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By Craig Downer

Photos Copyright Craig C. Downer

Horses and burros adapt and survive in a wide variety of ecosystems, from plains to prairies, deserts to mountains, forest edges to grassy savannahs (Harbury 1989; MacFadden 1992; Jenkins & Ashley 2003). Though with their high-crowned teeth, they are especially adapted to eating grass, they also take leaves and twigs of bushes and trees. They move extensively and can cover vast home ranges, especially in more arid areas (Pelligrini 1971; Berger 1986; Jenkins & Ashley 2003). In horses, a semi-nomadic life style favors their tightly knit harem social structure, while among burros a true territoriality (Klingel 1979) maintained by the Jack exists. Horses graze in a patchy manner, leaving certain islands of vegetation free to mature and set seed. This is clearly a positive benefit to the ecosystem, which I discern as having evolved through natural selection over the ages of horse evolution. I observed this in the Pine Nut Mountains in my recent four-month study of the wild horse & their ecosystem this past spring (Downer 2015). Where government officials claimed that wild horses prevented certain key grasses from germinating, in fact closely occurring patches composed of these same grasses were fully mature and setting seed. Yes, some patches of grasses were nipped down to within a few inches of the ground by the upper and lower incisors of the horses, but these were not killed, though they tended to be moribund to begin with. Ruminant grazers and browsers such as cattle, sheep, and deer do not possess upper incisors and, as a consequence, often rip up plants – roots and all – especially when foisted upon an ecosystem at unnatural levels by people.

Wild burros are generally adapted to dry habitats & can subsist on very coarse vegetation. They have been observed digging to subsurface water, thus providing vital “wells” for many other desert dwellers, including desert tortoises, rodents, birds, and lizards. Burros thus help many other weaker species to survive, especially during the critical dry period of the year.

Ideal habitat for horses is found in grassy prairies and plains, such as occur in Wyoming and Colorado, and for which their superb running ability and adaptation to grazing and digesting abrasive grasses is well suited. It is such a shame that in Wyoming wild horses have been eliminated from several million acres of legal BLM herd areas and herd management areas, including during the past few years and in direct defiance of the WFHBA! (Downer 2014 a, see Index: “state by state injustice”) However, horses also adapt well in the high, cold, moister deserts of northern Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, etc., as well as in the hot, lower & drier deserts of southern Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico where populations adapt to sparser fare and parsimonious rainfall. Here a greater degree of browsing takes place. Of key importance is that the habitats including water sources of these animals not be over-fenced.

“Adapt” is a key word for conservation; & “being allowed to adapt over the generations” is crucial. For this reason, the herd-gutting helicopter roundups, ongoing on for many years, are unconscionable! (Animal Welfare Institute 2007.) Wild horse & wild burro populations have been & continue to be thoughtlessly thwarted by the two government agencies legally charged with defending and upholding their rights to adequate resources & habitat capable of sustaining healthy, viable numbers within their legally designated areas. These occur on lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (U.S. Department of Interior) & the U.S. Forest Service (U.S. Department of Agriculture). If these animals could be delivered from the Machiavellian “squeeze play” being perpetrated on them by their enemies, they would harmoniously adapt to the ecosystems they inhabit & greatly enhance these life communities (see Meeker 1979; Downer 2005). We must learn to respect and appreciate wild-horse/burro-containing ecosystems, for over a great portion of North America these are truly restored life communities.

As post-gastric, or caecal, digesters (Janis 1976), wild horses and burros restore a critically needed balance in many places within the native North American ecosystem (Donlow et al. 2005; Martin 2005; cf. Zimov 2005, Bell 1970). This usually relates to the lopsided preponderance of ruminant digesters such as cattle, sheep, deer, goats, etc., that are strongly, often heedlessly promoted by humans. (Wuerthner & Matteson 2002, Stillman 2008, Odadi & Rubenstein 2011.) Witness the wholesale trapping, shooting, and poisoning of predators such as coyotes, wolves, bears and mountain lions that goes on to support cattle and sheep operations on U.S. public as well as other lands and throughout the world! (Hudak 2007; Wuerthner & Matteson 2002.) This unbalances species such as rabbits and rodents that have coevolved with these predators for thousands, even millions of years. Also, ranchers frequently monopolize water sources and over-fence the lands. Fences disrupt the instinctive movement patterns of herbivores such as the wild horses and burros, animals who naturally rest-rotate their foraging pressures over all seasons of the year as well as over the course of years (Pelligrini 1971, Downer 2005). Yet people persist in targeting wild horses and burros for ecological problems which people, not horses and burros, have caused! And they do so even in areas that the WFHBA have mandated as legally protected habitats, i. e. wherever the wild horses and burros occurred in 1971, meaning their year-round habitat. According to Section 2 (c) of the WFHBA, these lands should be “devoted principally” to the welfare and benefit of the wild horses and burros, not ranchers, nor mining companies, nor big-game hunters, etc. – as is currently the case!

