The photo below shows the decimation of native grasses by feral horses grazing on unfenced BLM land (on the left) in northern Placitas compared with the protected San Jose de las Huertas Archeological Conservancy site (on the right).
Why do we need to preserve native grasses? They provide sustenance to small mammals, quail and songbirds–and thus other species all up the food chain. Grasses protect nutrient-rich topsoil from being washed away. They put out huge networks of roots that hold deeper layers of soil in place and prevent erosion. In prairie ecosystems, they are a foundation species, without which the ecosystem becomes severely imbalanced and lacks resilience to stress.
Placitas has a long history of being overgrazed by livestock. Although the sheep of the Spanish settlers are long gone and cattle no longer graze on the BLM buffalo tract due to its lack of forage, they’ve been replaced by feral horses, whose numbers exploded over the last decade. Unlike other livestock, these horses are unmanaged and on the land 24/7, 365 days a year, giving the land no chance to recover.
Broom snakeweed is a native plant that becomes invasive when the grasses are gone. It takes over large swaths of land and prevents balanced plant communities from coming back. Just a few short years ago, there were knee-high grasses in many parts of northern Placitas. Where they once grew, you now see acres of broom snakeweed and bare, plantless areas of sheet erosion.
It appears we Placitans are no smarter than folks elsewhere. Human societies have a long history of destroying local ecosystems for short-term purposes–and not recognizing the extent of the damage until it’s too late for either the land or the society to recover. For an engrossing and illuminating read, check out “Collapse” by historian Jared Diamond.
The WHOA v. NMLB case regarding the Placitas horses was dismissed for a second time by the District Court on September 7th, but WHOA has appealed the decision. So, our celebration of the case being over was short-lived. For more on the dismissal, see the Sandoval Signpost article by Bill Diven. The appeal is currently pending and we’ll let you know the outcome as soon as we know.
It’s hard to see what WHOA gains through the appeal, since the Court of Appeals, in reviewing the case’s first dismissal, already issued an opinion that loose horses in Placitas that are unowned and undomesticated aren’t livestock and shouldn’t be treated as estray livestock under the livestock code. That ruling supports WHOA’s primary goal in filing the suit—to ensure that captured Placitas free-roaming horses can’t be auctioned by NMLB. (All free-roaming horses captured in the Placitas area in recent years have been captured by property owners on their private land; no captures have occurred on the Placitas Open Space, roadways or BLM tracts.)
WHOA files new suit. Meanwhile, in August WHOA filed a new suit against NMLB that challenges the agency’s jurisdiction over free-roaming horses in the Ruidoso area. In seeking to prevent NMLB from treating captured free-roaming horses as estrays, WHOA has presented the same arguments that it did in its Placitas horse lawsuit. You can stay up to date on that case through the Ruidoso News. As far as we know, a hearing date has not yet been set.
By the way…WHOA continues to claim on its website that it “won” the WHOA v. NMLB case in the NM Supreme Court, with four Supreme Court judges siding with WHOA. This is completely false. In 2014, NMLB asked the Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals ruling (the one that stated that “unowned and undomesticated” horses aren’t livestock). But the NM Supreme Court declined to get involved. Thus, the case has continued on its way in the lower courts. The fact that WHOA just filed an appeal regarding the District Court’s second dismissal of the case is a really big clue that the case never came before the state Supreme Court. If at this point you believe any of the information WHOA puts out, we have a bridge to nowhere we’d like to sell you.
Full disclosure: The editors of this blog are among the 12 Placitas residents who were permitted by the court to join the “WHOA v. NMLB” case as Defendants by Intervention (individuals who are not a party to the case but who have an interest in the outcome).