Two sides of the wild horse issue

One of the most visible and controversial issues in Nevada now is the wild horses, or estrays or feral horses, depending on which side you are on.

Advocates call them wild horses and insist they stay on the range - no roundups, no sales.

Opponents call them feral or estray, and say they are starving to death and ruining the range.

I get a taste of many views when I write about an issue, but none more clearly divergent than occurred this week.

On Tuesday, I went to a lecture by wildlife ecologist and wild horse advocate Craig Downer at the Gold Hill Hotel, and Wednesday I spoke to Don Linch of Dayton, who called me to offer his view. Both have very different opinions of the Nevada wild horse situation.

Linch said a month ago he took a trip to Virginia City, then headed down through the Virginia City Highlands to view some petroglyphs.

On the way, he said, he and his three companions saw three wild horses which were starving to death.

"One was on the ground and couldn't get up," he said. "One was walking because it knew if it stopped it would die. It was running into tree stumps. And one was just standing there, weaving."

He said he didn't understand why the wild horse advocates were willing to let horses starve.

"I see them, the advocates, sometimes in Virginia City, in the Bucket of Blood, and I say we need to take these horses off the range and feed them," he said. "They say, no just let nature take care of them."

Linch said horses were not native to this country and are taking away from animals that are, such as the deer and the antelope.

"They were introduced by the Spaniards and now they've actually taken the food away from native animals on the range," he said. "That's why there's no antelope, no deer, and other things around. The natural order of things is to take them off the range because they are not native to this country. They have deprived the native species such as deer and antelope."

As for the horses that he saw in the Virginia City Highlands, he is certain they are dead.

"Those horses died," he said. "There's no way they could have ever come back. We seen about 10 horses going down from there, out of 10 we seen three starving."

He said he and his friends petted one horse, and it didn't even respond.

So he called a number given to him by horse advocates, he said, to get the horses out of there.

Linch said when he lived in California, he adopted three mustangs from Nevada in the 1960s and said they made very good riding horses. He moved to Nevada in 1995.

"To leave them out there and let them starve to death, that is bull," he said. "Why doesn't anyone take up that side and get them taken care of. Horses sold for food is better than just letting them die out there and go through the misery."

Downer, on the other hand, said the horses are natural to the area and should be left alone.

He said a type of horse, the equiid, originated in North America many thousands of years ago, and are ancestors of today's wild horses and burros.

"It's an injustice to see burros or horses being forced off the lands," he said.

Downer said the horses have developed a "mutualistic symbiosis" with other animals and the range, successfully dispersing seeds through their droppings because of their nomadic ways. He said they do this better than cattle or sheep, which he said are less inclined to roam the way horses do.

"Horses add to the natural change, with the puma the natural predator," he said. "They break ice at the ponds and streams that other animals drink from, they break through encrusted snow to find grazing in winter."

He told the audience that horses in Nevada have evolved to the point they can survive on very dry grasses, which cattle can't, thereby reducing wildfire threats.

Downer said the federal Wild Horse and Burro Act, which still is on the books, gave more than 53 million acres to the horses, and that has decreased by more than 22 million acres since the 1970 law took effect.

"This is blatant subversion of the act," he said. "We need to reinstate the Act's original intent, and get them back on their rightful range. Get cattle, sheep and big game interests to back off and have horses regain their rightful place in these areas."

He said livestock outconsume horses 200 to 1 in terms of range usage.

"Even in greatly reduced area, horses are still being marginalized by authorities charged with their protection," he said.

He said removing the animals sets them up for inbreeding that will result in the horses eventually dying out. He encouraged his audience to demand Congress return all the range assigned in 1970 to the horses.

"Natural freedom is their destiny," he said. "But it's is up to us to achieve this indispensable goal."

He showed photographs of horses from all over Nevada, including the Virginia Range, and denied there was not enough forage.

As for the three horses Linch saw, Mike Holmes, manager of the estray program for the Nevada Department of Agriculture, said went to investigate, along with several others, but no one found the horses in question.

He said not only did he look for sick or dead horses, but also looked for magpies, ravens and other birds that would be feeding on the carcasses, and found nothing.

Holmes said it is possible that the animals moved on, or that they weren't really starving.

"It's not that there aren't cases where they're starving," he said. "But some people think because a horse is skinny or you can see their ribs, there's starving. They could just have gone through a rough winter."

He also said that older horses got skinny as part of the aging process."

Regardless of what became of those three horses, no doubt the debate will go on and on.

• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at or by calling 881-7351.


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