The late British naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell used to talk about what he called the paper protection of animals. By that he meant governments making laws that on paper claimed an animal was protected while in reality the animal was still at high risk from humans. The greatest risk that Durrell saw was the fact that laws preventing animals from being killed did nothing to prevent the land they lived on from being taken away.
The biggest threat to all wildlife, whether it has roots, legs, fins, or crawls on its belly, is the steady encroachment of humanity into its habitat. Humans and their farm animals do not mix with wildlife under any circumstances. Even the smallest amount of contact will cause wild animals to change their habits. Look at the bears in parks like Yellowstone who beg for food, or the ones near human habitation who have taken to foraging in dumps instead of hunting for food as they used to. Of course, minimal contact isn't going to drive an animal to extinction, so government-run parks or preserves that allow human visitors are, if properly managed, a lesser evil than the complete eradication of habitat.
In Canada a concentrated effort is being made both publicly and privately to preserve habitats where species or unique ecosystems are endangered. Once these areas are established they become off limits to any human intervention, whether habitation, exploitation of natural resources, or, in some cases, even human visitors. If an area is considered too sensitive to withstand even humans camping in tents, then people aren't allowed to enter the designated area.
The necessity of programs like these was brought home to me again this weekend by the news that a herd of 150 American wild horses is under threat from a lumber company's plans for the Blackjack Mountain of Oklahoma. The herd was established around 25 years ago by Gilbert Jones. It includes a couple of horses who are direct descendants of those who came to Oklahoma on the "Trail Of Tears" with Choctaws and Cherokees during their forced removal from the Tennessee mountains.
In spite of the fact that American Wild Horses are considered a protected animal by the American government, the Oklahoma Land and Timber Company has been given permission to plant trees for harvesting. To facilitate the growth of this "crop" they need to eliminate all ground cover and foliage that might compete with the trees. The company had signed a contract allowing for a two year waiting period to give the herd a chance to be relocated, but has since reneged and begun spraying the area with pesticides.
The company has given Bryant Rickman of the Medicine Springs Ranch, who manages the herd, until February 29th to remove them from the area. But where can you find room for 150 wild horses to run free anymore? The situation in Blackjack Mountain is a reflection of what faces the wild horse population across the United States as the animals are being squeezed off public land set aside for them by the very agency meant to be protecting them – the Bureau of Land Management.
In 1971, when Congress and Richard Nixon responded to public pressure and enacted the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was made responsible for the welfare of the remaining wild herds and ensuring that their populations were maintained at current levels. At the time, the BLM claimed there were only 17,000 animals living in the wild. What this claim was based on is unknown, as they didn't conduct a census of the wild horse population until three years later. The results of that first head count showed them to be off by more than 150%, as the actual total was 42,000.
While the law says that American Wild Horses are a protected species and public lands must be made available to them as sanctuaries for them to range free, less than half the actual population has been given that protection. In its wisdom, instead of amending the original 17,000 figure when they discovered how wrong it was, the BLM decided that the excess horses needed to be "removed" from public lands. The people who were responsible for preserving the horses have instead managed to reduce their population by around 50% since the protective law was enacted.
The real problem is the fact that the BLM is also responsible for issuing grazing licenses to cattle ranchers on the same public lands set aside for the horses. So the agency can replace every horse they can remove from public land with a fee-paying cow that agribusiness gets to graze, subsidized by the American government. According to two General Accounting Office reports the BLM was making removal decisions not on the actual numbers of horses that a range can support, but on the recommendations of advisory groups "largely composed of livestock permittees".
So the guys who stand to make the most money from having wild horses removed from public land are the ones telling the BLM that horses are the primary cause of overgrazing and degradation of public lands. The truth is that because horses tend to roam and can find forage in areas where cattle and sheep can't, they cause far less harm to a habitat than any livestock.
When cattle graze they don't chew the grass, they pull it from the ground; if the soil happens to be wet they will therefore rip it out by the roots. Horses on the other hand have front teeth, allowing them to crop grass as they graze, so they are far less likely to destroy the root system. A horse's digestive system is actually beneficial to a habitat, because they pass grass seed through their system, thus replanting as they graze.
As to the BLM's claim that horses are degrading grazing lands, horses aren't the critters that defecate in their own water supply; cattle are. Horses aren't the animals who hang out in one area of land until it's stripped clean of any and all forage, necessitating human intervention to move them on to other pastures. Even without any of that information, the numbers don't lie; at current levels livestock out number wild horses by 200 to 1 on public lands. You tell me who is going to have the biggest impact on the environment: two hundred head of cattle standing in one place, or one horse wandering around looking for food?
Yet somehow, in spite of all the information available to the government (including Congress) about BLM's record of mismanagement and history of playing fast and loose with facts and information, the agency's budget was increased by 50% in 2001 and then another third in 2005 to pay for an aggressive program to remove wild horses from public lands. So if the people charged with protecting the horse population in the wild are being funded to remove the horses from the wild, it really makes you question the validity of the law that supposedly guarantees their safety.
Back in Blackjack Mountain, Oklahoma, concerned people have come together to form the Gilbert Jones Choctaw-Cherokee Conservancy and Historical Land Trust. The Trust's mmediate goal is to raise $450,000 to purchase the first 524 of the 2,500 acres they need to secure a permanent home for these last-of-their-kind horses. The goal is to preserve the original tribal strains of Choctaw and Cherokee horses, along with America's Spanish Colonial Mustangs, in viable and healthy wild herds for generations.
Return To Freedom, a 501c3 charitable organization, has joined forces with script writer John Fusco (Hidalgo, Spirit, Stallion Of The Cimarron, and the upcoming Forbidden Kingdom), the Rickman Family, and others in forming the trust. You can find out more about their efforts and what you can do to help by following the link above to the Return To Freedom web site.
In 1971, the single biggest letter campaign outside of protests against war forced Congress and Richard Nixon to enact the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to ensure the survival of America's wild horse population and preserve the strains that are unique to our continent. 36 years of mismanagement and conflict of interest have done nothing but reduce the population of horses in the wild by nearly 50%. That's not wildlife preservation in my book.
Unless otherwise stated, information in this article was provided by the The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign web site.