Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Craig Downer & Elyse Gardner: The Plight of the Wild Horses

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 30, 2011



On an overcast Sunday morning I drove across the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge to meet wildlife biologist Craig Downer at the Tiburon Baptist Church. The service had just ended and Craig met me with his friend Elyse Gardner who joined us in a conversation about the plight of wild horses in the western U.S. As we talked, I found Downer to be a quiet, thoughtful man, but it wasn't long before I could sense the depth of his feeling about his subject. I soon learned that Elyse shared his passion for these beautiful animals. Both have an ongoing and deep commitment to preserving the wild horse, which - as Craig explained - is actually indigenous to the United States.
     Before we began I asked if they were both Baptists. Elyse explained that she was Jewish by birth, but now a Baptist while Craig told me he'd been raised in the Methodist Church. I imagined the two of them feeling comfortable with religious conservatives and couldn't help wondering how Rush Limbaugh, with his scattershot attacks on "environmental whackos" might regard Craig and Elyse. He might have to listen to them, I thought. And how good that would be. 
[photo of wild horses by Craig Downer]
Richard Whittaker:  Craig, could you give us a little background about your profession as a wildlife biologist?
Craig Downer:  I specialized in ecology and graduated from UC Berkeley. I got a really good foundation in the disciplines concerning biology and then went on to do my master's at the University of Nevada, Reno. Right after that, around 1977-79, I worked in Colombia as a Peace Corp volunteer and became familiar there with an endangered species called the mountain tapir. It's practically a living fossil. It occurs in the northern Andes.
RW:  I'd love to hear more about that, but let's focus now on your work with wild horses. When did that begin?
Craig:   I did some studies on the wild horse at Berkeley and also associated with earning my master's, too. I did a field study of the wild horse population east of Carson Valley in the Pine Nut Range that goes way up to Mount Siegel, at over nine thousand feet. I did some very systematic observations and wrote a paper on that. I also knew and worked with Wild Horse Annie, who did so much in the effort to protect the wild horses.
RW:  I was wondering what your first connection was with horses? 
Craig:  Well, we lived out in the country and I grew up on a horse as a boy, so to speak - my best friend Poco. We'd take rides out into the desert and in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sometimes we would go off and camp for weeks at a time.
RW:  How old would you have been with your earliest experiences riding?
Craig:  Seven. 
RW:  So tell me about Poco.
Craig:  He'd been a mustanger. He used to chase down wild horses. He was amazing. He was a Morgan Arabian, a beautiful chestnut horse with a star on his head. He'd also been a trick horse in the rodeo. He was a very intelligent animal. So he took care of me and I took care of him.
RW:  How long were you and Poco together?
Craig:  Until I was 21 years old.
RW:  Wow! Who gave Poco to you?
Craig:  My parents. Poco was my Christmas gift in third grade.
RW:  So they must have loved horses, too.
Craig:  Oh, yes. Well, my mother was from an old family from Lovelock, Nevada and her father was Peter Gottschalk. He was from Denmark where he had been the stable master for the royal family, the king and queen of Denmark. He'd been in charge of the stables and taught the princes and princesses how to ride until he came over as a young man to America.
RW:  That's pretty amazing. Now you told me earlier that your family had been in Nevada for a long time.
Craig:  Yes. On my grandmother's side they were miners from Cornwall. 
RW:  Anyway, your roots in Nevada are deep and Poco was a big part of your growing up.
Craig:  Yes. We had alfalfa fields and an orchard with pears and apples. It was a good place for Poco. And generally I have always lived near wild areas so I sort of gravitate toward nature - to this wild, free state. And when I went to Berkeley, I discovered they had an option for specializing in ecology. They were one of the first universities to do that - and that's what I chose to study.
RW:  Now you said you grew up on a horse. You must have developed very deep feelings for horses from your childhood, is that fair to guess?
Craig:  Yes, it's fair. 
RW:  I imagine you have some stories you could share, and I'd love to hear them. 
