Ecology and the wild horse. Wild Horses and Sage Grouse
Barbara Wheeler posted on your Wall.
You recently asked me about our experiences seeing wild horse destruction of riparian areas as reported by various wildlife organizations.
You probably know that we were bird photographers for years before we became involved with wild horse photography and have been to many areas where we see and photograph both wild horses and birds. We’ve both volunteered over 1500 hours each at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, which is in close proximity to at least three HMAs.
When we travel to photograph wild horses we spend anywhere from five days to two months in a specific area, so it is not hit and miss observation.
I’m baffled by the claim that horses are destroying riparian areas. The water on 90% of the HMAs we’ve been to (~20 in 7 states) consist of BLM water holes, elevated troughs or natural springs, most that are seasonal and far from riparian in nature. Most HMAs are located in very arid country.
Big Summit HMA in the Ochoco Mtns of Oregon, Piceance Creek HMA in Colorado, McCollough Peaks in Wyoming and Pryor Mtn HMA in Montana all have creeks as a main water source. Birds abound in these areas and if the horses were negatively impacting them, would the birds be there in such abundance? There certainly may be areas that are impacted by horses that I am not aware of, but I sure can’t see that as a problem where we have been!
We have, on occasion, seen shorebirds share water holes with the horses and cows on an HMA. I have to say, that in our experience, the cows foul the water with their waste and destroy the ground around it to a far greater extent than the horses. Even with that, we’ve never found a destroyed shorebird nest, or any other nest, for that matter.
The issue of protected wild horses damaging or threatening protected Sage Grouse is not one that we’ve seen. Sage Grouse, like other birds that nest on the ground, will protect their nests as best they can by placing them under sage brush or other shrubs. We have never seen a horse trample sage brush. They always walk (or even run) around it. Aside from the fact that it wouldn’t be much different that a herd of elk, pronghorn or mule deer walking through the area or using a water source. Those animals will outnumber wild horses in any given HMA.
We’ve been to several HMAs (Warm Springs, Pryor Mtn, McCullough Peaks, South Steens and non HMA areas in Wyoming) where we can distinctly remember seeing Sage Grouse present. They seem to coexist pretty nicely with the horses as far as we’ve seen.
The image of a Sage Grouse hen that I’ve attached was taken one evening when we were surrounded by about 100 wild horses. Seven or eight Sage Grouse walked up to us while we were photographing, completely unintimidated and seemingly, unaffected by the horses.
These are our *observations* as bird and wild horse photographers…
FROM MARA LEGRAND FILMMAKER – When I was making this film, numerous environmental organizations, especially some people from Wild Earth Guardians and Audubon Society were adamant that the wild horses and burros destroy riparian areas and the bird hatching habitat those areas provide. I address this to an extent in my film by saying that when we contribute to a balanced eco system all of nature can thrive. I show some cute footage of Sage Grouse provided by Mark Salvo of Wild Earth Guardians. He did his Ph.D research on sage grouse so he was looking for this implication. Wild Earth Guardians have aligned with wild horse advocates against the damage cattle do to the range. I believe we all need more un-biased, observers out on the ranges documenting how the wild horses and burros co-habitate with all of the natural eco-system. Keep your observation letters coming.