Getting the word out: Rangeland ecosystems at tipping point

BLM horses

“Free-roaming horses and burros will continue to increase in population by 18-20 percent annually without improved management actions.”–NHBRMC

Horse and burro populations are out of control on western rangelands, and the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition (NHBRMC) is taking to the airwaves to educate the public about the serious problem this poses for wildlife and rangeland health. Finally, national organizations are taking a stand on this dire situation.

The Coalition, which we wrote about in an earlier post, is airing its TV commercials in Colorado. They can also be viewed at See the one focusing on wildlife here.

You Can Help

Native wildlife and rangeland health are being significantly harmed by horse and burro overpopulations, in large part because the wild horse lobby — through protests and lawsuits — makes it impossible for the BLM and US Forest Service to manage herds effectively.

And because the horse lobby is loud, persistent and poorly informed, our elected officials need to hear from constituents who support wildlife and land sustainability (especially Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is currently co-sponsoring a short-sighted, poorly thought out bill, HR 1492, that would only add to the feral horse problem in New Mexico and other states).

You can send a message to NM’s congressional delegation urging immediate action to protect rangeland ecosystems by going to this link. (Just type in your email address and zip code to get started).

Horses have caused more damage than drought

Horse Indian Flats“More than mining or drought… livestock grazing has caused the most devastation to the site.” That’s what Adam Lujan, a range management specialist with the BLM, was quoted as saying about the Buffalo Tract in an article in Saturday’s Santa Fe New Mexican. And by livestock, Lujan means free-roaming horses (although the  BLM has issued grazing permits for the tract, no cattle have been on the tract for some time due to the lack of forage). You can read the entire article, which focuses on BLM’s upcoming disposition of the Buffalo Tract and related horse issues, here.

The article points out that the two pueblos interested in obtaining all or a portion of the severely grass-depleted tract have very different ideas about how it should be managed. While Santa Ana Pueblo says it would let the land rest and recover so it can better support wildlife, San Felipe Pueblo says they would put more horses on the land by turning it into a horse sanctuary.

Feral horses: scourge, not symbol, of the West?

Don’t miss this recent article in Slate magazine by conservation biologist Daniel Rubinoff and ecologist Christopher Lepczyk, who state that feral horses are a scourge of the West, not a symbol, and that romanticizing horses has seriously harmed the environment. They describe how horses destroy the fragile biotic soil crusts that hold grasslands together, compete with native wildlife for forage and water, and exacerbate the impacts of climate change and habitat fragmentation.

“The current stalemate portends an end result that will be tragic. With little controlling their populations, wild horses will increase in number and permanently degrade sensitive riparian areas, like the Salt River, across the West. These areas are unlikely to recover unless we round up invasive horses soon, because topsoil in arid ecosystems can take thousands of years to regenerate.”


A tip of the hat to Bob A. for sending the link.

Hard math

Populations of free-roaming horses can double in size about every four years and triple every six years:1

Horse population growth graph
The same reproduction rate can be applied to the three or so small bands of horses that were in Placitas around 15 years ago, allowing us to see how a population of about 25 horses could grow to nearly 200 over ten years:

Horse population graph 2


During the last decade or so, Placitas has also had additional horses arriving from pueblo lands and, judging by the presence of an occasional gelded or shod horse, some horses turned loose in the Placitas hills by owners during the economic downturn. All this led to a population expansion that quickly outstripped the land’s ability to provide forage.2


1 Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward. Committee to Review the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Management Program; Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2013, p. 56. Available here.

2 According to the Task Force on Free-Roaming Horses of Placitas, Final Report (Sandoval County and New Mexico First, 2014), informal counts of the horse population by residents in 2011-2013 resulted in estimates ranging from about 115 horses in the immediate Placitas vicinity to more than 550 horses in the broader Placitas and Algodones areas, with unknown numbers in Diamond Tail, Crest of Montezuma, Ball Ranch, and other areas. One Saturday in 2012, the editors of this blog counted more than 40 horses along a three-mile stretch of Camino de la Rosa Castilla in northeast Placitas and another 12 in the nearby Cedar Creek subdivision.