Craig:  My father and brother surveyed a lot for ranchers. We surveyed the Heise ranch, including his holdings way up in the Sierra Nevada above Markleville, near Ebbett's Pass. Old John Heise said, "Well, just come on up. I have a cabin there. You can bring your horse and stay and ride around and get to know this beautiful country." So I took him up on it. I spent two weeks up there with Poco, just Poco and myself. And during that time, the coyotes would get in close at night. Poco would get very nervous. They would set up a chorus of howls, and it's really awesome to hear that. And Poco would become very afraid, so I would have to go out and fire my rifle to scare the coyotes away.
RW:  I've heard coyotes many times and they make such strange sounds.
Craig:  Yes, it's kind of eerie. Another time we met a mountain lion. We were just coming along this vale in the Sierras when I heard what sounded like a woman screaming bloody murder, just hair-raising. We were about five miles from home, and Poco just instinctively shot out. Usually, whenever I turned him towards home, he trotted along briskly, looking forward to the meal at the end of the day. But this time when he heard that scream he just shot off like a bolt of lightning. He really showed his stuff! He cleared a mound that seemed about ten feet high and fifteen feet long. He just sailed right over it after hearing the scream. And we went full speed all the way. I hung on for dear life, but Poco knew the way home. 
     I also participated in the High Sierra Trail Ride between the south side of Lake Tahoe and Placerville. That took a couple weeks. It was a spectacular ride and Poco and I earned a trophy.
RW:  How was it that you first became aware of wild horses?
Craig:  I love to go out in the mountains and I had a lot of opportunity to do that as a survey helper with my brother and father. We went frequently into the Pine Nut Range in Nevada. You know, Nevada is actually one of the most mountainous states in the Union. We went out in all kinds of weather - in three feet of snow or during the middle of the summer when it's cooking hot. We worked for all kinds of ranchers and all kinds of people. We worked for Howard Hughes putting in gold claims. We engineered not just subdivisions, but bridges and state parks. We designed and set up the Berlin Ichthyosaur State Park near Ione. We also engineered Sand Harbor State Park on the northern Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. And frequently we would see the wild horses in different places. 
     They're just such beautiful animals and especially in their wild state. I think they really represent the true spirit of freedom and independence of America. There is nothing quite like these wild horses...
RW:  Maybe each of you could say a little about the beauty of horses.
Elyse Gardner:  Oh, I would be happy to - even domestic horses. I work on a ranch. I mean, a horse is a horse. They play and revel at the water hole. They're peaceable souls. Horses are prey animals, not predators. We're predators. We're the ultimate predators of the group. And dogs are predators. So if you are walking with a dog and it hears a rustle in the bushes, what's that? The dog wants to go see. 
     If you're walking with a horse and you hear a rustle in the bushes, hold on to your hat! They're going to take off. But they're curious. They'll turn around and look to see, when they feel safe. 
     Craig can talk more about what they contribute. The landscape doesn't just tolerate these animals, these animals contribute to the landscape. So we injure ourselves and our land by removing them and micromanaging these animals to the degree that we do. 
     You cannot watch a wild horse prance and play and live and interact with others of its own kind without feeling this beauty. It ignites some sense of the glory of God and His loving, amazing imagination and creativity when you look at a horse in its natural state. 
Craig:  Let me say something about the endangered mountain tapir in South America, which has a trunk that's the same sort of organ an elephant has, a prehensile proboscis. A lot of people will look at the mountain tapir out of its element and say, "Oh! What a grotesque animal with its long nose!" When I hear this I say, "You know, in its element it's really beautiful! When a tapir is in a cloud forest high up in the Andes, it's just a work of God's art in how it blends in."
     My studies have really brought home the fact that the entire horse family had its origin and most of its evolution in North America - for many millions of years. The three major branches were all here:  the zebra, the ass, and the caballine horse. They all originated here in North America and are so integral to this land. 
RW:  Well that's surprising. I think most people believe the horse originated in the Middle East or Asia.
Craig:  Yes. But recently it has been proven through mitochondrial DNA analysis that not just the genus Equus, but the very species Equus caballus originated in North America. The origins of the modern horse go back about two million years in North America according to the fossil record. And another point I make that I've observed a lot, too, is how they do restore the ecosystem here.
RW:  Would you say more about how they restore the ecosystem?

