird species ever mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. Since then, because Starlings battle so fiercely for nest holes in trees, they have displaced and reduced the natural populations of chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, purple martins, and various other swallows. Not only that, but because Starlings have been so successful here (once again, unstoppable breeding habits), their flocks can become enormous, and this has actually caused problems with aviation. One notable, horrendous example was in Boston in 1960, when a turboprop flew through a flock, sucking many of the birds into its engines, after which the aircraft plunged into the harbor, killing 62 people.
All this devastation because some guy in New York City liked Shakespeare.
The sad and calamitous fact is, we never know in advance just how far-reaching our interference will extend. So, how many times are we, the stewards of this good earth, going to screw up the ecosystem -- for love or money -- before we finally "get it" that we should not be doing that?
So you tell me: If the horses are no longer there, or no longer there in the numbers required to maintain the balance, who is going to assume the gargantuan task of maintaining that delicate 160-million-acre ecosystem? The cattle ranchers? The BLM? More to the point, who's going to foot the bill for it? The American public? That's you, by the way.
Doesn't it make more sense, if we know about it in advance and can easily nip this in bud, if we can easily avoid yet one more ill-conceived environmental disaster and its nearly-always-associated kazillion-dollar price tag, to do just that -- particularly when the reasons for not doing it are ONLY to satisfy the desires of a very few greedy individuals or corporations who do not have the best interest of America at large in mind?
For more information regarding the horses and those who advocate for them, a good place to go is The Cloud Foundation (http://www.thecloudfoundation.org/)
Images generously provided by (and used with the permission of) wild horse advocate, Karen McLain.
Copyright by Pamela S. K. Glasner © 2014, All Rights Reserved