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Large pests or nature’s guests?
by John Smith, Special to the Tribune
Jun 26, 2010 | 1077 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Nevada’s wild mustangs survive these days somewhere between the sage-scented open range and the oppressive stench of a slaughterhouse in summer.

When it comes to embodying the romantic symbol of the Wild West, those majestic animals are beyond compare. When it comes to determining their future in the real world, we humans leave a lot to be desired.

Today’s question: What do we do with a couple of knotheads like Todd Davis and Joshua Keathley?

Last week in Reno U.S. District Court, Davis and Keathley pleaded guilty to shooting a wild mustang, which is a federal offense since the animals are officially protected. The undynamic duo used an AR-15 assault rifle and admitted in court alcohol fueled their “poor judgment” last November when the part-time trappers from Lovelock decided to shoot five horses just to watch them fall. Although five died outside Reno near the Nevada-California line, the defendants pleaded guilty to one charge each.

For Nevada U.S. Attorney Dan Bogden, the shootings constituted an egregious violation of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Bogden told The Associated Press, “The intentional and malicious harassment, abuse and killing of federally protected wild horses should not and will not be tolerated.”

In January, the Bureau of Land Management posted a $10,000 reward for the animals’ killers, and Bogden and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sue Fahami reported receiving approximately 24,000 e-mails and letters from horse lovers. For Bogden and Fahami, the prosecution was a no-brainer.

The defendants pleaded guilty to a great act of cruelty, but the fact is those wild horses are often treated more like nuisances than protected species. The BLM has the unenviable task of trying to balance the interests of cattle ranchers and sheepherders, who consider the horses large pests who compete with their livestock for precious grazing in parched Nevada, with the affections of mustang-loving environmentalists, who believe the range should remain open so the animals are actually allowed to roam free while their under government protection.

Both sides make some salient points, but each is blinded by self-interest.

Ranchers get apoplectic about the hungry horses, but the animals do less damage to the range than cattle herds. At least, that’s what a 1990 study by the U.S. Government Accounting Office established.

“Wild horse behavior patterns make them somewhat less damaging than cattle to especially vulnerable range areas,” the GAO report stated. It added, “Wild horse removals have taken place in some areas not being damaged by widespread overgrazing.”

That was two decades ago. But, according to Deanne Stillman’s “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,” the BLM rejected that view, which would have made it even more unpopular with cattle ranchers and sheepherders.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of pained expressions coming from animal rights groups and mustang activists in the environmental movement. Their problem is simple: No one has come up with a suitable solution for the fate of all those thousands of horses.

Horse adoption is a great concept but its usefulness is limited. Rounding up the animals is costly and can damage the horses. And there aren’t nearly enough loving homes to go around.

The animal lovers want to hug them. The BLM wants to manage them like livestock. The ranchers want them gone.

Rancher advocate and Utah Rep. James Hansen once said, “Wild horses are like feral alley cats.” A lot of Nevada ranchers agree with that perspective.

Meanwhile, when Nevada officials went looking for something that symbolized the state’s Western spirit to put on its commemorative quarter, it chose those mustangs. It’s the best-looking quarter in the whole collection.

With all those mixed messages, it’s little wonder some malicious idiots felt free to use the wild mustangs for target practice.

John L. Smith writes a weekly column on rural Nevada. Contact him at
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