Craig:  This begins with their habit of dispersing their grazing pressure over vast areas and passing their droppings in not as thoroughly a degraded form as with ruminants such as deer, sheep, cattle and bison, which are all ruminant grazers. By way of contrast, the zebras, horses and burros, over their vast history in North America, developed a digestion that does not decompose the vegetation as thoroughly. It's taken in much quicker and not as thoroughly processed. Consequently most of their droppings contain semi-decomposed material that's actually excellent fertilizer, or mulch. It contributes greatly to the food chain and to building the humus component of the soil that retains moisture and is very nutritious for plants, and it's a good bed for the germination of seeds. And many of the seeds that pass through the equine digestive tract are not destroyed.
RW:  So they can still germinate, in other words?
Craig:  Yes. They help re-seed the plants they eat. And furthermore, these droppings feed the ecosystem. Many insects further reprocess this matter. The wild horses have what are called "stud piles," places where they deposit their dung. A lot of animals build these mounds. These can serve as seed banks and places of ecological regeneration. And tapirs do a similar thing. They're all in the same order, which also includes rhinos. 
Elyse:  And when you have the wild horses out in the range it decreases the danger of wild fires, because they're eating the dry vegetation.
Craig:  Really, they're the perfect organism to reduce dry flammable vegetation, the fuel load. At the same time they build the soils with their droppings, and their natural tendency is to really spread out over a vast area. A lot of the cattle originated from Herefordshire, England. They evolved in a much moister area, and they camp on stream sides, unlike horses.
RW:  What's the problem with the wild horses then, and what happens to them? 
Craig:  They've been terribly persecuted. And now they're being wiped out along with so many other persecuted animals like wolves and grizzly bears.
Elyse:  Did you see The Misfits? I just wanted to give a brief history of how wild horses have been, not just scapegoated, but they were used for dog food; they were run over cliffs; they were rounded up with...
RW:  They were used for dog food? Is that happening now?
Elyse:  Well not that we know of. But they have been rounded up. It's not easy to catch a wild horse, so they lasso them and attach one end of a rope to a tire and let the animals drag this tire until they are exhausted. Then they hog tie the horse and tie it onto a truck.
RW:  So what do they do after they capture the wild horses? 
Elyse:  Well we've made progress in protecting these animals, but not nearly enough. The life of a wild horse is a wonderful thing until man interferes with it. Nevada's landscape hasn't changed. But the number of wild horses has been ever decreasing. Were there over 100,000 horses seven years ago? [asking Craig] 
Craig:  Oh, no. 100,000 going back to the 1940s. In the '50s they were rapidly dwindling. At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century there were about 2 million wild horses. Then at the advent of the tractor, automobiles and trucks, the horse lost much of its use except for recreation. 
RW:  What are the reasons they wanted to eliminate wild horses?
Craig:  One of the prime reasons was competition for livestock, traditionally sheep and cattle.
Elyse:  Clear the area, grow hay, grass, feed sheep and cattle.
RW:  Because the wild horses were eating the food that the ranchers wanted for the sheep and cattle?
Elyse:  And the water. Water is a primary concern.
Craig:  Yes, water in the West. But being an experienced field ecologist, I've seen the devastation that the livestock industry has caused to the West. And being from the West and having studied ecology, I've learned to value the natural ecosystem. I have seen the worldwide devastation that domesticated animals cause, too. I've seen this in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru. All over the world, people's big emphasis is on livestock and they don't think about how this overemphasis on livestock is wreaking havoc with the natural ecosystems, the watersheds, the mountains, the springs, the sources of water. 
     This is as true here in America as in Colombia or Ecuador or Peru. I think that part of the solution is learning to recognize the value of such wonderful animals as wild horses returning to their places of origin here and refilling their niche that was only vacated several thousand years ago-if at all. 
Elyse:  This is an important point, because people like to call the wild horse feral. Craig is doing an important service in recognizing the horse as native to this land. The Bureau of Land Management, on its own website, acknowledges that the horses originated in North America. They're not feral. They died out and they were re-introduced. That's why they fill this niche in the ecosystem so beautifully. And in riparian or water areas, horses don't lay around on the banks of rivers. They'll come, they'll drink and they'll leave. The ranch where I've worked has cows and sheep and horses, and I've watched how the cows like to hang around and defecate in the water, right at the water's edge. 
