Cows, Horses, and Asses

Cows, Wild Horses, and What’s Left Behind

Cows, Horses, and Asses

I’m no rancher. I do consider myself a horseman, more aspiring than experienced.

I grew up on a Midwest Farm. Worked on a Midwest Farm. Among my favorite memories is driving through the pasture, watching the cows watch me. No matter that they’ve seen you every day of their lives, they look at you from horizon to barn and back like you’re the first non-cow they’ve ever seen.

Horses stare at you like you’re the first non-horse they’ve ever seen, but they maintain an air of intelligence.

I appreciate them both.

And born 200 years too late, I would eventually follow my way West.

One summer, I spent a weekend with some friends on their 1000-acre ranch in Eastern Oregon. They were good people, quality people; the kind of people who live simply, enjoy the silence, can follow each and every word you say as you say it. Their land had been in their family for 100 years, passed down from generation to generation, the ghosts of former homesteads still haunting the upland pastures. They were loggers, I a tree hugger. But I returned their hospitality by listening instead of talking.

Still, as they told me how feral horses destroyed the riparian areas of their land, I couldn’t help but notice the herd of cows congregated around the creek. Now I’d seen cows before. I’d seen cows’ hooves stomp and chew sensitive herbaceous growth to dust on my uncle’s farm back in Indiana. So even as they used the name “Mustang Annie” like a pejorative, I couldn’t help noticing 1000-to-20oo-pound cows beat their way around. I never did see a wild horse there.

With no intended reference to the World Cup this year, I’m no fan of the greedy, bloodthirsty Spanish conquistadors. Though I cannot imagine they and God on the same side, I consider Deanne Stillman’s recent article in High Country News, “We’re still throwing horses overboard,” to be a well-written short history of the case for and against the ‘Wild Horse’ in America. Unsurprisingly, she’s biased toward the horse. So I wasn’t surprised to see Jodi Peterson’s following essay–“We need a solution to too many wild horses.”

All ‘fair and balanced,’ Jodi starts by sharing her childhood love of wild horses before transitioning into an adult realization that these horses are a problem. She acknowledges horses having evolved here in prehistoric America, but that was 12,000 years ago. She quotes: “From an ecological point of view, [horses] don’t belong here. In many ways, they’re like an exotic weed,” Stever Torbit.

She counters the evidence against her only by restating the original fallacy. She may as well have said, “We see the curved shadow of the Earth on the sun, and we’ve seen a circular Earth from space. But you know, as Medieval scholars said, we don’t belong here in the New World, because the world is flat.” But then the vast majority of Medievel scholars knew the earth was round. Only people without the facts didn’t know any better.

But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, and it’s possible that North America today is so significantly changed over the last 12 millennia that reintroduced modern Equus is now ‘like an exotic weed.’ These exotic weeds of which Jodi and Steve Torbit speak are invasive species. Picture kudzu (as in Rocky Smith’s recent post “Embrace the Kudzu”) or scotch broom, for instance. These are a danger because they out compete similar local species so effectively and broadly that they make the local environment unproductive.

Okay. So what similar local species are Jodi and Steve so concerned about? Elk? Deer? Not likely. Herds of these species seem to be doing quite well in the presence of horses, especially since reintroduced wolves have improved the overall health of these local ungulate herds.

Jodi and Steve are referring to cows. For the record, not local.

Jodi’s writes her would-be coup de grâce to the wild horse: “These feral horses are creating a burden on public lands that are already over-used and exploited: The livestock industry gets federally subsidized grazing; the mining industry extracts billions of dollars in minerals while paying a tiny fraction of its profit in royalties. The damage that some 37,000 horses do may seem minor in comparison, but it’s damage nonetheless.”

Wait. Wait! WAIT!

  • Western Public Lands are Over Exploited.


  • By the Livestock and Mining Industries.


  • So lets’ go kill some wild horses!

What!?! You gotta be kidding me.

