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Wild horses, burros evade roundup -- for now

Planned wrangling near the Nevada-Oregon line is called off amid protest. But wildlife officials fear the herds endanger other animals.

August 26, 2007|Sandra Chereb | Associated Press

RENO, NEV. — Hundreds of wild horses and burros that have been slated for roundup at a national wildlife refuge along the Nevada-Oregon line will continue to roam free, at least for now, to the relief of horse advocates and the dismay of some other environmentalists and wildlife officials.

After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service canceled a planned roundup in July under pressure from horse advocates and a congressman, horse groups applauded.

But wildlife officials fear the herds will gobble up scarce resources and destroy habitat for the animals the Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect. The victory for horses endangers pronghorn antelopes, bighorn sheep, pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, mule deer and untold species found in isolated springs, they say.

Other environmental groups, while not necessarily opposed to wild horses, argue that too many will significantly degrade the delicate western Great Basin ecosystem and pillage the refuge's financial resources.

"We simply can't put the needs of horses above all other wildlife, especially when law requires these refuges be managed for specific species," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Assn., an independent nonprofit organization that advocates for refuges.

As the dust over the proposed roundup settles, federal managers have agreed to reconsider whether horses and burros, viewed by many as romantic symbols of the American West, should have a bigger claim to the expansive high desert refuge than the stake they were given a quarter-century ago when cattle also shared the land.

"We're not saying there should never be a roundup of horses or they should let them go unchecked," said Matt Rossell, outreach coordinator for the animal rights group In Defense of Animals.

"We just want to make sure the horses are gathered humanely and we really have good information on how many horses the land can sustain and that the horses are ending up in good homes," he said.

Paul Steblein, project manager at the Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, said that besides the horses' damaging habitat and posing a threat to motorists on a nearby rural highway, managing the animals consumes a big chunk of the refuge's funding.

"Every dollar we spend on a horse is a dollar we don't have for other priorities," Steblein said. "In general, we've spent in the last year more than half of our budget on horses and burros."

Steblein added: "The No. 1 human experience that we are charged to implement is conservation to protect native plants and animals in the ecosystem. There are species that occur no place else."

Horse advocates and other animal rights groups rallied in protest this spring after the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that reducing the herd was a continuation of an existing policy and would not "significantly affect the quality of the human environment" or experiences at the refuge. The finding made a thorough environmental study unnecessary under federal law.

But the service's finding brought a stern rebuke from Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

In a letter to Fish and Wildlife Director H. Dale Hall, Rahall said, "It is hard to fathom how the service can justify as 'not significant' " its plan to drastically reduce "a viable herd of wild horses."

Horse advocates complained the Fish and Wildlife Service relied on studies done in 1980 and the late 1970s -- when livestock grazing was allowed on the refuge -- that set target population levels at 75 to 125 horses and 30 to 60 burros.

But grazing on the refuge was banned in the 1990s, and they argued that with cattle gone, new studies should be done to determine how many horses and burros the refuge can support before large numbers of the animals are removed.

Refuge officials estimate as many as 1,600 horses and 100 burros roam the Sheldon refuge, which was established in the 1930s and covers more than 500,000 acres in northern Nevada and southeastern Oregon.

"Whether or not cattle are there, those horses are causing damage to our wetlands, impacting our native species and wildlife," Steblein said.

"There's a problem out there with water resources, water holes drying up," he said. Steblein said staff members and others had reported horses staking out watering holes and chasing off pronghorn.

Steblein said the herd added about 300 horses annually through reproduction.

Critics say poor management on the refuge led to the current population boom.

In public comments, the Humane Society of the United States said horses numbered 400 or less when the targeted population levels were set in 1980.

"If management actions had been taken as prescribed, it is doubtful that the horse population would be hovering around 1,500 as it is today," wrote Lauren Nolfo, a Human Society scientist.

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