     In the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, Congress found that wild horses were an integral part of the land.  
Craig:  2011 should be a year to celebrate this Act on its 40th anniversary, not bemoan how our officials and government have subverted it! Both wild horses and burros contribute to the diversity of life forms in North America-and this they do in an extraordinary way. 
     So what's happened? I'd like to get back to your question. The areas that have been set aside for wild horses have been slowly eroded. There were at least 53 million acres that were encompassed by that 1971 law. This was actually more like 88 million, according to a determination by USGS, but BLM will admit to 53.5.
Elyse:  And that is now down to 28 million occupied by live horses. 
Craig:  We are witnessing the depriving of the wild horses and burros of their legal acres. 
RW:  How's that happened? 
Craig:  There's been a real political conspiracy...
Elyse:  They say there's not enough water. What will happen is there's a checkerboard pattern in a lot of areas...
Craig:  Yes around the railroads. The railroads received checkerboard lands, every other section, from the US government for building the transcontinental railroad...
Elyse:  What checkerboard means is that you have Bureau of Land Management land, private land, Bureau of Land Management land, private land. So there is this checkerboard. Water rights belong to the private landowner, and the private landowner says, I don't want to share my water with the wild horses. I don't want those wild horses on my land. The Bureau of Land Management can say, okay, that's fine, but it's a privilege for you to graze your cattle on the public lands. 
     So it's a really good deal for the ranchers. We're talking about a small percentage of the meat that people eat, but this is the deal right now. Everybody's losing on it. There's a book called Welfare Ranching. It's a real study of the destruction of the American West. And I don't mean to make cows the bad guys here. Cows are darling animals that have a function and I'm not trying to tell everybody they mustn't eat cows. But it's inequitable. There's between 100 and 200 cows for every one horse. And yet the horses are blamed. 
Craig:  They'll exaggerate impacts wherever horses or burros occur. Burros are almost totally gone from the wild. There's maybe three, four thousand left in the entire nation.
RW:  If a rancher could open up for a moment, what's a message ranchers need to hear to help them understand the importance of changing their attitude?
Craig:  I'd like to say that these are public lands. The general public has an interest in these lands. One shouldn't become so exclusively focused on one's own way of life, or livelihood, to exclude the importance of the other values and presences on the land. These are so important, not just for our own personal enjoyment, but concerning the wellbeing of the global ecosystem. 
     There are many dire problems now facing planet Earth and its capacity to support life. Our vast public lands should be a vital part of a healing process. This needs to take place immediately! And I see the wild horses as being real healers, as being an indispensable part of the native diversity and balance that evolved over millions of years. 
     As I learned in South America, so much of the solution concerns dealing with the people who are directly involved, like the ranchers or the farmers or the woodcutters - and getting them to appreciate other values, and to become guardians of the greater world of Nature. There needs to be careers for that, rather than careers dependent upon the destruction of Nature. 
     Such livelihoods, such ways of life are observed wherever you have truly successful conservation programs. For example, in Ecuador people who were formerly destroying the last Andean forests suddenly became honey producers. They recognized the forests and the spongy land above the trees, as a vital water source for their ecosystem and for all humanity. 
     I did surveys around parks, and would talk to people. These people said, yes, I recognize it! A lot of them realized what they were doing wasn't good, but they would say, "Well Craig, is anyone going to help us feed our mouths? Feed our children? If we could only set up a market chain, we'd be more than willing to stop destroying the forest." 
     People are basically willing to change, but they need some avenue to immediately effect this change. If we could just approach the people involved with the wild horses, or whatever needs preserving and restoring, and explain in a rational, collected way, not recriminating anyone, we could work out something. We could truly work wonders. So we need to unite, not in an arrogant way, but in a way that says let's work together. 
RW:  Have you had any experience of ranchers whose attitude has sort of shifted?

Craig:  One of the classical cases that Hope Ryden wrote about in America's Last Wild Horses was the Tillett family in Montana. They really went to bat for these mustangs back in the '50s and the '60s. They said, no way! We love these animals! They have the right to be free! 
RW:  Do you find yourself sometimes speaking to groups of ranchers?
