2006 appeared to be a bumper year for many of Nevada's ranges. After several years of drought much of Nevada had higher than average snow and rainfall. Spring conditions were conducive to rich grass growth. Wild horses looked quite good and the foal crop was high.
Unfortunately Mother Nature has a rather distorted sense of humor. The conditions that favored high grass growth also favored summer lightning storms and wide area wildfires. The scope of the 2006 wildfire season in Northeastern Nevada was nearly unprecedented with respect to the numbers of serious fires and the aggregate devastation that they caused.
Over 950,000 acres (nearly 1,480 square miles) were destroyed impacting wildlife, livestock, and wild horses.
Typical view of Elko County wild horse ranges.
(Photo by Willis Lamm)
Typical aftermath view.
Fire is a natural life cycle on the range. In a state unaltered by man the animals fleeing the fire would resettle in undamaged areas, the affected range area would renew and the animals would later redistribute back into their historic habitats. However modern Nevada
is a mosaic of public and private property, boundary fences and other man made barricades that prevent larger wildlife, particularly horses, from migrating as they ordinarily might have in centuries past.
To further complicate matters, Nevada is the most arid state in the Union. Horses not only need sufficient forage, but their grazing areas have to be within a reasonable distance from adequate water. Water in Nevada is allocated through a system of water rights that are assigned by the state to various public and private users. An owner of water rights may opt to use his water for cattle, but is not obligated to make it available to migrating or straying horses.
Aside from being a horse person, I'm retired from nearly 30 years in the fire service. I studied wide area wildfires and my mentor was Canadian wide area wildfire expert Henry Saar who retired in the United States in the community where I served. Aside from the obvious impacts of wide area wildfires, there are a number of ancillary complications.
The collective amount of char, soot and soluble solids found in wide areas of fire devastation can significantly impact the watershed. Polluted runoff during rains and snow melts can adversely impact local water sources upon which animals depend. Additionally, much land can become unstable in the period between a major wildfire and the reestablishment of native plant communities.
These are but a few of a complex of natural and man-created issues that affect the management of wild horses on the range. Oftentimes when there is widespread and severe range damage, grazing lessees have to remove their cattle and the BLM opts to remove wild horses.
The Elko Emergency Gather
BLM determined that the burned off range could not support the present load of horses. It established a goal of removing approximately 500 head from the burned out area. Around 400 head would be removed permanently (prepared for adoption) and the remaining 100 head would be temporarily relocated until the range was reestablished. This proposed removal was clearly necessary, however some wild horse advocates asked why BLM simply didn't relocate all 500 until the range recovered.
The range is no longer in a natural state. As I indicated above, it is criss-crossed with man made boundaries and water sources controlled by man. A majority of natural predators have been removed. Horse populations cannot expand endlessly as they might have done 200 years ago. BLM has to occasionally gather horses to adjust for population increases due to annual foal crops.
No wild horse advocates care for unnecessary removals of wild horses. However in this instance animals have to be removed. It makes no practical sense to release all 500 animals to temporary range or holding just to turn around and bring in another 400 horses from somewhere else for population control management. Gathers are by their nature a risky business. The fewer horses trapped the better. Therefore it makes sense to remove a portion of horses already gathered as a result of wide area fire damage, provided a genetically viable breeding population is reserved for reintroduction once the range recovers.
Furthermore, anyone who spends time out on Nevada's ranges will understand that it sometimes takes years for the ranges to recover. In some regions, it takes decades. Wild horses need grass, but they also need unpolluted water to drink and trees to take cover under during severe weather. In addition, depending upon the scope of the devastation, it could be several seasons before the amount of grass produced per acre approaches pre-fire levels.
Most fire damaged ranges can withstand the reintroduction of a few horses before they have recovered to the point of sustaining entire herds. Sometimes this period can amount to several years. So if our goal is to reestablish historic populations of horses back on their traditional ranges, it makes more sense to reintroduce a smaller, but genetically viable, pool of animals and let their populations increase over time as the range continues to recover and can accommodate them.
At the conclusion of this gather, just over 500 wild horses were brought in from the Little Humboldt and Rock Creek Herd Management Areas. Some of the horses will be kept in a contracted facility in Fallon for release back on to the range at a later date. Some mares were moved to pastures adjacent to the burned out areas. The remainder of the horses were taken to the National Wild Horse and Burro Center at Palomino Valley for adoption preparation. BLM is now focused on range rehabilitation activities such as reseeding, repairing miles of fences that border private properties, erosion prevention and protection of perennial water sources.
I am aware that some horse "advocates" are charging that these fire removals are part of some broader conspiracy to rid the range of wild horses. My opinion is that a practical removal and reintroduction plan makes far more sense than letting a bunch of horses die, and forcing the permanent removal of others when they stray onto private property. In my opinion, if we're going to have any credibility when challenge horse management agencies over things done wrong, we have to give credit for management practices that make sense. Otherwise we merely get dismissed as annoying pundits.
After all, if BLM really wanted to get rid of the horses, the easiest thing they could do is ignore the problem, let a bunch of them die, let the others become nuisances when they stray onto private property and claim, "See, the range can't support these horses." In Elko County they are trying to stay ahead of more serious problems, mitigate the present disaster, and it's time for our camp to use a carrot, not a stick.