Straight talk

shutterstock_45774745“Feral horses and burros are invasive species in North America. Exotic, non-native species are among the most widespread and serious threats to the integrity of native wildlife populations because they invade and degrade native ecosystems.

When invasive species are perceived as a natural component of the environment, the general public may regard them as “natural,” not understanding the damages they inflict on native systems.”

— The Wildlife Society

(The Wildlife Society is a national professional organization: “The members of The Wildlife Society manage, conserve, and study wildlife populations and habitats.”)

Wildlife corridors in the Placitas vicinity

Many native wildlife species in New Mexico range across a hundred or more miles throughout the year. The two maps below display probable wildlife corridors in the Placitas vicinity based on what’s known about cougar (mountain lion) ranges. Elk, deer, and other mammals also use these wildlife corridors.

The first map shows a corridor between the Sandia Mountains and the Jemez Mountains, with the red and pink portions indicating the most critical areas. Placitas sits in the lower right portion of the corridor. The second map shows corridors between the Sandias and the Sangre de Cristo range to the north. Placitas is in the bottom left portion of the map near where the two corridors meet. Click on the maps for a larger image.

Wild animals rely on the vegetation, water sources, and other wildlife-friendly characteristics of these corridors as they travel through their native ranges, including through the Placitas area.

Unfortunately, wildlife corridors are increasingly fragmented by roads, highways, fences, mining operations, and home construction. This fragmentation leads to roadkills, loss of habitat and food, and other stresses on wildlife populations.

Because feral horses severely degrade native vegetation, dominate watering spots, and scare off shy wildlife species, their presence within the already squeezed and fragmented wildlife corridors of central New Mexico is a particular concern.

Menke_NM Wildlife Corridors_2008 27













Menke_NM Wildlife Corridors_2008 28














Source: Menke K. Locating Potential Cougar (Puma concolor) Corridors in New Mexico Using a Least-Cost Path Corridor GIS Analysis. Share with Wildlife Final Project Report. New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, 2008.

Readers weigh in on snakeweed

Spraying snakeweed 1938

Spraying snakeweed in an Arizona field, 1938.

Our recent post on broom snakeweed brought in a lot of comments—mostly pointing out the good side of this plant.

One person opines, “I love snakeweed. It’s pretty and unique, and grows more when it rains. In September the tops turn yellow, and is the precursor to fall… I’ve been here over 20 years (and in New Mexico over 60 years) and I’d say this is just a slightly better than average crop year for the plant.”

In contrast to our BLM expert’s advice, a reader writes that  NM State University says chemical spraying is the best way to control it [on large-acreage rangelands]. Another reader writes, “The other terrible plants that will come up with snakeweed are goat heads and eventually cholla. While some folks like cholla for its flowers, it is a nasty plant well deserving of its name Jumping Cactus.”

Why the moniker snakeweed? “There are two reasons for the name,” writes a local farmer. “One is the roots snake out far from the base. The other is a tincture of the root is a good antidote for snakebite, externally and internally. It works best on dogs.” That sent us to a botanical database, where we learned broom snakeweed contains some of the same chemical compounds found in Amazonian plants traditionally used to treat snakebite.

Snake Clipart“Another reason to call it snakeweed is that rattlesnakes use it for cover,” writes one reader. “The one that bit me was hiding in one.” Yikes!

Several Native American tribes have traditionally used snakeweed to treat respiratory infections and other ailments, and a local Placitan notes that, “One of the old Spanish remedios for hemorrhoids, documented in the late Judge Tibo Chavez’s book [New Mexican Folklore of the Rio Abajo], is smoke from a snakeweed plant.” Okay, we’ll keep that in mind.

And let’s not overlook perhaps the plant’s most practical use: a bundle of dried broom snakeweed stems is just the thing for sweeping out one’s dusty casita, a never-ending task in this beautiful land of wind and sand.