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In fight for scarce water, wild horses can push away other animals

Mike Cox has been a biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife for 30 years. In that time he’s watched horse herd sizes boom and warns “the ecosystem is going to collapse. I would give parts of Nevada a decade. It's all it's got left.”
Ashley Ahearn
Mike Cox has been a biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife for 30 years. In that time he’s watched horse herd sizes boom and warns “the ecosystem is going to collapse. I would give parts of Nevada a decade. It's all it's got left.”

Second of four parts

As my wild horse paws at the snow and eats hay in my pasture, I look at him and wonder what I’ve done.

I would sit with my mustang, Boo, every day all winter, into the spring. Just hoping he’d start to trust me – and want to be around me. It had to be his choice, to come to me, to choose me. I was determined that I wasn’t going to rope him or force him the way some trainers might.

He likes it when I sing to him. “Amazing Grace” seems to be the go-to song because it’s kind of calm and not too high-energy.

I love him. I just love him so much. He is just giving his trust to me in tiny little bits, one piece at a time. He lets me touch his white spot on his face. He lets me rub his chin or his chest. He’s starting to let me pick up his hoofs, just his front ones.

I bought Boo for $125 from the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon.

But if you want to see wild horses, Nevada is the place to go. Of the 80,000 or so wild horses in the west, more than half of them roam the harsh, dry lands of Nevada.

Since the federal government passed protections for wild horses in 1971, their numbers have increased steadily.

Mike Cox, a biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, says the land can only support about 8,000.

I ask whether he means this range or the state of Nevada.

He says in “this whole state – 8,000 horses in the state of Nevada.”

And how many are there?

“Man, there's about 54,000,” he says.

Cox has been a state wildlife biologist for 30 years. And in that time, he’s watched wild horse herds take over the rangelands he studies.

The key is water. There is not much of it in this part of the world -- maybe three to seven inches per year, depending on the drought cycle. That means there’s not much lush green grass or other plants that mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep or other creatures need to survive.

Biologists are sounding the alarm about what that means for sage grouse, in particular. A recent study projected that within a decade, if wild horse numbers continue to grow at current rates, sage grouse will decline by 70% in areas where the two species share the landscape.

I picture Boo and his family in the Oregon high desert. They seem so natural out there -- such an iconic part of the landscape. It’s hard to think of them as an invasive threat to a fragile ecosystem.

But that’s how Cox sees them after years of studying the intricate web of plants and animals across this state. A web that he says is starting to come apart.

“I have a lot of frustration, built up frustration,” he says. “And the ecosystem is going to collapse. I would give parts in Nevada, a decade.”

After leaving Cox, I drive to the opposite side of the state to meet Scott Roberts in the Ruby Valley. He’s also a biologist for the wildlife department.

There are just a handful of natural springs in this valley, and some are really small -- maybe flowing less than a gallon a minute into potholes the size of dinner plates. That means everyone is competing for a drink.

“And so horses will actively guard that water until it fills a small puddle up and they're able to drink,” Roberts says.

He monitors game cameras throughout the valley, and describes one especially disappointing set of photos. A huge bull elk in his prime is drinking and then looks up, turns and runs away.

“And here comes a group of horses in,” Roberts says. “You know, if you're out competing or scaring off bull elk, there's not much else that has a chance.”

State and federal officials have worked to install special fencing around the springs. Deer and some other animals can jump over or climb under it, but horses can’t. Each project can cost up to $50,000.

The Bureau of Land Management tries to keep wild horse populations in check by conducting roundups, but they draw public backlash. No one likes the images of helicopters chasing horses across the sagebrush.

So, Roberts says, our political leadership just keeps ignoring the problem.

“It isn't worth it to most politicians or any politicians really,” he says. “And so it just feels like we're just driving this train off the end of the tracks and nobody seems to care.”

In Part 3, Ahearn looks at the complicated relationship between ranchers and wild horses. This series was adapted from her podcast Mustang, which has much, much more about these iconic wild animals.

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