Vast quantities of land, water, as well as plant and animal life are despoiled by mining operations affecting millions of acres of public lands. Public lands mining and energy extraction industries are given excessive license under the antiquated Federal Lands Mining Act of 1872, which the U.S. Congress has repeatedly refused to reform. During several recent flights to reconnoiter wild horse and burro herds and their legal habitats on BLM and USFS lands, I have witnessed vast Great Basin ecosystems being “chewed up and spit out” by mineral mining as well as energy fracking and drilling operations! Enormous open-pit, cyanide heap leach operations leave large purple, green, orange, red, etc.,  containment ponds with waters tainted with toxic chemicals that seep into the desert aquifers killing entire ecosystems, possibly for thousands of years into the future. To observe how whole mountains are stripped of their life-sustaining soils and reduced to lifeless, rocky jumbles where once enchanting pinyon-juniper woodlands, sagebrush stands, or riparian meadows thrived – is heart-breaking!

To quote ecologist J.E. Lovelock (1987, p. 59): “… we may leave [certain] animals alone but destroy their habitats … otherwise sensitive and compassionate people often show little or no concern over the piecemeal death and dispossession wrought by the bulldozer, the plough, and the flame-thrower, in destroying the habitats of our partners in Gaia.” This egregious disregard must change; and the good news is that this can happen in the “twinkling of an eye” (I Corinthians 15:52) as attitudes, values, and priorities and the lifestyles they dictate are transformed.

People concoct many reasons against horses and burros living freely and naturally in our shared world (Fuller 2009; Mullen 2010; Stillman 2008). They are not motivated by a quest for greater truth or justice, but their reactionary inventions derive from petty-minded, selfish possessiveness. Rather than expanding, wild horse/burro enemies confine their view of life to a small & shrinking subset of reality. They cast horses/burros as mere things, objects to be used & discarded, as though having no intrinsic value.

Two arguments given against wild horses and burros are:
1. They are not native to North America and displace native species. All the opposite is true, since horses and burros are returned natives who restore North American ecosystems (see Ch. I on the evolution & Ch. II on the ecology of wild horses and burros in Downer 2014 a).
2. They reproduce without control and end up destroying their habitat. Again false! Once the horses/burros fill their niche, they self-stabilize in numbers (Mitchell 1986). They do this through social means as older stallions and mares inhibit the reproduction by younger members of their mature & long-standing bands (Jenkins & Ashley 2003; Karen Sussman ISPMB, pers. comm.). Also, physiologically less effort goes into reproduction as resources become limited (Rogovin & Moshkin 2007). The above has been observed by unbiased people including biologists throughout the world (Jenkins & Ashley 2003; Downer 2014 a & b).

Horses and burros are categorized as “climax species” by ecologists. This means they are members of the more permanent, stable, and biodiverse stage of ecological succession. That horses and burros are able to take up again where their recent ancestors in North America left off constitutes a strong proof for their belonging. Though ever young and renewing, these are ancient presences; and we humans should respect and value them, not just as concerns how we use them, but for their very positive contribution to the life community (Downer 2014 b), and, even more, for their intrinsic value as unique beings (see Ch. VII in Downer 2014 a).

To sum up, horses & burros are healers and restorers of ecosystems. They build healthy soils by contributing greatly to their humus content. As I learned on a recent tour conducted by a botanist, one of the world’s most famous & thriving botanical gardens, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was made possible by mixing horse droppings with sandy beach soil back in the 1870’s. And this contribution from horses continues to keep the park vital today. Horses and burros are also preeminent dispersers of intact seeds of a great variety. Their post-gastric, or caecal, digestive systems contrast greatly with ruminant digestive systems of cattle, sheep, deer, goats, etc. In short, horse & burros bequeath a multitude of positive gifts to life & fill valuable niches in a variety of Earth’s ecosystems. Furthermore, in today’s alarming era of Global Warming, we should greatly value their role in reducing dry flammable vegetation – often in rugged & remote places where domestic livestock do not reach. Horses & burros convert this dry, coarse vegetation into moisture-retaining & nutrient-rich soils, which dampen out incipient fires, such as from lighting strikes or unextinguished campfires. To possess insight into the age-old, yet ever renewing & emerging, natural life of equids is a great joy. And in rising to our higher selves, we partake of their wondrously unfolding life.

Craig C. Downer, Wildlife Ecologist, Andean Tapir Fund/Wild Horse and Burro Fund
P.O. Box 456, Minden, NV 89423-0456 USA. T. 775-267-3484. Cell. 775-901-2094 Websites:,
Link to book The Wild Horse Conspiracy:
Link to Reserve Design for Wild Horses project public support appeal: