In Wyoming’s Red Desert, a legal battle is raging, pitting wild horses against livestock grazing on public lands, particularly the “checkerboard” lands on either side of the Union Pacific railway.
Apparently, some ranchers can’t stand wild horses on the open range, especially on private checkerboard lands, and wild horse advocates don’t want to see the horses taken off the range and slaughtered or shipped off to distant private lands.
Allow us to present a modest proposal to protect both of these interests, and the broader public interest as well. Our proposal would enhance private landowners’ ability to enforce their own property rights, improve land health and enhance wildlife habitats on public lands and resolve thorny public access issues that plague Red Desert checkerboard lands. Here’s our solution:
First, use acre-for-acre land swaps to consolidate checkerboard lands into large, contiguous public and private blocks. The federal government should acquire high-value habitats like sage grouse priority habitats and the Hoback-to-Red Desert mule deer migration corridor, plus crucial big game winter ranges and potential wilderness like those found in northern Adobe Town. Private land and mineral owners could trade into large tracts of rangeland with lower wildlife habitat values and greater mineral resources.
Second, wild horses could be removed from the large blocks of private land, so that livestock wouldn’t compete with wild horses. Wyoming is a fence-out state, and once wild horses are shifted to public lands, federal agencies could assist with the cost of creating fences to divide the private and public blocks, while allowing for big-game migration between both types of land.
Third, for remaining public lands throughout the Red Desert, livestock would be removed and those rangelands could be managed for the benefit of wildlife and wild horses. The general public values native wildlife by large majorities, as well as the opportunity to view wild horses, while domestic livestock primarily benefit their private owners and there is little interest from the American public as a whole in having livestock on public lands.
Without domestic livestock, agencies can remove fences that obstruct big game migrations and kill low-flying sage grouse. Without domestic calves and lambs to worry about, wolves and other native carnivores would have the freedom to roam their original homelands in the Red Desert, at least on public lands.
With the Red Desert’s scant rainfall, inability to support livestock over the winter and expense of providing water supplies, this desert has always been marginal for raising livestock to start with. That’s why almost all the ranches within its bounds went belly-up decades ago.
In contrast to its marginal value to the agriculture industry, the Red Desert represents a world-class high desert ecosystem, a biological stronghold that supports populations of rare wildlife ranging from sage grouse to pygmy rabbits to burrowing owls. Its breathtaking scenery rivals our national parks in places like Adobe Town, the Honeycomb Buttes and the dunefields bordering the Boars Tusk. Its recreational value is important today, and will only increase as a growing population of Americans looks increasingly to its public lands as a recreational sanctuary. Wild horses are a significant part of that recreational value; a Sweetwater County Tourism Bureau official once told me that the No. 1 question asked by travelers stopping in was, “Where can I go to see wild horses?”
Let’s be clear. Wild horses don’t pose an ecological problem in the Red Desert so much as an annoyance to private agribusiness. The rangelands of the Red Desert are in good condition relative to other parts of the West, featuring native grasses and shrubs without widespread infestations of invasive weeds like cheatgrass.
We find no evidence that today’s wild horse numbers are causing problems for land health or for native wildlife. If wild horses do overpopulate some day and cause damage, temporary birth-control drugs offer a workable solution.
Untangling private and public ownership in the heart of the Red Desert would give private landowners the opportunity to pursue their private profits on their own lands. It would give the landowners of federal public lands – all Americans – the opportunity for better public access and enhanced lands management that maximizes public values rather than private profits.
Without cattle and sheep to compete with native wildlife, the land will be healthier and support more abundant and secure populations of native species so that we can all take pride in implementing the land ethic that gets so much lip service here in Wyoming. Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management, would be proud.
Erik Molvar is the executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit organization that works to protect western watersheds and wildlife, particularly on public lands. WWP has taken no formal position on wild horses, seeking instead to advance healthy ecosystems and abundant native wildlife.