Craig:  Yes. I've attended a lot of meetings the BLM and the Forest Service have set up. USFS is the other agency charged with defending the wild horses and burros in the wild.
RW:  Now my friend [Honor Hannon] tells me that you sometimes run into very hostile reactions.
Craig:  That's true. There seems to be a big polarity developing here in America between progressive ideas of changing, of modifying our lifestyle, and people who are just intransigent. They don't want to change and they don't want to listen to anybody. It's becoming a lot worse in recent times. 
     Often they're very isolated with their small, closed communities. I've gone to a lot of those areas, places in Nevada like Pioche, Austin, Eureka, Ely, Elko, Gerlach, Tonopah, Winnemucca. I've met many of the people and attended meetings in these places over the years.
     I've also been to Oregon and Idaho in places like Jerome and Burns and Lakeview. In California I've been to places like Ravendale, Cedarville, Susanville and Alturas. I've met with the local people as well as government employees. 
     I used to work for the Animal Protection Institute based over in Sacramento. It's now called Born Free, I think. But there's nothing I loved more than to go back to my home state, get out in the wilds and get to know the wild burros and horses, get to know the feel of the land and its ancient history, and participate in what was formerly called Coordinated Resource & Management Planning (CRMP) workshops with all the local people, Indians, ranchers, miners, townsfolk, conservationists, hunters, interested public, photographers, ecologists, naturalists, anthropologists, writers, even poets and musicians. 
     That was a really wholesome way of getting together, where everyone was at the table and everyone was given time to discuss their views. We made field trips and hashed things out. We talked about, well, what's the fair number of wild horses that should be here? What's the fair number of livestock? What's the fair number of big game? And that way we'd come to a balance, and the Nevada Department of Wildlife was also in on this. Each person was allowed to defend his views but had to accept criticisms. This is a good way to achieve progress.
RW:  It sounds like that process produced some good results.
Craig:  It did. I remember back in late '70s and early '80s there were times when the ranchers were egging for very low numbers, I mean extremely low, so that the poor horses wouldn't even be genetically viable. And I would go there. In one instance I was Eureka, Nevada, the old town where some of my relatives had been generations prior. There were ranchers and a BLM official. 
     As I recall they wanted to leave 125 wild horses in a vast area like 400,000 acres or something. And I said, "Well, in the first place, who is getting the major resources here? Livestock! Next to them, big game animals. Yet the law says these legal herd areas shall be "devoted principally, but not exclusively..." to the wild horses or burros. Principally, but not exclusively!-that's the language of the law. This land should be devoted principally to the wild horses or wild burros. 
     But this is not being carried out. 
     Concerning this meeting in Eureka again, Mr. Brad Hines was the BLM official field office manager there. And Dawn Lappin was there, a long time wild horse advocate who had worked for years with Wild Horse Annie and headed Wild Horse Organized Assistance! (WHOA!). Also Dawn's husband Bert was there. I spoke up asking, "Now is this fair?" Is this fair to have such a tiny number of wild horses as an Appropriate Management Level, yet have such an enormous consumption of forage by livestock within the HA? 
     I will say, to his credit, Brad said, "No it's not! It should be higher." So the BLM agreed to a more reasonable number of wild horses, not everything I wanted, for the area could easily have supported a thousand or more. But they came up to 350. I remember that number and said OK, we're going to agree there shall be at least 350 here.  
     I thought all was well and amicably arrived at, but then one rancher became irate, livid. He started cussing, swearing and threatening my life. It was a terrible display. And all Brad said was, "Well you two had better step out outside and settle your differences." 
RW:  This was a government official who said this?
Craig:  Right. He said you better step outside. So I've been in situations like that quite a bit.
RW:  That seems like the most difficult thing. How do you deal with people like that rancher? 
Craig:  I try to approach it rationally and intelligently and explain how the horses fit in.
RW:  It seems that in the larger picture it is to the rancher's best interests to allow more wild horses. 
Craig:  Right. It most certainly is! 
RW:  But many ranchers don't think this way somehow, 
Craig:  No, many of them don't. They've developed this terrible reactionary attitude against the wild horses and the public who support them. I mean, you try and do it reasonably and explain: look here, shouldn't you share more? After all these are public lands.  
