National News

Let Mountain Lions Eat Horses

Posted May 12, 2018 4:53 p.m. EDT

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The craggy mesas and sagebrush valleys of the West have a wild horse problem. Too many horses, the federal government says, are crowding the scraps of public land set aside for them, and in places they are trampling the delicate desert springs and eating the golden range to dust.

About 83,000 roam the West — more than three times what federal managers say the land can sustain. By next summer their numbers could grow to 100,000.

Late last month the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the management of wild horses on its vast land holdings, gave Congress a range of options for cutting the herds. They are drastic, and include large-scale sterilization and slaughtering of thousands of animals. The options are controversial and expensive.

None will address the fundamental imbalance at the root of the problem. It isn’t that there are too many horses; it’s that there aren’t enough mountain lions.

Nearly all wild horses live in the Great Basin of Nevada and surrounding states, in some of the most forbidding land in America. Congress began protecting the herds from slaughter in 1971. Ever since, the bureau has overseen them and has managed the population like an uber-rancher. The bureau rounds up thousands by helicopter each year, literally putting them out to pasture, on confined tracts to try to keep the numbers steady.

It doesn’t really work. Because the bureau has always seen the horses as livestock, not wildlife, it has never tried to understand the mustang’s place in the Western ecosystem, or tried to take advantage of the ancient relationship between the horse and its main predator, the mountain lion.

That’s a loss. There are valleys in the West where herds don’t increase because they are kept in check by the big cats. This natural management is not only free and sustainable, but also ensures that wild horses remain as they should — wild. Despite this evidence, the bureau has said repeatedly that wild horses have “no natural predators.”

The bureau now corrals herds and puts them up for adoption. But the number of adopters has never come close to the number of available horses. In the 1980s and 1990s the bureau made up the difference by quietly selling mustangs to unscrupulous slaughter buyers. After the practice came to light, the bureau began paying ranchers to keep unwanted horses on pastures in the Midwest. There are now 46,000 horses there.

The cost is enormous. Horses grazing private pastures are projected to cost taxpayers $1 billion overall. Adding the rest of the excess horses on the range would cost another $3 billion-plus.

The bureau doesn’t have the money to do this, so it has urged lawmakers to consider options long banned. One would sterilize 98,000 mustangs in the wild. Another would put about that number of captive mustangs up for sale “without limitation,” meaning they could go to slaughter. Given experience, most probably would. Other proposals include paying people $1,000 to adopt a horse. None of these costly options would be a lasting fix.

Wild horse advocacy groups have blasted the plans and are preparing for a legal fight. In all likelihood, though, none of these ideas will make it out of Washington. Particularly unlikely is the slaughter option. No one in Congress wants to vote to turn an American symbol into sausage.

This inertia leaves one other possibility that is becoming increasingly likely: starvation.

If the herds grow too large, they will exhaust the land’s ability to sustain them. A drought or harsh winter will lead to a die-off. It has happened before. A recent die-off in Arizona suggests it is starting to happen again.

Good, some might say; let nature take its course. But the conditions leading to a die-off would have an impact well beyond wild horses. If herds have exhausted the land, everything else suffers: native wildflowers and lizards, sage grouse and butterflies — as well as ranchers who rely on the same range and hunters who want to see thriving populations of deer and bighorn sheep.

Lions may be the best way to avoid such a catastrophe.

Despite what the bureau says, a working predator-prey relationship could thrive if we would let it. Lions hunted wild horses in North America for millions of years, and they still do. Biologists studying mustangs have had their research upended by lions eating their subjects.

One University of Nevada study found that in several mountain ranges of the state, horses made up the majority of lion’s diets. Some lion mothers who were collared and tracked feasted almost entirely on mustangs, and taught their young to do the same.

Another study found that during the summer lions kill a horse every other week. Biologists have documented valleys where just a few lions keep a herd in check. That kind of balance could be a boon not just for the wild horse program but for the entire Western ecosystem.

But the federal government is not only ignoring the potential of lions; it is also actively undermining it. At the same time the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Interior Department, spends millions to limit horse herds, the Department of Agriculture spends millions to kill mountain lions and other predators to protect livestock and big game. Often one agency kills lions in the exact spots where the other is trying to limit horse herds.

In 2014 the Agriculture Department killed 305 lions in the West. It also gave grants to state agencies that killed hundreds more. That year, private hunters, encouraged by state and federal agencies, killed 2,800 mountain lions in Western states. If all of those mountain lions had lived, and killed three horses each in 2014, they could have halted nearly all of the growth of horse herds that year.

Of course, some places in the West, near cities and thriving ranching communities, might not be a good fit for a thriving lion population. Perhaps predator management could ever control only half or a third of all horse herds. Perhaps less. The bureau can’t say for sure, because it has never looked at the option. But it should.

Until the West understands the need for predators, the bureau is likely to be stuck in the same trap, too focused on wild horse numbers when it should be focused on how to make these horses truly wild.