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Wild horse over-population is causing environmental damage

Most Americans envision healthy mustangs galloping free on the range when they think about the country's wild horse population. But UC Cooperative Extension rangeland advisor Laura Snell sees another image.

Wild horses are beautiful, but present land management challenges.

In conducting research on the over-populated wild horse territory at Devil's Garden Plateau in Modoc County, she witnesses a group of horses visiting a dwindling and damaged pond.

“Maybe there is enough for the lead stallion and the lead mare to drink. The rest stand there and look longingly at the diminished water source,” Snell said. “They do not seem content.”

The research Snell has underway at Devil's Garden was chronicled in the current issue of California Agriculture journal by executive editor Jim Downing. The federal government has determined the ideal horse population on the 230,000 acres of wild horse territory is no more than 402, however, more than 2,000 wild horses are running on the land.

Snell began working in the remote northeast corner of California in 2015.

“I had Modoc County ranchers coming up to me on my second day of work asking me how to solve the wild horse issue,” she said.

She realized that agencies and authorities responsible for policies that determine the horses' fate, and advocates who lobby strongly that the horses should be cared for humanely, don't see the poor conditions suffered by the horses and the environmental degradation of the land.

“The area is a quarter million acres in size. There are no main roads, so you have to take ATVs to see the horses,” Snell said. “We realized we needed to provide visuals to show people the horses and what the landscape looks like due to unmanaged grazing by the wild horses.”

Snell places wildlife cameras for two-week periods near 24 remote water sources in wild horse territory in Modoc and Lassen counties. At each site, the camera takes a burst of three pictures automatically every 15 minutes; motion detectors on the cameras also trigger a shot whenever an animal enters the field of view.

Laura Snell, left, and USFS rangeland management specialist Jenny Jayo mount a wildlife monitoring camera at Bottle Springs, a water source in Modoc National Forest. (Photo: Will Sukow)

Preliminary data from 2015 show some striking findings. At one spring site, for instance, more than 71 percent of all animals detected over the sampling period were horses. Cattle accounted for 19 percent and the rest were pronghorn antelope, deer and hawks. The study will continue through 2017.

Wild horses are running in the Devil's Garden territory, and outside the territory, on private and tribal land. Fences don't hold the horses in, Snell said. Federal wild horse management areas are intended for multiple uses, including livestock grazing, hunting, and wildlife habitat. But in Devil's Garden, livestock have been excluded because of the environmental degradation.

“It was never intended to be single use area,” Snell said. “The horses are gorgeous animals, but I also like to see pronghorn, elk and mule deer. Some groups of wild horses are getting large and studs are getting aggressive. I know people who no longer ride their personal horses because it's not really safe with the territorial nature of the stallions.”

The images and data from Snell's research are designed to inform management and policy decisions in hopes of easing the expensive and environmentally harmful wild horse over-population. Already U.S. Representative Doug LaMalfa (R-Oroville) has brought the study to the House Committee on Natural Resources and preliminary results have been shared with Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board.

Wild horse impacts near Bottle Springs in the Modoc National Forest. (Photo: Will Sukow)
A herd of horses visits a spring at the Devil's Garden Wild Horse Territory. (Photo: Laura Snell)
Posted on Tuesday, December 6, 2016 at 1:18 PM
Tags: Laura Snell (4), rangeland (30), wild horses (2)


Here is your problem. Picture of two fat arab horses in the article, don't look like mustangs to me. Either way, they are very healthy looking.  
The pond, hey, that is winter to horse people. You won't do any convincing unless you can show how it would be without too many horses. But, for god sakes, put pictures of emaciated horses, not fat horses running or a bunch of wild fat horses at the water hole. If the editor pics the pics, you need or educate your editor.

Posted by christine amber on December 11, 2016 at 6:24 PM

Hi Christine,  
Thanks for your comment. I used the picture of the beautiful galloping horses to illustrate the lead paragraph of this story - the image most Americans have of wild horses in our country.  
But I can understand the confusion. I added an additional image to the post that was taken by the UC Cooperative Extension advisor conducting this research, Laura Snell. This may give people a better idea of actual wild horse situation today. The picture of many horses at a spring was published in California Agriculture journal.

Posted by Jeannette E. Warnert on December 12, 2016 at 11:39 AM

NO. You are missing the point. I am a horse person. It is clear to any horse person you first picture is of two young Arabian horses. Not what mustangs look like at all.  
The horses at the watering hole look quite healthy and the state of the watering hole is what any horse people would expect and NORMAL. The picture's need to more accurately discribe over crowding which leads to starving of animals. That is what will get people behind the issue. Many people believe the environment for he horses is natural for them; clearly becuase they have over bred. But, they don't look to be in any problem from it. They are fat and healthy looking.  
If you want to get people behind a movement to control mustangs, they need to see the mustangs suffering not the environment. That is my point. I also sent an email to Ms. Snell saying that the picture was the antithesis of the problem she is trying to solve, controlling mustangs on wild land.

