As a farmer, representative of the North State, and Vice-Chair of the Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee, I was disturbed to see the introduction of Assembly Joint Resolution 5, seeking to rehash the debate on banning wild horse and burro gathers. This issue has long been argued, but environmental science simply doesn’t support the approach.
AJR 5 urges the federal government to immediately declare a moratorium on wild horse and burro gathers, arguing that, “Millions of people greatly benefit from the uplifting vitality, elegance, and beauty of these animals when they are living in their natural habitat,” and that “our nation’s wild horses and burros now find themselves at alarmingly low population numbers.” These assertions fly in the face of well-established data and research and are categorically false. In fact, the entire underlying policy of AJR 5 is unfounded in science, a fact which its authors might better understand if they had actually consulted residents and representatives from territories whose ecosystems are struggling as a result of these wild horses for decades.
In 1971, as Congress sought to protect free-roaming wild horses and burros, it was against the backdrop of a culture steeped in the evocative imagery of the American Wild West. The images were popularized for the previous two decades by filmmakers on both the big and small screens. From Gunsmoke to Bonanza, we were a nation that loved our horses. A generation had fallen in love with Hollywood’s representation of the untamed, beautiful horse under expanses of the equally beautiful open sky from the glow of their television sets across our nation’s suburbs. But this is a fantasy, ungrounded in science.
The reality is that the wild horses we see in the West today are nonnative to this continent. I find it somewhat doubtful that Richard Nixon in 1971, or Rivas and Waldron today, fully understand the environmental impacts of overpopulation of unmanaged wild-horse herds on our western lands. In our particular local case, we see the impact on the environment at Devil’s Garden in Modoc County.
Our federal agencies have been tasked with making sure that wild horse and burro populations do not exceed an Approved Management Level (AML) for each territory defined by a public regulatory process pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The AML established for the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory is 402 horses, but due to years of mismanagement, the actual population of horses in Devil’s Garden today is estimated at more than 1,000. The current herd population is roughly 150 percent above the sustainability of the landscape.
Gathers are a critical management tool to alleviate severely impacted environments like Devil’s Garden. And they aren’t just critical for protecting our environment, but also the health and safety of these animals. Overpopulation results in a lack of adequate vegetation for grazing and water, leaving these animals malnourished and sickly. Gathers allow for the vaccination and proper veterinary care these animals need to prevent disease and death, and those that are removed are put up for adoption. If left in the wild and overpopulation unchecked, the native species of the area are then forced into direct competition with the horses for the limited resources of survival. This is exactly what’s happening in Devil’s Garden, and the native species and horses are suffering.
Is it kind to allow overpopulation of wild horse herds in an emotional bid to maintain an image of their collectively imagined freedom? I would suggest that the kindest thing for the environment and for the beautiful wild horses is to continue to manage the size of the herds through gathers and adoption. But until southern California representatives leave the glow of their suburban television sets behind and accept the science of healthy population management, both the environment and these animals will suffer the consequences.
As the Vice-Chair of the Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee, I have, and will continue, to oppose any policy seeking to ban wild horse and burro gathers, which are important to maintaining the health of our environment and these species.
Assemblywoman Megan Dahle represents the 1st Assembly District in the California Legislature, which includes portions of Butte and Placer counties, along with Lassen, Modoc, Nevada, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, and Siskiyou counties.