“…As American Indian people, the native people of the land, we utilize a lot of the plants, the herbs and roots from Mother Earth. When you walk onto the landscape of Yakama Nation rangeland, it becomes a moonscape because the horses come through there and what they don’t eat off, they trample down to bare dirt…”
A May 3 report in Tucson News Now made a rare breakthrough in truth-telling. Accurately distinguishing ‘feral’ horses from native wildlife, the story headline, “TRIBE: Over 100 feral horses found dead on Navajo Nation” gave readers a glimpse into a hidden crisis in Indian Country. The AP report stated:
Dozens of horses have died on tribal land in northern Arizona, after apparently getting trapped in a muddy stock pond.
Navajo Nation spokesman Mihio Manus said Wednesday that 111 horses died in the pond over the past week. Officials are trying to determine how best to deal with the carcasses.
The stock pond near Cameron typically is one of the last in the region to dry up. But Manus says drought conditions left it without much water from runoff this year.
Photos show clusters of horses with dried mud on their bodies.
Manus says foul play is not suspected.
The tribe has struggled over the years with how to manage large populations of feral horses. Individual Navajo communities can request roundups, but public outcry has halted such efforts in the past.
The Navajo Nation has canceled its latest hunt for wild horses, aimed at thinning a herd in Arizona after opponents of the hunt organized a protest against it.
Indian Country is defined as…
- all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation;
- all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a state; and
- all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.
… so the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Fish & Wildlife Service, which manage feral horse herds on other federal lands, lack jurisdiction over herds in Indian Country. There are an estimated 50,000 feral horses running on the Navajo Nation, and if the horses are governed at all is through the efforts of individuals and tribal ranchers, who can be easily overwhelmed by these high-demand herbivores. As the article above points out, through hysterical PR campaigns and high-pressure lobbying, liberal groups and animal rights advocates are indirectly setting tribal feral horse policy. The fact that feral horses can range over large regions, crossing in and out of BLM, Fish & Wildlife and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)-managed lands further exacerbates the problem. As a result, the herds are growing at unsustainable levels, consuming resources needed by the tribal ranchers, competing with wildlife for scant forage and water, and are themselves, in poor health, often suffering protracted deaths by thirst and starvation.
A typical adult horse can eat more than 20 lbs of forage and 19 gallons of water a day. In the arid southwest, where the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute, Shoshone and other Native tribes are located, feral horse herds can significantly impact livestock and agricultural operations. Overgrazing can deplete native plant species and lead to soil erosion and sometimes cause irreversible damage to natural springs and grazing lands.
In August of 2017, Indian Country Media Network reported on the crisis. Gloria Tom, Director of the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife provided background on the feral horses and their environmental impacts:
“At one point, the Navajo relied pretty heavily on horses for transportation, for work around the farm, for herding, plowing, riding and ceremonial purposes. At one time, many of these horses were owned by someone, but because of the cost of raising horses, they have just let them go wild. It’s not uncommon for people to own 50 horses simply because they didn’t have the means to manage their herds. When it gets out of control, they just let them go free.”
A rising wild horse population means deficits for other wild animals and livestock, Tom said. As wild horses continue to multiply, they compete for food and water with elk and other big game, not to mention the tens of thousands of domesticated horses that live on the 27,000-square-mile reservation.
The 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act Up contains provisions allowing for sale of excess animals to slaughter houses for meat and other products. Some tribes, to this day, consume horse meat as a culinary tradition. These options made it easier to control horse populations, but in 1994 Congress intervened and eliminated unrestricted sale of feral horses from appropriations language. Animal rights advocates won a coup with this move, but since that time feral horse populations have exploded and are today at crisis levels. Radical animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), have won injunctions against tribes, halting their plans to process excess horses to feed their own people. As Indian Country Today reported in November of 2013:
The Yakama, early adopters of the horse among Plateau Culture tribes, is among several tribes that came out this year in support of reopening equine slaughter plants. The tribe estimates the number of wild or feral horses on the reservation has grown to 12,000 since the Congressional ban.
“The dilemma we are facing is that these wild horses, or feral horses, are causing severe degradation to the natural resources of our land. As American Indian people, the native people of the land, we utilize a lot of the plants, the herbs and roots from Mother Earth. When you walk onto the landscape of Yakama Nation rangeland, it becomes a moonscape because the horses come through there and what they don’t eat off, they trample down to bare dirt,” Smiskin said. In central Washington’s semi-arid shrub-steppe habitat, the landscape “is definitely fragile. We have spent a lot of time, effort and money trying to manage this fragile ecosystem that we have to keep it in balance, and with the horse right now it is completely out of balance.”
Another tribal leader, President Ben Shelly of the Navajo Nation, also came out in support of the reopening of horse slaughter plants in late summer. His reasoning echoed Smiskin’s.
“The horse is a sacred animal to our people. They have their own songs, they have their own prayers,” he told Indian Country Today in August. “We also believe we need to balance our life, balance our resources. Right now it’s out of balance — there’s too many horses. We can only hold 30,000 and now we’re in the 75,000-plus.”
Shelly, too, described degradation of natural resources and stress on water in drought years. He testified before the Bureau of Land Management’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board in Arlington, Va., in September that the growing feral horse population was a financial burden on the tribe (more than $200,000 a year in damage control) and that the federal agencies were not living up to trust responsibilities to help the tribe manage its natural resources.
To put the Indian Country feral horse problem into perspective, the number of animals on the Navajo Nation alone is at least equal to the number of horses currently in federal holding facilities. The BLM, with a budget of $82 million has failed to adequately and humanely manage horses on or off the range. Beset with poverty, a lack of basic infrastructure such as electricity and running water, and misappropriation of funds by the BIA, the Americans living in Indian Country have few options in the management of feral horses. As feral horse populations continue to grow, scenarios similar to the one in Arizona, with large numbers of horses dying on the range in pursuit of food and water, will become more frequent.
There have been efforts to engage tribes in federal feral horse management plans. In 2014, Representative Chris Stewart (R-Utah) introduced the “Wild Horse Oversight Act” which would bring states and tribes on board to manage feral horses with their own management plans, tailored to the needs of their people and ecological conditions on state and tribal lands. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the bill went nowhere as animal rights groups and horse advocates rose up against the Act, and with one voice proclaimed, “Don’t slaughter the magnificent, iconic wild horses!” Nevertheless, culling of diseased and sick animals and local horse hunts are still on the table for the Navajo people, for whom slaughtering and processing animals in a humane and orderly way is enormously more desirable than having to dispose of 100 bloated horse carcasses discovered in a desert mud hole.
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