Posted by christine amber on December 12, 2016 at 12:43 PM

Wild horses on the Devil's Garden look like normal domestic horses. Horses were turned out after the mechanization of farming and horses that were part of grazing allotments were not fully gathered in the early 1900s which led to this “wild” horse herd. This herd does not exactly represent the "mustang" look that viewers often want or expect. They have draft horse, Arabian, and Appaloosa influences among others. I am sorry if the initial picture was confusing, the first picture in this article is not of Devil's Garden horses even though we do have many horses that look similar.  
Let me address the "watering hole"  
Although this may look like a watering hole now, it is actually a natural spring site and riparian area that used to house fish, fairy shrimp, a variety of macro-invertebrates, waterfowl, and other wildlife. This is not a man-made water hole and shouldn't be considered “normal.” The "normal" appearance is exactly the kind of thinking I'm trying to combat with my research. I realize that I will most likely not be able to change the feelings of most horse advocates but I am aiming to show the millions of birders, hunters, fisherman, wildlife enthusiasts and others what their public land is starting to look like due to unmanaged grazing from wild horses. The environment is important; habitat is important and by the time wild horses look emaciated and starving, the environment is often beyond repair. I conduct research on the Devil’s Garden and can only speak to the conditions of the rangeland, riparian areas, and vegetation in this area. There are horses that look worse on other public lands, but those pictures have been circulated and a solution has not been achieved. I am trying a different strategy and targeting a different group of people.

Posted by Laura Snell on December 12, 2016 at 5:29 PM

Has anyone considered introducing large predators like wolves, bears, or Mt. Lions to help control population?

Posted by Joseph Bickford on January 16, 2017 at 12:06 PM

You bring up an interesting point that some natural predation does occur to horse herds. There is one small, pretty isolated herd near Lake Tahoe that is controlled primarily by mountain lions. Currently, wolves are making their way onto the Devil's Garden from Oregon and could provide some population control but the numbers of horses greatly outnumber the number of wolves currently. We will continue to monitor if the addition of this large predator affects the herd. Thank you for your question.

Posted by Laura Snell on February 6, 2017 at 2:39 PM

The problem of too many horses on BLM land is in reality a problem of people out of reality. Many of our citizens are not raised with the values of the basically white and affluent protectors of said horses. If the deer or elk get out of hand we have a hunt and charge for licenses for the privilege. At least twenty percent of Utah’s citizens come out of a value culture that considers horses as food. It is unfair of the majority to deprive them of the same privilege they have with deer and elk.  
Answer: Open a hunt for the surplus horses to be used for human food. I have eaten horse, dog, cat, and insects when visiting cultures that use them for food. I for one would be glad to have a horse in my freezer. Little farm girls fall in love with calves they still get milked then hamburger. Or fed and butchered and she still eats her mom’s pot-roast.  
Let’s grow up and accept the differing sensibilities of minorities and answer a gnawing problem with a logical answer. Remember the American Indians loved their horses but rode them as a moveable feast in difficult times. I hope they can do the same thing when the burros eat all the food for their sheep and goats.  
Robert J Frederickson

Posted by Robert J Frederickson on March 27, 2017 at 11:48 AM

The problem as I see it is NOT that there are too many wild horses. The problem is and inept corporate loving government. 1. The BLM wants the horses gone - they don't want to take care of them in any way. 2. The BLM and is too busy reducing the land available to the horses by leasing it out to ranchers and for mineral extraction. 3. Mineral extraction is poisoning the available land and water so to keep the horses on that land after the leases are done would be criminal. 4. Because most of this land is already poisoned (as well as the water) the animals are not good for eating. 5. As much as the federal government hates the horses, they hate big predators even more - preferring to allow them to be hunted while they are still hibernating with their cubs.  
If they were truly responsible, they would allow big predators (not humans) to roam free with the horses and they would stop reducing the habitats.Most of the mineral extraction is for foreign governments - it has nothing to do with Americans making any money - the leases are for pennies on the dollar.

