By Lara Joy Brynildssen, Wild Horse Photographer & Advocate
I watched the video, Horse Rich & Dirt Poor, presented by The Wildlife Society, directed by Ben Masters and Charles Post because I’m a wild horse advocate and photographer. I love these creatures.
I’m not a fan of Ben Masters nor his coming-of-age film Unbranded. I am distrustful of his projects. I don’t know who Charles Post is but his bio says he earned a bachelor and masters degree in ecology at Berkeley. He is listed in the film as a wildlife ecologist.
What concerns me about this project is the idea of wild horses being pitted against all the other wildlife for resources. Is that true? How then does this fit in with the cattle and sheep being run on these lands? In many cases there are literally hundreds of horses versus thousands of livestock. Why are we pitting wild horses against other wildlife and considering them to be resource hogs when the population numbers of livestock are typically so much higher than those of the wild horses?
Charles Post says that he became involved because of a wild horse project he was part of a few years ago. He saw hundreds of horses come to a waterhole and battle for water. The B-roll during his monologue shows wild band stallions in a dominance battle. This is typical stallion behavior. They’re not fighting to prevent one another from getting water. They fight to preserve hierarchy within the herd. Why this actual fight is happening, I don’t know. There isn’t enough information given in the film to asses it accurately. But the way it’s presented, while Charles Post speaks, it leads you to assume that if this stallion drinks, the other will not. My suspicions about this film and its intent were beginning to be confirmed. I’d been watching for about a minute.
On-screen Steve Forge, Habitat Biologist, retired, Nevada Department of Wildlife says, "Nevada has more wild horses than any other state and yet, it’s the driest state in the union.” He continues, “Competition exists between different user groups…horses…wildlife…livestock.” “No one wants them [the horses] to suffer,” replies Post. “It’s we as humans that aren’t acting appropriately in managing the rangeland resources appropriately [sic],” asserts Forge. And so I wonder, how then do these horses survive and profligate here? If there is no water, how have the horses flourished? Darwinism comes to mind.
Near the waterhole where their production blind is set up, Post says, "So this should have vegetation.” Force replies, "It should have, yes. The abuse and lack of vegetation is just due to trampling.” I feel, watching more B-roll of mostly horses at the watering hole, that this statement was intended as another implication of destructive wild horse behavior. Force has already said this is the only waterhole in at least 5 miles. If every animal uses it, the land around it becomes trampled by all the animal traffic, not just the horses. I’ve seen images of extremely trodden lands around watering holes in many environments, not just those where there are wild horses (for example, Africa). The lines that Force and Post draw, from horse behaviors to a misused ecosystem, unsettle me because of their tendency to only partial accuracy. Post says, "We want to understand how wild horses are impacting not only the sagebrush community but also species like the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, and sage grouse, a bird that can become endangered if it’s habitat continues to decline.” Again… I wonder why only the horses are being blamed when livestock is run in so many public lands?
Shortly after this, quoted on screen, “500 years ago, Europeans introduced the modern horse to North America.” Partly true. The horse as a species actually originated on this continent so it was a re-introduction of the horse to this land. The filmmakers use the word “modern” to help make their point more truthful but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Read Robert Hammer’s book Salt Desert Mustangs to get a great perspective on the timeline of the evolution of man and horse. In evolutionary terms, the amount of time that the horse was gone from this continent is negligible. People who say horses are non-native but were rather introduced by the Europeans are not usually pro-wild horse people.
Quoted on screen, "Currently wild horse and burro populations are 300% the target population size on public lands.” Who set these targets? Are the filmmakers referring to the BLMs Appropriate Management Levels? What science does the BLM use to set those AMLs? And when there is an AML of 500 horses on public lands, how does that jive with the BLM allowing ranchers to run thousands of cattle?
At time marker 6:45 Post shows us an image of a “healthy meadow with sage grouse.” He says, “Horses are completely excluded and cattle are managed and only allowed to graze at the end of the summer.” I look at the pictures, stunned. Meadow 1 is gorgeous. Meadow 2 is barren. But the main difference between Meadow 1 and Meadow 2 isn’t what Post is telling us it is. It’s not about the fences that prevent horses from accessing the land. He is equating the bare land where horses are allowed to a gorgeous fenced meadow that horses cannot reach. However, the main difference in these meadows is the watering hole. In Meadow 1 you have the only watering hole in 5 miles. Force told us that right at the beginning of the video when he and Post are camped out in their blind. Every animal in the ecosystem comes to that watering hole. In Meadow 2, there is no watering hole which means there is less foot traffic in that meadow. That means that Meadow 2 isn’t trampled or bare by all the wildlife in the area seeking water.
Take a look at the carpet in your house. Usually, it’s more worn in certain high traffic areas and less worn in others. That wear in the hallway doesn’t mean too many of you are using the bathroom. It means you only have one bathroom. After seeing this I feel like Post is acting innocent about this issue while throwing breadcrumbs that lead us to the conclusion that wild horses are wrecking the ecosystem.
At time marker 7:52, quoted on screen, "Lawsuits and congressional riders have prevented the BLM from spaying, culling or selling excess horses and burros.” Again, only partly true. Wild horse advocates champion a humane birth control method called PZP, where mares are darted, and thus prevented from giving birth every year.
At time marker 8:14, quoted on screen, "The BLM's only option is to gather excess horses and put them in holding facilities to await adoption.” Reading this I gasped out loud. They could implement PZP birth control for a lot less money than the cost of the gathers and holding facilities.
Dean Bolstad, former BLM Wild Horse and Burro Director, says “The BLM's adoption demand is way down…about 4000 a year.” I think that if the BLM is hoping for average Americans to adopt mustangs, that's not a very appropriate management practice. Note that the “other disposition” he’s talking about here is slaughter. Again…if the BLM used their resources (money, time, personnel) for PZP birth control, we wouldn’t have “excess” horses in holding nor be looking at “other dispositions. Quoted on screen: the cost of holding these 50,000 horses is “costing taxpayers nearly $50 million annually.” I imagine what a wild horse advocacy group could do with $50 million annually. I could save the horses, the grouse, and the trout. I could probably set aside land for the rancher's livestock too.
At time marker 11:09 Cody Byrne, Fisheries Biologist, Nevada Department of Wildlife, says the flourishing mountain streams avoid the "grazing impacts from horses and livestock." Finally. In this video's attempt to focus on horses, it misses a big piece of the wild horse puzzle, the impact of livestock. Please watch the video and think about what these filmmakers are telling you. I agree that it’s a complicated situation but I don’t agree that the perspective these filmmakers have chosen to take portrays a complete or accurate wild horse story, and that’s why I’ve shared my thoughts with you today.