So, just one more time, let me get this straight. Since livestock and mining—without at all mentioning timber—industries extract billions of dollars while paying a tiny fraction of its profit in royalties… we’re supposed to do something about those damned wild horses? Since cows have harmed public lands, let’s get the horses out of the cows’ way? That’s logical: since oil’s spilled all over the Gulf, let’s go fire up some sea turtles. That makes as much sense as charging hikers for a walk in the woods instead of the timber industry for removing the woods.

Speaking of, why is it that the American people are charged for accessing their own resources while American industries remove those resources for pennies on the dollar? As Jodi points out, “Like it or not, federal lands are managed under a multiple-use mandate that requires the balancing of wildlife and livestock, recreation and mineral extraction.” Exactly.

In Bergston & Xu’s “Changing National Forest Values”, the values of natural resources are broadly categorized as utilitarian (you make something out of it), aesthetic (you look at it), spiritual (you’re enlightened by it), and for the support of life (it’s gotta be there or our quality of life diminishes and we all die, parentheticals mine). Extraction industries enjoy subsidized and preferential access to most natural resources in America for utilitarian purposes. Those who want access to natural resources for aesthetic, or spiritual, or those who advocate for natural resource protection on the bases of our biological need for it are increasingly either charged increasing fees for or outright denied that access. How much were you charged to have a picnic on Mount Lemon last weekend? Ever wonder who and how many cannot afford the same luxury… to public land?

Read Bernice Wood’s thoughts Bernice Wood’s post on our need to “step away” momentarily from responsibility and wonder where you can “step away.”

Hey, I like my cheeseburger as well as the next Parrothead in Paradise. And I prefer to work with wood over plastic. And I, reluctantly, pump gasoline into my car like most other people. But my car is a hybrid.

I agree with Veronica Egan’s as Jodi quoted her: “The time for public support of expensive lifestyles in the name of romantic historical myths is over.” The American public has been supporting unsustainable extraction to support the historical myth of materialism and growth for growth’s sake for far too long. We must learn how to be sustainable instead of wasteful, responsible instead of excessive, and ingenious instead of lazy.

I hear the argument on one side that environmentalists just want to lock it all up so no one has access. I hear the argument on the other that industries want to take it all without accountability. My friends in Eastern Oregon, for all their politicking for the timber and cattle industries, practiced selective and sustainable Silviculture. And I find it ironic that the same small businesspeople who hate environmentalism are wise in their land use. So why is it that we’re so quick to defend the excesses that extraction industries exhibit?

We don’t need a solution to too many wild horses, Jodi; we need a solution to too much extraction by industries with too little accountability. If we can’t do that, then eventually no one in America will be wild and free.

The cow included.

2 thoughts on “Cows, Wild Horses, and What’s Left Behind”

  1. In my experience, the supporters of extractive industry – and by “industry” I’m referring to corporate extractive industry, not small-scale mom-and-pops operations, although those certainly can create some problems, too – are few and far between. And it seems to be less about supporting the corporation’s destruction of an area/resource as it is about supporting the “right” to make choices and do things in a way we each see fit (think, Jefferson vs. Hamilton – Big vs. Small government arguments). But your point about offing horses is a good one and gets at the “forest through the trees” theme (i.e., missing the larger picture/point) about managing the resources for multiple uses. Unfortunately, corporations have utilized (and leveraged) very old US laws to their favor and the balanced multiple use has now long-favored some uses over others. But I’m still hopeful that, given good leadership (read “mandates”), our resources will indeed be eventually managed for “balanced” multiple use. But it’s going to take some doing. I’m up for the challenge. And I know many others are, too…

  2. Excellent post and many good points you brought up. In America the special interest always wins out. They want the cows in and the horses out, and won’t rest until they achieve it. We will fight them just like any other special interest to protect the remaining wild horses. Many will die but we hope for a preserve in the end. Please cast your vote for wild horse preserves.

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