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Rich Pomerantz/AGPIX

Sounding off on Ted Williams's "Horse Sense."
Ted’s reaction to the reactions.
Read more letters on the current issue.

As a lifelong “horse person” (breeder, packer, guide, instructor, and horse lover), I was delighted to see your no-nonsense article on the state of “wild” horses in North America. Horses, domestic or feral, are a luxury item in the 21st century, and one that we in North America can ill afford to coddle. There is no way to describe the presence of feral equines in the present day on our public lands as anything but escaped domestic livestock. As such they certainly have no business supplanting indigenous wildlife. Our land managers are having a tough enough time trying to keep threatened and endangered species (animal and vegetable) viable without trying to accommodate the presence of these freeloaders.

Don’t get me wrong: I love horses. I made my living with them for nearly 40 years, and have had the privilege of partnership with many outstanding equines. But the pressures on our public lands are becoming intolerable, and one of the few things over which we could exercise effective control is the population of feral equines. The emotional paroxysms of the “horse mafia” are clearly not in the best interests of the  public commons. There are plenty of good domestic horses to go around, or we wouldn't be shipping so much horsemeat overseas, to say nothing of the desperate straits in which many of these critters find themselves in the droughty Southwest!

If these well-intentioned folks considered the plight of the multitude of species being driven toward extinction by our preference for our chosen domestic species, perhaps they’d be satisfied with ol’ Dobbin in their backyards, who’s living the life of Riley, instead of championing the starved, inbred mongrels roaming our public lands. The time for public support of expensive (in ecosystem terms) lifestyles in the name of romantic historical myths is over. We need all of the resources we can muster to be conserved for the benefit of the truly wild and threatened creatures and landscapes we still have.

Veronica Egan
Executive Director
Great Old Broads for Wilderness
Durango, CO

Ted Williams’s “Horse Sense” exposes many inconvenient truths rarely noted in the overly romantic publicity about feral horses. One consequence of the fact that the feral horses are “aliens,” not in balance with the natural ecosystem, is that they can remain in apparently good condition (i.e., not starving—yet) while seriously damaging the landscape. An example is the Pryor Mountains (which I am glad to report are still in Montana, not in Colorado where Williams misplaced them). An excellent recent study done by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) found that condition of Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is poor and deteriorating: the “apparent trend is down on 76 percent of the transects, severe erosion is occurring on approximately 57 percent of the landscape.” This is an example of a nonnative species consuming the natural ecosystem unsustainably as a nonrenewable resource. By the time the horses are seriously affected, the natural ecosystem may be damaged beyond recovery. Although the NRCS study was well done, it was limited in scope. As a study focusing on range condition it considered the unique Pryor Mountain ecosystem primarily as “horse food.” The needed broader study of the impact of the horses on the entire ecosystem has not been done. Therefore the BLM doesn’t have sufficient information concerning the congressionally mandated “thriving natural ecological balance.” With severe soil erosion it is unlikely that the ecosystem is “thriving.”

Dick Walton
Billings, MT

Thank you for “Horse Sense.” I admit I was taken in by an e-mail I received (unsolicited, from a humane organization) about the plight of wild horses. It was written to tug at the heart strings. I did have a lingering doubt about it, as I have been totally against [this group’s] campaigns to trap/spay/release feral cats to prey upon on our native species, and have written to local papers about the terrible environmental impact of feral cats. I should have known that, as the article commented, they don’t ever want any animal to die by human hand, no matter how much environmental sense it makes.

You have performed a valuable service, and I hope your readers get the big picture.

Doris M. Stoner
Hilton Head Island, SC

Ted Williams has never been afraid of sacred cows—or horses. As much as I love horses, I appreciate his realistic picture of the damage wild horses and burros are doing to the landscape in which they live. Just like the feral sheep and pigs in Channel Islands National Park (off California’s Central Coast), they don’t belong. Unfortunately, the controversy of what to do with the wild horses has been and will be much stronger than that generated by the removal of the pigs and sheep.

