This evening I was riding on the back of a horse in a field of budding purple alfalfa. With every step that the horse took, hundreds of crickets hopped to the left or right of us, avoiding his thudding hooves on the ground. Almost distracted by the raining insects underneath me, I heard the gurgling roars of the sand hill cranes from the meadow in front of me. Within this large meadow, cattle were grazing, gaining energy to supply milk for their calves. I squinted my eyes through the smoky filled sky to see if I could scout out any young coyotes that come down to drink from the large butte beyond the meadow. Not today.
That moment was a healthy reminder why I even came to the Modoc in the first place. You see, I love horses. I love horses a lot. So much that I’m dedicating a thesis to studying and doing research on them. But not in the way you’d imagine. I understand horses can play a role in our ecosystems, however, I also understand that our habitats should not cater strictly to these feral creatures. I am curious to know how the wild horses on the Devil’s Garden affect the native plants and animals that once roamed in abundance, but are being squeezed out by their presence. Being a wild horse advocate, this is a challenging question to address for me. I love seeing these horses roam free, but to what extent? Do we lose all of our pronghorn populations? Do we let our springs get trampled and say goodbye to our aquatic life? Do we graze until there is no return of seed banks and native grasses have disappeared? These questions are not easy to swallow, but they are real, and we need to be addressing them.
Due to the questions I am asking, and data that I need to gather, I get the privilege to run around the Devil’s Garden looking at all sorts of habitats, wildlife, and wild horses. As great as it sounds, it also has its downsides. I am seeing firsthand the negative impacts that wild horses are having on our wildlife and that’s a hard pill to swallow at times. I empathize with the horses, but there are just simply too many.
For example, there is a spring on the Garden that is a perfect habitat for a species of fairy shrimp only found on the Devil’s Garden. A pinky-fingered sized aquatic invertebrate, although small, they are mighty. The shrimp squirm around in the water, attacking blood worms and algae. The spring that they inhabit connects to a small stream, which then flows to a meadow, eventually ending up in a lake. The shrimp supply food for fish and birds, such as brown trout and stilts, which in turn are food for larger predators like bobcats, mountain lions, and even the occasional bear. Unfortunately, this spring is trampled and heavily grazed by wild horses. If this mismanagement continues, the spring will be plugged up, and fairy shrimp will be gone. This dynamic food chain could slowly unravel.
Fairy shrimp and the food chain that follows are not the only victims to the increasing abundance of wild horses. Earlier in the season, when the grass should have been green and the springs full of aquatic vegetation, I came across a dirt hole that should have been a riparian area. This hole had an alarmingly low level of mucky brown water, and was surrounded by an area grazed to the ground covered in dozens of piles of horse poop. I’d like to say this was the only time I saw such an atrocious site, but unfortunately I see this all the time. These areas that should be rich in forage and water for all wildlife are degraded to mud pits. What about the pronghorn and mule deer? What are they going to eat and drink for the rest of the season? Where are they going to go?
Let’s put aside the lack of forage and water for a moment. What about animal behavior? Studies show that wild horses are incredibly territorial and drive out smaller animals with aggressive behavior, like pronghorn and deer, and do not allow them to consume water at watering holes. So you then may think, “Okay, go to the next spring.” What if that next spring is the spring that got plugged up last year or the next spring is miles away or if you get to the next spring and there are horses there too? The Devil’s Garden is a high desert, sage steppe ecosystem. Water is hard to come by and as rich as gold for wildlife.
Sure, this may seem hypothetical, but it’s not. Springs everywhere on the Devil’s Garden are being overgrazed and trampled by wild horses. Pronghorn and mule deer populations are becoming more of a rare sight as they are getting driven out of their native territories due to lack of forage, water, and intense competition. Grasses are getting consumed at an alarming rate.
Our ecosystems are complex. They thrive on the dynamic relationships between native plants, tiny crickets, shrub eating elk, and everything in between. They are all important and deserve a fighting chance of surviving on the Devil’s Garden. As stewards of this land, and as responsible citizens who have a stake in our public lands, we need to reconsider the wildlife before it’s too late. We need to remember that this horse problem that spans the Western United States is not strictly between horse lovers and horse haters, it’s more complex than that. This is about proper management, getting a cap on wild horse populations, and letting the land recover so it can support an array of wonderful creatures.
As I sit on my horse, and slowly make my way back to the ranch, I can’t help but hope that one day the Devil’s Garden plateau will be as prosperous as this ranch. That I will be able to take my horse on trail rides through fields of native grasses and old growth juniper trees, awing at pelicans flying in the distance while pronghorn run across the landscape. I am a wild horse advocate, but it’s time we reconsider our wildlife.
Further reading regarding wild horse and wildlife interactions:
Berger, J. 1985. Interspecific interactions and dominance among wild Great Basin ungulates.
Journal of Mammalogy 66:571-573
Gooch, A.M.J., S.L Petersen, G.H. Collins, T.S. Smith, B.R McMillan, and D.L Egget. 2016.
The impact of feral horses on pronghorn behavior at water sources. Journal of Arid
Environments 138 :38-43
Ostermann-Kelm, S., E.R. Atwill, E.S. Rubin, M.C. Jorgensen, and W.M. Boyce. 2008.
Interactions between feral horses and desert bighorn sheep at water. Journal of