What to do about wild horses? Part two or two

In his newly published book, “Wild Horse Country,” writer David Philipps offers his suggestion for what to do about the overpopulation of wild horses in the West, which are overgrazing the open range: “The solution is mountain lions.”

Realizing that this will leave horse-huggers aghast and cause cattle and sheep ranchers to gasp, Philipps forges ahead, “For decades, the BLM has said the wild horse has ‘no natural predators.’ … But the same people who have long dismissed using predators to control horses as impossible have never made an attempt to understand it. They have likely been too busy rounding up and storing horses. If they took the time to look into the idea of mountain lions, they would see that research on the ground contradicts the conventional wisdom.”

Philipps came upon this audacious “solution” after visiting Dr. John Turner at his summer digs in Montgomery Pass near Boundary Peak and the California border west of Tonopah, where the researcher observed wild horses and their environs. Turner spends his winter months working in a lab researching fertility drugs such as PZP, which is being used experimentally to dart mares in an effort to keep herds in check.

The book notes that Turner first came to Montgomery Pass in 1985 intending to do research on herd dynamics that might aid fertility drug studies. Then he learned about mountain lions.

“The BLM was saying there was overpopulation and there was actually underpopulation, because the mountain lions were just going crazy. This was something totally new,” the book quotes Turner as saying. “The old timers around here knew cats were hunting horses, but no one in the scientific community really realized it was happening, or that it could happen.”

Turner told Philipps that the highly adaptive lions, which weigh from 100 to 180 pounds, had learned to lie in wait near watering spots and would spring on the backs of foals, sinking their claws into the flesh and biting the neck, severing the spine in seconds.

The researcher learned this by attaching radio collars to some lions and tracking them for five years. His team discovered that mature horses were too big for the lions but they found foal carcasses near watering holes. In some years nearly two-thirds of the foals were eaten. “You would have some lions eating a foal every other week or so,” Turner told the author.

Philipps also related that in 2005 a University of Nevada, Reno a graduate student started tracking wild horses in the Virginia Mountains. She managed to attach a radio collar to one mountain lion and follow it for 10 months, finding that 77 percent of the lion’s diet was horse flesh. Despite this, according to Philipps, the BLM expressed no interest in the findings.

Meanwhile, the Nevada Division of Wildlife is spending $200,000 this year to kill lions.

“The economic tangle of killing predators while storing horses is mind-boggling. The Bureau of Land Management warehouses thousands of horses each year,” Philipps writes. “Each of those horses costs on average $50,000 to capture, house, and feed over its lifetime. At the same time, we are spending millions to kill mountain lions in the West. It is fairly safe to say that every dollar spent taking out mountain lions in Wild Horse Country drives up the cost of storing wild horses.”

While Philipps’ solution has a certain appeal for being a natural population control method, we suggest that in an earlier chapter he reported an even better and more economically viable solution offered by a Eureka rancher. Besides, foals, calves and lambs probably taste the same.

In 2010 George Parman posted a letter on the Internet, “No, what we need to do, is to let the ranchers and the mustangers take care of the problem, just as they did in the old days, back when, along in the Fall a handful of cowboys would take their saddle horses — throw a bunch of grub and their bedrolls in the back of a pickup — and off they’d go to do a little mustanging. … The horses were automatically kept at reasonable numbers. It cost the taxpayer nothing. The best of the horses were put on the market for people to use and enjoy. The remainder of the older and less desirable animals were euthanatized via a facility that made good use of the end product. … The cattle had plenty to eat. The horses had plenty to eat. Wildlife did well.”

Both solutions make too much commonsense to ever be tried.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

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  1. Rick Spilsbury says:

    There is even a better idea worth mentioning; hunting. Horse meat tastes good. And the State could make money selling hunting tags. It’s crazy to hunt every other large animal in Nevada – but not horses. This just guarantees over-populations of horses.

    • Brilliant. Because horses looks so good stuffed and mounted over the fireplace. Mr. Spilsbury, do let us know what (if any) other animals exist that you might find sacred, historically significant, or just aesthetically pleasing – and maybe we can figure out a way to eat them (and I’m sure there are still some great antique recipes out there for sage hen somewhere).

      And leaning into your thinking, why not apply that notion to the recently concerning stray dog and cat problem? And why stop there..?

      Whether they are on your menu or not, here’s a few more reasons why horses are probably a bad (modern hunting) idea – they are a big target, out in the open and easy to hit: no sport. They are easy to domesticate, which is why people have been doing it for thousands of years. Ever tried to train a mountain goat or a deer to do (anything)?

      There is more we might do with (not actually originally native, but none the less historically prevalent) wild horses beyond wacking them for sport and serving them for dinner. The article makes the very good point that we really already have at least two proven management methods of crowd control (natural predators and mustanging). Blocking those and then dreaming up crazy alternatives is ridiculous. But since you claim to know something of the flavor of horse, dare I ask how dog tastes?

  2. No accounting for culture, huh? Nothing sacred and just a culinary free for all? OK (the illegalities and inappropriateness of messing with eagles aside), how about dolphin? Or a good stringy monkey with an apple in its mouth, because while intelligent enough, ‘somebody eats it somewhere’ probably. Hey – humans – let’s eat the homeless, right? Maybe make it more sporting and chase them around in rags and capture them with nets on horseback like in Planet of The Apes?

    You might want to let everybody know where you draw the line, because in civilized societies, there are lines. These days, dogs and cats are generally over them (yeah, I know all about China – it’s barbaric by modern standards). And horses seem to run a close second in western culture. Sorry if that’s contrary to your particular palate, but you already know that to many of us what you are suggesting is… distasteful. And “if you’re hungry enough”, and not living under strain in a 3rd world situation (or in a demilitarized zone), we have these great new things called grocery stores -and lots of processed livestock in a variety of flavors.

    Because this isn’t 1875. And most of us with computers aren’t desperate hobos.

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