     The point I often make is that if our public servants were really doing their job, they would stand up. They would be the authorities and not be cowed by these bullies. They'd say, look here, if you're going to shut off your water and demand fences in the herd areas that impede the lifestyle of the horses, then we will, by God, cancel your grazing permits! And the federal government does have that right. But they have hardly ever exercised this authority. Instead they're either zeroing out the horses and burros or gutting their herds, setting their particular ecosystems way back and setting them up to go into decline. This is an out and out subversion of the Wild Horse Act!
RW:  There's no political will. 
Craig:  Right. Instead of saying, okay, if you're not going to share your water, you don't get to graze your cows on the federal land your ranch has been privileged to graze its livestock on. Instead, at present, if the rancher says I'm fencing the water off so wild horses can't drink it, then BLM too often goes right along and zeroes out the horses from the area. This has happened many times. 
     Stepping back to the bigger picture, it's not just about cows. I don't want to make this an exclusively cow or sheep versus horse thing, but that's a huge component of what's happening with the land use. 
     There are also all-terrain vehicles. There's big time mining on the public lands that's wreaking terrible damage on the plants and animals and the water sources for generations to come. There's hunting of big game and the state game departments that target the wild horses and burros; then there's conservationists who have been misled to believe that wild horses are not native in North America and don't belong here, particularly in the West. 
     Now the big thing under the Obama Administration is development for alternative energy, but this is being used against the wild horses and all the wildlife in many areas, too. Take the Ruby Pipeline for natural gas from Wyoming to Oregon, it's doing terrible damage, cutting a swath of destruction across much of the West. The recent massive roundups in the Calico Mountain complex of wild horse herds were related to this, as in the Environmental Assessments justifying the pipeline. These documents referred to the wild horses as nuisances and sought their removal.
     We really need to be smart and look at all this. We need to look to see what else is planned for this land because it's not just about the ranchers and their cows.
Elyse:  What I am shocked by is how much time, money, effort and resources go into feeding a cow! We're devoting so much of our precious Western lands to this. Whole ecosystems are being lost because of the over-grazing and it's conveniently foisted onto the wild horses. But again, when you look at the simple numbers of livestock - I don't like this expression, these are cows and sheep, not living stock - it is obvious that the livestock owners are the real culprits. 
     But the ranchers are providing what people are asking for. If you want steak morning, noon and night and you're eating huge quantities of it, you're participating and contributing to the problem, though in reality the public lands only provide about 2-3% of the forage eaten by US cattle and only about 4% of that eaten by sheep. I'm not saying everyone needs to go vegan, but the amount of methane produced by a cow! 
Craig:  Whereas the horses ...
Elyse:  Horses only fart when you pick up their right rear hoof. I'm kidding! But I found when I'm cleaning their hooves, that's usually when they have gas [laughs].
RW:  So that's an interesting thing, they don't produce nearly as much.
Elyse:  Not as much, but plenty. But when Craig says that horses are healers, in a very real sense it's true. We and the ranchers, all of us, need to live our lives with a little less focus on, "What's in it for me?" 
     What's happened to our social conscience?  What's in it for the greater community?  For America? 
     The other thing we haven't talked about enough is the ridiculously low numbers of horses that the BLM will leave in the Calico Mountains. This concerns the round-up that Craig has filed a lawsuit about. The judge asked that the Bureau of Land Management postpone it. But all indications are that the BLM contractors are going ahead with it. There are supposed to be 3,095 horses on this range and they want to remove between 2,400 and 2,700 horses. 
Craig:  This is in an area of 800,000 acres. 
Elyse:  And these horses are beautiful! Craig did an independent fly-over the week before--four and a half, five hours in the air. He spotted only 150 horses. 
Craig:  I went to where they're going to have the round-up, Soldier Meadows. The ranch there is also an eco-lodge and they advertise wild horse tours, so I hoped this guy was going to be more positive. But when the pilot touched down the rancher just started lighting into the wild horses. 
     We commented on how few horses we saw flying over this vast area. There are hardly any trees, so you see them. And Bill Drake, the pilot, and I told Jeff that we were going to fly up to Black Rock East, northeast of the Soldier Meadows ranch, to see whether there's an overpopulation, as the rancher claimed. 