Ms. Lilith
Ventura, CA

Ted Williams’s insightful article was informative, provocative, and timely, as my local Los Angeles educational channel just aired “Cloud's Legacy: The Wild Stallion Returns,” which glorified feral horses. I wrote to them as follows: While I’m sure many viewers were thrilled by this show, you should be aware that feral horses are a major threat to the well-being of the environment throughout the West. They should not be glorified. In fact, they should be removed as nonnative and detrimental to ecosystems from the mountains through the deserts. I refer you to an article in the September-October 2006 Audubon magazine, “Horse Sense,” by Ted Williams, for more information. Perhaps, in the name of balance and science, you could sponsor a show that would highlight the problems caused by feral horses on our public lands throughout the West.

Frederick E. Akers
Fullerton, CA

It seems as though the East has its deer problem and the West has its horse problem, and we’re both dealing with people who never see the big picture. What I don’t understand is why National Audubon itself—perhaps teaming up with other conservation groups, sportsmen’s groups, and the like—doesn’t go on its own education campaign. If the horse groups are targeting schoolchildren, then Audubon should do likewise.

Therese North
Collegeville, PA


I grew up in wild horse country, and I saw the horses disappear from the ranges near where I lived both because of fences and the BLM roundups. It has been my personal experience that much of the damage attributed to the horses where I lived were just an excuse by the cattle ranchers who lease the land for grazing to have the horses removed. The horse removal did not fix the problems. Only better management of the cattle improved the conditions. As each new rancher leased the land, one would see changes, both positive and negative, depending on their management techniques.

The real problem, as I see it, is not even so much the cattle as the spread of human populations and the loss of habitat by all of the animals, not just the horses. As their environment shrinks, the horses are forced into areas that cannot support them. That is why I joined the Audubon Society in the first place—to help preserve some of the habitat that is being lost every day to human construction and destruction.

One more thing: As far as the adopted mustangs go, the article only told part of the story. There are many people who have adopted mustangs and believe them to be the best horses they ever owned. The idea of sending all of these fine animals to slaughter is a sick one indeed.

Holly Lenz
Via e-mail

I was surprised that a supposed environmentalist like Ted Williams would write such a biased, grossly misinformed and vitriolic piece as “Horse Sense.” He loses all credibility when he shows his true colors as an apologist for cattle grazing on public lands. Any decently informed environmentalist (along with NRDC, Western Watersheds Project, and Forest Guardians, to name a few) will tell you that cattle (all 4.2 million of them), not wild horses (the less than 30,000 that remain), are destroying our public lands. Does that make us part of the “wild horse mafia” too.

V.L. Parant
Via e-mail

I enjoyed the article about the proliferation of wild horses and burros in the West. Yes, as someone who owned horses for 30 years, I know well how destructive they can be. Nature has endowed them with thousand-pound bodies that can break down almost anything, given a little time. Nature has also programmed them to eat constantly, and given the chance, they will. Yes, I know they are not native and they can make life untenable for native species, both animal and plant. Yes, I know that, having evolved on grassy steppes, they are poorly nourished when relegated to a barren desert. Yes, I know that they are not quality horseflesh; if someone gave you one, you'd give it right back. Yes, I know that, without chemical de-wormers, they are doomed to a short, stunted life as parasites hijack the nutrients they do get.
Yes, I love them—just the thought of them. I love the fact that there is one species, just one, that survives without turning tricks for the ungodly human hordes that have taken over this planet, one species that is neither slave nor entertainment nor potential food, one species that doesn't play into our bizarre economic system that sees no value in a tree unless it is a saw log, no value in an animal unless its carcass is splayed on a butcher counter, no value in a plant unless we can eat it.

For those reasons, I disagree with Ted Williams's conclusions. He wants the wild horses and burros eliminated so that Herefords (just the name tells you they are not native) can destroy the waterways and eat the sage and turn themselves into carcasses. I don’t.

Sandy Lamson
Sandpoint, ID

I’ll add another letter to the negative column regarding Ted Williams’s “Horse Sense,” which reads like a combination of small snippets of science melded with large doses of personal bias and opinion. I particularly disliked his offhanded condemnation of anyone who disagrees with him as the “horse mafia.”

The science is far from complete concerning the impact of horses on the landscape, and it’s the thousands and thousands of cattle grazing on our public lands that deserve his attention. Hopefully, Ted will continue to encounter worthy adversaries who love Audubon . . .and wild horses.

