“We can’t replicate the past,” Perryman says. “What we can do is plan for the future and manage the land using the best available science to provide habitat, conserve biodiversity, and control exotic plants that we’ve introduced.”
by Ben Masters, National Geographic
The ecological consequences of poor grazing management in the desert ecosystems of the American West’s Great Basin can be severe. To find out how severe, I met Dr. Barry Perryman, rangeland ecology professor at the University of Nevada, at a dry water well near the 230,000-acre Fish Creek Complex Herd Management Area on public lands managed overseen by the Bureau of Land Management near Eureka, Nevada.
About 50 wild horses greeted us and stood around the well, waiting for BLM staff to fill it up because there isn’t enough naturally occurring water to keep the horses alive. The BLM’s Appropriate Management Level—the population of horses for a thriving natural ecological balance—here is between 101 and 170 horses, but the current population is nearing 500, pretty standard overpopulation rate for Nevada wild horse herds. Statewide, the appropriate management level is 12,800, but the current population is estimated to be more than 34,000.
I had questions for Perryman about the landscape, threats to the local ecosystems, and the possibly fate of the wild horses that call the rangeland home.
Ben Masters: What did this land look like before European settlement, livestock grazing, and the introduction of exotic plants?
Barry Perryman: How far back do you want to go? What is pristine and what is natural? Lots of people want to replicate the land to what it looked like when Lewis and Clark came out here in 1804, but that was at the tail end of a 300-year mini ice age, and no matter what we do, we can’t replicate that. But why 1804? Why don’t we go back thousands of years to the altithermal period, a 3,000-year-long drought that would’ve made this landscape now look like a rainforest? We can’t replicate the past. We’ve put fences on highways, developed infrastructure, introduced exotic plants, and forever changed the ecology of these landscapes. What we can do is plan for the future and manage the land using the best available science to provide habitat, conserve biodiversity, and control exotic plants that we’ve introduced.
A lot of wildlife biologists, ecologists, and conservation organizations blame wild horses for rangeland damage. Why?