     We flew all over there for a couple of hours and we saw one band of four horses. So I put that to the judge. I said, look, there's something wrong here. And I learned later from other people that they've been pushing horses out. 
     I get rumors that the horses are being pushed into the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge where they can get rid of them because that's not covered under the Wild Horse Act. And the refuge's policy now is to get rid of them. 
RW:  When you say get rid of them, what does that mean? Kill them? Shoot them?
Craig:  You're not allowed to shoot them, but they round them up and then they do often end up going to slaughter.  
Elyse:  In other words they're shipped across the border to Canada or Mexico where they are brutally butchered before they're actually dead, but they're paralyzed, and it's not a neat process. 
RW:  So then they turn them into dog food or use them for human consumption?
Elyse:  In Europe they do eat horsemeat. The whole horse slaughter thing is a very critical component, but the rules on what happens to mustangs that are under the Bureau of Land Management's control are more rigorous than what can happen when they're in another area. 
Craig:  And they're supposed to be protected even if they do go off the public lands. Our government is authorized to establish mutual agreements under Section 6 of the act. That's one thing I remember about my work with Wild Horse Annie. She had established an apparently solid agreement with the Sheldon National Wildlife Reserve, that the horses would be recognized in perpetuity as an integral part of the Sheldon wildlife community. Sheldon had a magnificent herd of horses that remained for nearly four decades thanks to her agreement. The officials there used to say, yes, the horses have been here for centuries and people love to see them, and they integrate well with the pronghorn and other wildlife. There were studies done by Jo Meeker at University of Nevada proving that they harmoniously exist with the pronghorn antelope. But recently there seems to be a vendetta. Basically we are talking about a war of values here. 
     One final point: how can those who value the West so much, dressing up in cowboy gear and claiming to be true Westerners, really honor the West if they're bent on taking away the last remnants of what's truly wild and beautiful here, the wild mustang? This is just so hypocritical.
RW:  Yes. It sure sounds like it.
Elyse:  And genetically, there's supposed to be a minimum number of animals in a herd or you're going to have inbreeding and other problems.
Craig:  That's right. I know what I'm talking about in regard to viable populations of large wild mammals. I know a lot about that subject. A herd of wild horses should have at least 2,500 wild animals of a proper sex ratio and age proportions in order to be viable in the long run. So why does our federal government say only 150? I mean that just floored me. But then - to add insult to injury - they approve of so-called "Appropriate Management Levels" that are well below 150! They don't even follow their own substandard standards! About 70% of our nation's AML's are below 150 - and I mean a lot below! They're down to numbers like 30 or 50, sometimes even around 10. 
     There is a document by the Equine Specialist Group that highlights how the entire horse family is going out of the picture here on planet Earth. Most of equid species, be they zebras, asses, or caballine horses, are endangered and disappearing from the wild where their true vitality is preserved. They're being over-hunted; they're being pushed out by livestock and the expansion of people. 
Elyse:  California has lost 65% of its designated legal herd areas. There are no more wild horses or burros in these areas. They have been zeroed out. 
Craig:  In New Mexico, it's 77%; Wyoming, 53%. Nevada has the most left, but they are rapidly falling, too. 
Elyse:  With these numbers down so low, what are we doing to the genetics of the remaining wild horses?
Craig:  It's sabotage basically of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
RW:  This sounds dreadful. Do you have any information on the relationship of water resources to wild horses? Do wild horses in any way support healthy water?
Craig:  They do. And this is a point I frequently make. Yes. By enriching the soils through increasing their humus, horses and burros create a better watershed, a more absorptive watershed that retains and releases water equitably over the seasons.  And this is crucial during the dry seasons.
RW:  If ranchers understood this, that wild horses actually help conserve water and improve the watershed - I mean this is really important to know about.
Craig:  Yes. And I am drawing up a proposal to promote this knowledge. When the horses or burros fill their niche, they'll self-stabilize. But people must allow nature to take its course and provide large enough areas of habitat. In America we have too much of this quick-fix mentality. Oh, there's a problem. Well what's the silver bullet that will solve it? Well nature takes time. If you're going to have wild horses, you've got to have patience; you've got to give them some space, and you've got to let the process of adaptation and mutual give-and-take transpire within and among all the species present. This is a benign process with much majesty when seen in its greater dimensions.
