Story and Photos By Tabitha Mueller
It was standing room only Wednesday evening in the Nightingale Sky Room of the Nevada Museum of Art as the Coalition for Healthy Nevada Landscapes, Wildlife, Wild Horses, and Burros screened the short film “Horse Rich & Dirt Poor.” The film explores wild horses’ impact on native wildlife and was part of a forum about challenges to healthy Nevada lands.
The gathering, entitled “Horse Rich & Dirt Poor: The challenge to healthy Nevada lands, wildlife, and wild horses,” was designed to be an educational opportunity and discussion from various points of view but was more controversial than the organizers had intended.
The American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), a wild horse advocacy organization, protested the event. Their protest was in response to the Coalition’s decision not to screen a five-minute film the AWHC wanted to show discussing cattle ranchers’ impacts on public lands.
Greg Hendricks, director of field operations for the AWHC, participated in the forum’s planning, but then pulled out after the Coalition decided not to show the AWHC’s short film.
They said they would show [our five-minute film] if we censored out the middle part.”
Suzanne Roy, the executive director for the AWHC, called “Horse Rich: Dirt Poor” “fake news” that failed to include cattle ranchers’ impact on public lands.
“We said…we want the opportunity to show a different side because …they’re not giving the facts…And they said they would show [our five-minute film] if we censored out the middle part. They actually wanted to edit our video to take out the middle part,” said Roy.
Karen Boeger, the chairperson of the event planning committee for the Coalition, explained that she and other committee members organized the event as a way to discuss the ongoing degradation of public lands and the impact unmanaged wild horses have on the landscape. She said that AWHC’s video misrepresented the issue and detracted from the event’s focus on biodiversity associated with Nevada’s public lands.
“[Most people] have no idea of the condition on those rangelands right now, primarily due to the vast overpopulation of horses… We’re going to cover grazing…because the video doesn’t talk about that so much, it’s primarily focused on wildlife…because we haven’t seen any other wild horse conversation that included wildlife or impacts to wildlife,” she said.
Counter-event highlights alternate perspectives
Before the evening forum, the AWHC held a counter-event and press conference, sharing their perspective. After the counter-event, advocates affiliated with the AWHC protested outside the Nevada Museum of Art waving signs with phrases like, “Born Wild, Stay Wild,” and “Sham Meeting Scapegoats Wild Horses, Ignores Livestock Damage.”
Virginia Range advocate and protestor Nancy Killian did not view wild horses as part of the problem of land degradation.
“We’re letting people know that the wild horses are American icons, and they shouldn’t be thought of as something that’s ruining the range. I’ve helped to clean up a spring area where there was cattle, and there was horses, and there was just cattle poop all over,” Killian said. “Horses don’t poop by their streams or by their spring, whatever they drink from, but cattle do. And it’s really the cattle that are ruining the ecosystem.”
Although Killian argues that horses do not defecate near streams, this reporter could not find evidence refuting or supporting her statement.
If we continue screaming…nothing is achieved
After the screening, panelists from various government agencies and conservation boards connected to Nevada’s public lands discussed the film. They included: Steve Foree, retired biologist and ecologist from Nevada Department of Wildlife; Dr. Jim Sedinger, retired UNR professor and expert on greater sage grouse ecology; Celeste Carlisle, science advisor for non-profit Return to Freedom; Alan Shepherd, lead for the BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro on Range program; and, Tina Nappe, a conservationist and member of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council. They answered audience questions about wild horses, livestock management, and land degradation, among other topics.
Former Chairman of the Nevada Wildlife Commission, Jeremy Drew, moderated the discussion.
Drew emphasized the importance of wild horses but added that other species, such as the wild sage grouse, lack advocates and could become endangered if organizations do not mitigate overgrazing.
“So much of the narrative is a horse narrative…[and our rangelands] don’t have an unlimited capacity,” he said.
As the five panelists discussed and answered audience questions, they also addressed the issue of cattle grazing impacts versus wild horse impacts, drawing attention to the fact that cattle grazers follow strict regulations while wild horses have free range of the land.
Nappe noted the way that wild horses are suffering because the land cannot sustain them, and said there is a need for management.
We manage every other critter on the landscape except horses.”
“Horses can graze the same place day after day…and ultimately they destroy their habitat,” she said.
Carlisle, a science advisor on wild horse ecology and fertility control measures, stressed the need for a multi-tiered approach to addressing wild horses and land degradation.
“If we continue screaming…nothing is achieved…There is information out there that we are not putting together because we are at odds with each other,” she said.
Nappe echoed Carlisle’s words, saying, “It’s not about cows versus horses. It’s about all of us living together…The future is in the small species. If we can’t protect those, we’ve lost everything…The only thing we can do is work towards a multi-tiered management system to help the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) turn this great battleship around.”
Forum attendee Devon Snyder, a rangeland ecologist at the University of Nevada Reno who is originally from the East Coast, shared her perspective on the complications surrounding wild horses and managing them.
“The horse issue is so complicated… I’ve seen really healthy horses, and I’ve seen really hurt horses on rangeland, and I’ve seen some of the damaged wetlands that they’ve talked about in this video…and I know there are ranchers who do a really good job and there are ranchers who don’t do a good job. But we manage every other critter on the landscape except horses.”
Forum motives questioned
In his remarks at the start of counter-event, Lance Gilman, a Storey County commissioner and director of the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRI), said that the screening was part of a public relations campaign.
“[“Horse Rich: Dirt Poor”] is manufactured to support a plan to round up 130,000 wild horses and burros,” he said, adding, “They’re gonna spin the subject that they’d like to spin.”
An organizer of the panel discussion and environmental consultant, Rebekah Stetson, disagreed.
“The legislation that’s on the table right now doesn’t have anything to do with slaughter. It has to do with rounding [the horses] up and getting them into holding facilities where there’s actually grass that grows, not paying to have them eat cut hay here in Nevada,” she said.
For questions or more information about the differing perspectives in this article, contact Deb Walker, an AWHC Nevada field representative, at [email protected] and Rebekah Stetson, a member of the Coalition for Healthy Nevada Lands, Wildlife, and Wilds horses at [email protected]
Note: Although the forum “Horse Rich & Dirt Poor: The challenge to healthy Nevada lands, wildlife, and wild horses” was held at the the Nevada Museum of Art, the museum had no affiliation with the event.