For decades, ranchers and wild horse advocates have traded barbs. Yet now that Nevada’s wild horse population has reached an all-time high, most agree that some herds have too many horses. The eastern side of the state in particular has thousands more horses than the Bureau of Land Management says the area can sustain, and many ranchers say the horses are overgrazing, which is costing them big.
Driving through Butte Valley, south of Ely, third-generation Nevada rancher Gracian Uhalde points out areas that have been repeatedly overgrazed on public lands he leases. Uhalde hasn’t turned out livestock in this area in over two years, but vast stretches look like a dirt field sprinkled with one-inch tufts of green sage.
“The thing that upsets me the most, these white sage communities, our families tried to protect,” says Uhalde. “I've been very careful about how we raise them, and now they’re in danger.”
Uhalde is 62, gracious, and sports a bushy white handlebar moustache. He started lambing with his grandfather at just 13 years old.
To measure grazing impacts on the land, the Bureau of Land Management set up cages that protect about 4 square feet of earth from horses, wildlife and livestock. The plant growth inside the cage shows what plant communities would look like without any grazing.
Uhalde points to the healthy white sage and green forbs in one such cage and then compares it to the land outside the cage, which has been grazed “down to the dirt, damn near.”
The BLM estimates there are 1,500 horses in this area— that’s 1,000 more than are supposed to be here.
The damage is so significant Uhalde says he won’t turn out his sheep again this year.
“I mean there's no point in going out there if there's nothing to eat; you're only hurting yourself,” says Uhalde.
“The horses are there 24-seven, 365 [days a year]. And if that was a rancher, we'd be in prison.”
Ranchers are only given permits to graze livestock for several months a year and can only use a certain percentage of the forage. If they overstay, they face serious penalties. However, as any rancher will tell you, the horses use key land resources every day of the year.
Nevada wild horse populations reach all-time high
Ben Noyes is a BLM wild horse specialist based in Ely. He says the BLM was fairly aggressive about gathering horses until 2012. And that year the agency brought the population in the Ely district down to about 4,000 horses.
“Our appropriate management level is 810 to 1,695 horses. Right now we're sitting at almost 12,000 horses, which is vastly over the appropriate management level [AML],” says Noyes.
Barry Perryman, a rangeland scientist with the University of Nevada, Reno, says the problem isn’t simply the number of horses:
“They tend to congregate around watering points, seeps, springs, and those kinds of habitat,” Perryman says, “so those habitats start seeing some of the damage, and, in some cases, we’re losing feet of soil.”
But, Perryman says because the overpopulation is so significant, right now the only effective tool is really to gather the horses and remove them from the range.
“A lot of people want to talk about contraception as being a viable alternative, and it is once you get to AML. Once you get to appropriate management levels, a lot of these tools make sense.”
With so many horses, it would take decades to reduce the population with fertility control alone. Administering contraception to wild horses that roam these remote areas is incredibly challenging as well. For one, a person with a rifle and a dart must get within 30 yards of the horse. Then that same horse must receive a booster shot within a few months. That process only prevents pregnancy for one year.
Wild horse advocates say there are other options, such as bait trapping the horses every year and applying fertility control while they’re in the corral.
Ginger Kathrens is a longtime vocal critic of the BLM’s handling of wild horse populations; she serves on the national BLM Wild Horse and Burro advisory board as their “humane advocate.”
Kathrens used to be a staunch advocate against applying birth control because it interfered with the natural procreation of wild horses, but in recent years she’s changed her mind.
Now she says the agency has not invested enough time and money trying fertility control on wild populations in the federal horse management areas, or HMAs:
“And so all of a sudden now, we've got a crisis situation in certain herds,” says Kathrens. “And I do believe that there are too many horses on some of the Nevada HMAs because the habitat just, it’s not the greatest for large grazing animals. That includes livestock.”
A management crisis
The main tool the BLM has used to reduce wild horse numbers is gathering and relocating the animals, but as horse adoptions have decreased in recent years, that means the government is paying for these animals to live out the rest of their lives on a pasture somewhere in Nebraska.
“The taxpayer over the next 20 years is going to spend about a billion dollars on just the horses that we have in long-term holding now. That number has been substantiated pretty well,” says Perryman.
Perryman says he thinks there are nonlethal methods for fixing the problem. He says part of the solution could include gathering horses and relocating them to private land owned by nonprofits who would care for the animals.
Back in Eastern Nevada, north of Ely, Hank Vogler runs herds of sheep and cattle on his ranch and acres of public land.
With a lumbering frame and broad shoulders, Vogler is well-known as an outspoken and bullish critic on many issues. And he isn’t shy about his concern with the wild horse damage.
“I'm supposed to have 168 head of horses and there's 2,100 head,” says Vogler.
“I started gathering my cattle off of range that I had paid for and range that I had a prescribed use of, for a certain period of time. I was buying over $1,000 a day for hay to supplement their diets because they were going to starve to death.”
Overgrazing can boost invasive plants
Driving along bumpy dirt roads in pelting rain, Volger points out the window to a dirt patch covered by spiny, succulent-looking plants called halogeton — they are poisonous to livestock and difficult to remove.
The invasive plant can take over when native plants have been grazed down to the nubs.
“This used to be white sage over here. See the stud piles all over,” says Vogler. “The thing of it is, we're due to come into this field; we can only use a certain percentage of the feed in this field. Then we have to leave. Maybe we have a permit in here for two months, but if our percentage of the feed is gone in 10 days, we have to leave.”
The Bureau of Land Management did gather some horses from a herd near Vogler’s ranch after we spoke, but the horse populations are still significantly over carrying capacity.
Celeste Carlisle is a biologist with the wild horse advocacy group Return to Freedom. She sums up the conundrum concisely:
“Quite frankly, our public lands are multiuse and so, regardless of what our personal opinions are or our hopes and dreams for our, you know, utopian view of what our public lands are, we have to operate within these parameters of what is happening out there,” says Carlisle. “And grazing is historically and culturally significant in the West.”
Reaching that balance, where wildlife, horses, ranchers and other users of the public land all have a sustainable share— that, Carlisle says, means we’ll need to use all the nonlethal management tools we can.