RW:  It will take time, as you say. 
Craig:  Yes. And we're going to have to make some sacrifices. I'm preparing this Reserve Design Proposal to present to the Secretary of the Interior that I've been asked to do, and I'm doing this because people say: "Well, you can complain and bitch about things, but if you don't have an alternative to the status quo, then what do you have?" It's a valid criticism. 
RW:  I wish I felt more hopeful talking to both of you.
Elyse: We have a fight on our hands, but we've come a long way from when Wild Horse Annie, first saw blood, when she literally saw blood dripping from the trucks crammed with wild horses.
Craig:  Those wild horses were going off to slaughter and she vowed to do something about it. She got school children to write letters. She mounted a campaign and she exposed the horrors that were happening to these animals. Laws were passed. Canada once possessed hundreds of thousands of wild horses and never passed any laws to protect them, and now they are almost entirely gone. Only about 200 remain in places wild horse defenders refuse to reveal. 
    Now at least in the US it's illegal to do these former things but only on certain BLM and USFS lands. But as we know, even here government officials are continuing to plot their demise. Some say what we're trying to accomplish is probably not going to be done in our lifetime. This may be so, but we're beginning to see some positive results. Still this is a struggle.
Elyse:  It can be overwhelming, and so we have each other, and we have people like you, and others. And if more people knew what we wild horse advocates know, they too would care and would take action. My motto these days is, caring is great! Action is better! Get on the website or my blog or or google American Wild Horse Protection Campaign. 
     When there's an action alert that goes out, these different groups make it easy. There were over 10,000 complaints about the Calico roundup, and it made a difference. They postponed it. 
Craig:  I wrote a book when I got my masters, Wild Horses: Living Symbols of Freedom. I make a point about all that horses and burros have done for man over the millennia. Think of how horses have worked alongside us and been our companions. Really, man wouldn't be in his present position of comfort and privilege were it not for horses, and also for burros.  Don't we owe them something? 
RW:  That's beautiful. 
Craig:  Scientists in Russia are recognizing that the horse is a vital ally in combating the ill effects of Global Warming that could truly bake life on Earth. For example, in the tundra where the permafrost is melting at a terrifying rate, they want to reintroduce horses, particularly the Mongolian horses, to reestablish tundra grassland with its clump grasses. They have calculated that this will cool the atmosphere and reestablish a healthy ecosystem.  
RW:  That's an encouraging note.
Craig:  Right, and another thing I've suggested for years concerns the pinyon pines that grow throughout the Great Basin and throughout the West. They produce a delicious nut, which was a staple food for many Native American tribes. The Native Americans I grew up with would go out to harvest these nuts and my mother learned from them just how to do it. But now there's a campaign by the government to greatly reduce the pinyon as well as the juniper trees. The so-called justification is that they take up too much water. It would be better to save these trees.
RW:  Good heavens, why would they want to destroy these trees?
Craig:  To produce more grass for livestock! I must mention that these trees also prevent wind from scouring the terrain and lifting its top soils. I hate to see so many unwise exploitations of the public lands. That's why, when I had a choice recently whether to return to the Andes and my work there or stay here and try to help America save its wild horses and burros, I chose to stay here. And thank you, Elyse, for encouraging and giving me the desire to stay.
Elyse:  You're needed here.
Contact Craig Downer to obtain a copy of his new book The Wild Horse Conspiracy about the wild horses and burros of America and what has happened to them. You can reach Craig at or at 775-901-2094. The author welcomes opportunities to speak at schools, universities, churches, community centers and conventions. He also can take people out to see the wild horses. 
Please also support Downer's Andean Tapir Fund. It's at They are about to set up a sanctuary in northern Peru. This organization also works to protect and restore the wild horses and burros. Contributions are tax-deductible.
Elyse Gardner devotes most of her time to helping America's wild horses. Her website is devoted to keeping the public informed and alert to what they can do to help turn things around for the wild horses.

A must read recent (Aug. 24, 2021) article by Craig Downer


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.
Craig Downer is a wildlife biologist and passionate advocate for wild horses and burros in the Western U. S.     


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