Katherine Hughes
Berkeley, CA

I was astonished by “Horse Sense”—more by its tone than its subject. Allowing for the fact that any species the size of a horse will have impact on vegetation, so did tens of millions of buffalo, which happily coexisted with other species on the far better vegetated lands that existed in the American West 150 years ago.

The difference is the millions upon millions of cattle and sheep that have altered the environment, making it more vulnerable to the impact of other species. To accept the continuing impact of cattle and blame a horse for eating some of what little is left, and to ignore the impact of other species that are desirable for hunting (such as deer, antelope, elk), strikes me as hypocritical—especially in light of the small number of horses in the wild.

For example: I found it incredible that the article would focus on the impact of horses on water holes, as if herds of cattle were not using the same resource, or discuss the danger of wild horses (just try and get within several hundred yards of one). Overall, the tone was propagandistic and a great surprise in a magazine such as yours. Given that there are real management issues relating to wild horses that warrant serious attention, I’m at a loss to understand how such a one-sided presentation found its way into your magazine.

Andrew Updegrove
Marblehead, MA

I read the current issue of Audubon last night and had to stop after reading “Horse Sense.” I have trouble believing that Mr. Williams “loves” horses.” He had a lot of true facts in the article, but his hatred of horses and donkeys came through so much that it made him seem a raging lunatic with a personal grudge against wild horses and donkeys. With Williams’s writing style, I seriously doubt if much progress can be made towards fixing the problems he addresses in the article.

Horse Mafia??? How stupid. I suggest Mr. Williams tone it down if he writes on this topic again. Leave his feelings at home and just write the problems and facts. People are more likely to take it seriously, as it needs to be.

Connie Dreistadt
Barnwell, SC

After reading the first page of “Horse Sense,” I was stopped cold by the rhetoric. If there weren’t millions of cattle fattening up (for free) on the land, there wouldn’t be a big problem.

Marcy Youngquist
Brea, CA

I am very disappointed that Audubon is joining the considerable powers aligned against wild horses on public lands. Ted Williams is against what he calls invasive foreign species in the U.S. That definition covers a lot of bird, plant, and animal species. It’s ironic that the horses he would like to exterminate have been here the longest, having been brought in by the Spanish. Over hundreds of years they served the native Indians, the early pioneers, the U.S. Army, and then the settlers who ranched the West. Now that the horses are no longer useful as work animals and compete for food with cows and sheep, they are on an extermination list compiled by the politically powerful—the ones who in the past exterminated every predator and are still waging war on the coyote and the badger. The BLM has concocted an “adoption” sham so that horse lovers will be pacified when the wild mustangs are removed from their range, which by the way they have inhabited for hundreds of years. Most of those “adopted” horses end up in the slaughterhouse.

Williams complains that horses eat grass (surprise!) and degrade streams. The latter is only the case where the horses are forced to congregate in larger numbers than normal because they have been driven away from their traditional water holes for the benefit of livestock. Ranchers have even fenced off water access to kill off the mustangs. So Williams uses the suffering and poor condition of the animals as a further argument to remove them from the range.

Hey, how about removing access for the cows, which (surprise) also eat grass and really trample stream habitat? Williams has seen the damage that cows cause to streams, land and other species that nest or forage in grasslands. How can he compare horse herds, which usually consist of a stallion, 10 to 15 mares, and some young ones, with the humongous herds of voracious cows that ranchers loose on BLM lands? Horses are grazers who are constantly on the move; cows eat and lie down to chew their cuds, and remain on stream banks for days until every last leaf is gone, and the land has turned to mud.

Audubon in the past has documented the damage done to land by the uncontrolled grazing of cows. What editorial change of direction is causing your magazine to attack the remaining wild horses, which are truly an American heritage? They are a symbol of the West, the free and indomitable spirit that is part of this land. Is it their reward to become dog food for having served as a means to settle these lands? Your magazine is on the wrong side of this issue.

