Feral horses putting Placitas watershed at risk

The just-released annual report of the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District, which includes the Placitas area, doesn’t mince words:

“Two issues were significant for Soils and Watershed during FY 14. The first was the continuing struggle over feral horses that occupied nearly all of the Las Huertas Watershed below the Cibola National Forest. The District believes that…these horses have caused and continue to cause severe damage to Watershed resources and have impaired the Watershed.”

Why does that matter?

A watershed is an area of land that “catches” rain and snow, allowing the precipitation to drain into streams and seep into underground water sources. In Placitas, we depend on our watershed to replenish the underground aquifers that supply our drinking water. The level of vegetation is a critical aspect of a healthy watershed.

watershedwithaquifer

Source: CT Fund for the Environment

How do free-roaming horses harm a watershed? They eat plants and they trample soil.

First, horses compact the soil around the plants they eat and wherever they hang out or take dust baths. Compacted soil doesn’t absorb water well. When the rains come, the water runs off instead of percolating downward. Second, when horses eat a plant down to a nubbin, the soil under the plant is exposed. Heavy rains then wash the soil away, further exposing the bottom of the plant. Some plants will dry out and die. That leaves fewer roots to stabilize the soil and hold water.

All this trampling and noshing means less rainwater finds its way to the underground aquifers that Placitas relies on for drinking water.

Watershed damage is especially a concern during long droughts like our current one, where we need every drop to recharge streams and aquifers. It may not seem like having some horses on the land could really harm a watershed that much. But because horses live on the land year ’round, prance around on hooves, and eat large quantities of shrubs and grasses, the impact can be severe. In the Tularosa watershed in south central New Mexico, removing feral horses in the mid-1990s led to a healthy regeneration of watershed vegetation. Placitas needs that too.

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Sources: Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District Annual Report FY 2014; “Tularosa Watershed,” in Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy for New Mexico. New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, 2006.