Wild horse herds reach 'devastating levels' across the West

Scott Streater, E&E News

EUREKA COUNTY, Nev. — Ambling across a desert valley, 100 or so wild horses congregate in and around muddy pools of water in a flat, arid section of the Bureau of Land Management's Pancake Herd Management Area.

Ordinarily, this water — remnants of spring melt from mountains in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest — wouldn't be here in late July, but northeastern Nevada experienced its second unusually wet year in a row, and so the herd stays near the dirty water in the southern Newark Valley.

From a mile away, the valley looks like a kind of oasis, vast and green, containing not only the snowmelt water but also what appears to be ample forage inside the vast expanse of desert scrubland.

But it's a mirage.

The vegetation that rims the valley is little more than shrubs and brushes, mostly black sage, and rabbitbrush — nothing much the horses care to eat — in between dry-as-a-bone sand and dirt.

The wild horses have long ago consumed most all of the grasses, and most all of the winterfat shrub near the standing water; the group of 100 or so wild horses will later travel as far as 20 miles up into Humboldt-Toiyabe to find what little forage remains and to escape the stifling summer heat.

"This is just not sustainable," says Ruth Thompson, BLM Nevada's Wild Horse and Burro Program manager, looking down into the valley below during a recent tour.

Healthy snowpacks can't be counted on in this arid region to provide water; underground springs are the only reliable source of water here, and they are few and far between, she says. What's more, the large number of wild horses are eating the winterfat and Indian ricegrass literally down to the root, allowing invasive species to spread.

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