Ewa Winogrodska
Cottekill, NY

I read with great alarm the recent Incite about the “feral horse” problem. First, despite the author’s family’s and friends’ experience, others have done well with their adopted mustangs. For example, my former veterinarian won major endurance rides with her “mongrel” mustang, which she had adopted and trained herself. Second, the BLM has shown neither creativity nor invention in their decades of mismanagement of the wild horse herds. Third, is the author by any chance involved with the Cattlemen’s Association? He certainly is preaching their tired message. Fourth, the author describes Australia’s solution to the wild horse problem. This certainly would be one approach. There are few enough of us who are devoted to conserving, preserving, and protecting non-human species around the world. Should we be taking potshots at each other across the bodies of dead horses?

Robin White
Lindenwold, NJ

“Feral equid” apparently is Mr. Williams’s preferred name for wild horses and burros, probably because it does not create a romantic image of horses galloping free, manes and tails blowing in the wind. Wild horses may not be natives, but they have been here for a long time, and most Americans feel a special relationship with them. Humans brought them here, so we are responsible for developing humane ways of caring for them. The BLM, the Forest Service, the Park Service, and state wildlife agencies should work together to preserve their existence. Private organizations with a special interest in horse management should also be involved. For Williams to refer to those organizations as the “horse mafia” is counterproductive and inflammatory.

Carol Sade
Bethesda, MD

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Ted Williams responds:
Herewith, a few salient points that readers who objected to my piece missed or were unaware of. 

Ms. Lenz has it right when she states that “there are many people who have adopted mustangs and believe them to be the best horses they ever owned.” I made the same point in the piece. But I’d remind her that there are also many people who have had dreadful experiences with feral equids they’ve adopted (including sustaining serious injury) and who, after one year of heartbreak and frustration, have legally sold them for dog food.

The contention by Parant, Hughes, and Youngquist that we shouldn’t worry about the impact of feral equids because cattle are a greater ecological threat is nonsensical—like arguing that pertussis is okay because pneumonia kills more people. As I reported in “Horse Sense,” cattle do more damage than horses because there are more of them but one horse does far more damage than one cow.

This last point is central to the rebuttal of the common and fallacious argument (expressed here by Mr. Updegrove) that if North American vegetation could tolerate millions of bison, it should be able to tolerate thousands of feral equids. First, unlike bison and all native North American ungulates with which North American vegetation co-evolved, equids have one-piece hooves and meshing incisors. Second, bison move widely around the landscape, while equids tend to hang out at water sources. Third, while a few feral equids might make a decent living on the Great Plains if they had some sort of natural control (which they don’t), they most definitely cannot make a decent living in the bare, arid regions into which they have been pushed, and desert vegetation, which has evolved no defense against solid hooves and meshing incisors, cannot tolerate their presence. Therefore everyone loses—the horses and burros, the native vegetation, and all the creatures sustained by that native vegetation.

I’m glad Ms. Lamson enjoyed the piece, but she might not have disagreed with its conclusions had she read with care. While I do want feral equids removed from public range, it is hardly to make room for cattle. (In fact, removal would make virtually no room for cattle.) And I’d remind her that there are hundreds of invasive exotics that also “survive without turning tricks for the ungodly human hordes that have taken over this planet” and that are “neither slave nor entertainment nor potential food”—mute swans, feral goats, feral hogs, dingo dogs, gray squirrels, feral house cats, nutria, red foxes, grass carp, black carp, snakeheads, sea lampreys, cane toads, red-eared sliders, brown tree snakes, zebra mussels, starlings, and English sparrows, to mention just a few. Like feral equids, they wreak havoc on native ecosystems.

I’m surprised that Ms. Dreistadt (and other readers I’ve heard from) cannot perceive the difference between loving an animal and hating its presence in the wrong place. I doubt that anyone loves his or her dog more than I love mine, but because I hate to see him digging in the tulips or playing in the traffic, I have installed an electric “Dogwatch” fence. 

Finally, Ewa Winogrodska makes the case for removal better than I did. Feral horses indeed “degrade streams” and have indeed “been driven away from their traditional water holes (which they usurped from native wildlife),” and their “suffering and poor condition” is indeed one of the reasons why they should be removed and properly cared for. I’d love to see the cows removed along with them, both for humane reasons and the welfare of fish and wildlife. (In fact, as I reported in Fly Rod & Reel magazine, “If a Yankee dairyman kept his stock in this condition, he’d get busted by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.”) But I have news for Ewa Winogrodska: It ain’t gonna happen.

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