Posted by Sophia Marx on June 17, 2017 at 10:32 PM

Interesting research. Question: what is seen as the biggest future health threat to Devils Garden wild horses (if herd population is uncontrolled) - water or forage or something else? Also does. USFS and BLM ever co-manage horses in the USFS territories? I am not a rancher, birder, hunter, fisherperson tho I respect these interests to a degree. My preferred meat diet is seafood.cattle has a lot of cholesterol - bison is better. I ride an adopted BLM mustang for fun (awesome 8 yr old mare from Oregon - Definitely wouldn't want to see someone so hungry they'd eat her or one of her former herd mates). Oh and I'm a CAL alumni. Since this article was published litigation has resulted in 23.000 acres being re-dedicated to the DG horses. And an active group of DG mustang trainers is domesticating some horses for adoption. I'm all for science-based management of the wild horses on the range but then some people say "too costly" or cry foul for some reason.

Posted by Denise Kendall on September 8, 2017 at 6:13 PM

To just place the blame on one group of people is ignorance. Especially when you blame ranchers considering we have some of the strictest grazing regulations. Being a rancher I have spent most of my time and money trying to preserve the land for future generations and habitat. Ranchers have to follows strict grazing regulations and are often involved in programs to help native wild life be preserved. Also if you really love horses something has to be done. Get out of your office chair and go and look at how these horses are suffering and what they are doing to the land. Coming from someone who works with horses on a daily basis and depends on them as much as they depend on me we must do something. Humans created this problem and horses are overrunning native animals and their habitat. I love horses and that is why I will not stand to watch horses starve and watch colts suck from their dead mother. Wake up people!! It would be great if we could just leave them and let them roam free, but we are not doing them a favor! We have to find a solution ASAP or we will be watching these horses starve and lose the beauty of the public lands and wild life all due to ignorance and lack of education. Even worse than the lack of education is the lack of experience. Continue to blame cows and see what happens. Cows populations on public lands are continuing to decrease and yet the problem gets worse. I will be the first to admit that cows have been a part of overgrazing problems due to lack of management and I have seen it. Some of us ranchers still pay for the negative effects of predecessors overgrazing. So please listen to our voice of warning because we have already experienced the problems that horses are now causing our public lands. Please lets work together and do something. We owe it to the horses and the land.

Posted by Tyler Kay on December 3, 2017 at 1:13 PM

You are showing a lot of cattle prints, as well as a water-hole in Devils Garden that we also monitor, and it is mostly cattle that go there -- but the other photos, troubling because misleading, also show cattle prints, among the horse prints.  
Very big difference between cattle and horse ungulates, to say the least. We do know that there is a ongoing investigation of the Modoc Forestry Administrators as well, and a lot of corruption taking place over there. And we also know the Cooperative Units are told what to say, most often, in reports and the bias against wild horses, compared to cattle, which is favored over there. Often, cattle disturbance is left out of many of the Forestry Reports, due to this same bias (i.e. relatives all who work there with the welfare ranchers). . . fact!  
And by your description, and what someone had told you, rather than the reality of the history that was there, that many of us know very well, this article is flawed very much, and the government employees are less than honest, and really from their conversation, really know nothing about wild horses -- and yes, we do, as over here we are involved daily, and large mammal specialists -- and we disagree with the supposed facts in this article, as there exist way to many errors.

Posted by John Cox on July 21, 2018 at 5:09 PM

where are the few places the younger horses call home during adoption? and how old is considered to late for a wild horse ?

Posted by Phillip Brown on October 27, 2018 at 3:13 AM

Have you thought of just gelding yearlings and releasing them back out to the wild. also these horses seem to have a good and moderate weight. the only problem that i see would be over population and a competitive relation ship at elk and other grazing animals. also if your going to use photos use photos that prove your point not others. a few people have said some of the horses don't look like mustangs and their right they look like quarter horses and arbian horses. they also look like groomed ranch horses in my opinion.

Posted by Teka on April 23, 2019 at 8:33 AM

I wonder how many of the photos taken automatically show cattle or sheep, not horses. Over the past 10 years the Grazing Reform Project has been monitoring livestock impacts on the ground on Nor Cal national forest grazing allotments. We have lots of pictures like those above only where the trampling and fouling of the water has been done by cattle, not horses. Check 'em out at:  
Putting all the damage onto horses is political, not scientific. This appears to be another of the UC Extensions biased "studies". So I challenge y'all: publish the photos you have where it is cattle mucking it up in the water.

Posted by Felice Pace on June 27, 2019 at 12:58 PM

Interesting perception of what's happening. Curious, what criteria is used to determine that wild horse overpopulation is the root cause versus too many cattle grazing the same lands? Are there regulations in place for ranchers' cattle or does it have to do with the fact that wild horses hold no value like cattle do?

Posted by JC on September 25, 2019 at 6:00 PM

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