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Eyes on the Range

Updated: Sep 25, 2018

On a chilly fall weekend, I joined a diverse group of wild horse lovers to convene at the Twin Peaks herd management area (HMA), for a weekend submerged in range ecology. The Twin Peaks HMA, located between Alturas and Susanville is over 700,000 acres of flat valleys bisected by steep mountains. It is a popular HMA, home to horses, burros, and some mules. Although it has the familiar sagebrush of Devil’s Garden, the dramatic valleys of Twin Peaks provide open and sweeping vistas.

A sea of cheatgrass interspersed with native bunchgrasses

Our “walkabout,” a term used to convey a journey or self-discovery, led us through the complexities of the Bureau of Land Management range ecology and monitoring. Grounded in scientific fact rather than policy, the event aimed to maintain an atmosphere of learning that brought together varying opinions on the wild horse issue. Many of the participants arrived at the event with little background knowledge on rangeland ecology, but walked away with a greater understanding of the complexity of rangeland management and a more open relationship with the agencies managing public lands.


Squirreltail, a native perennial grass

The wild horse walkabout consisted of 2.5 days of hands-on field-based learning about range ecology and management. We woke up early and spent long days working together in the field thinking critically about the land and the processes continually happening around us. The purpose of the walkabout was to encourage those interested in wild horses to see the land, evaluate conditions, and learn about the complexities of range management. We learned about soil, plants, grazing animals, range management, and ecosystem monitoring. In the field we were able to put our grass identification skills to the test while analyzing the amount of forage available to horses and other wildlife. Calculating the productivity of the land was incredibly humbling. In some areas, only 150 pounds of poor quality forage (cheatgrass) were produced per acre—only enough to sustain a single horse for a few days.


Twin Peaks HMA wild horses

Although the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service have been charged with managing wild horses since the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act in 1971, few educational programs have existed to share range monitoring and management techniques with the public. Today, the BLM manages 177 HMAs across 10 states and the U.S Forest Service manages 34 active wild horse territories, 24 of which are managed cooperatively with the BLM, the largest being Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory. The responsibility to manage almost 80,000 horses and burros is a huge burden to bear, as horse management is an especially contentious issue, with many followers and opinions. Criticism and mistrust for these government agencies runs high, especially among those lobbying for greater freedom for wild horses. Many myths and misconceptions exist about the work of the agencies managing our public lands. Events such as this campout begin to break the barrier between the public and government agencies.


For me, it was exciting to see a different HMA and to meet BLM staff that work through the same issues that I do on a daily basis. The walkabout demystified the work that is done by the BLM and got participants thinking about the land rather than just the horses. The weekend provided a much needed sense of cooperation, collaboration, and transparency. I believe that more events such as this one should be prioritized in order to break down mistrust between wild horse advocates and interest groups and the agencies managing public land. If done strategically and diplomatically, with content rooted in science, events such as these can provide essential understanding of rangeland ecology. This gathering was a perfect reminder that even though wild horse management is a contentious issue, we all share common ground in our love for wild horses. Our concern for the well-being and outcome of wild horses should be what brings us together and lays the ground for cooperation instead of mistrust and division.


Twin Peaks HMA

https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro/herd-management/herd-management-areas/california/twin-peaks

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