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Size Matters: Horses, HMAs, Sanctuaries and Reserves

Size matters when it comes to wild horses, HMAs, sanctuaries and reserves.

In Sketches Here and There, Aldo Leopold described his moment of grace. After shooting a wolf from the rim rock in Arizona he recalls, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes… there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.”1

Recent revelations about the suffering and loss of equine life at the International Society to Protect Mustangs & Burros have me reflecting again about the hubris of human kind. While being “protected,” dozens of formerly wild horses have starved to death, suffering untold disease and neglect. It’s a big case, but not an isolated one. Numbers, costs soar in wild-horse controversy, Rapid City Journal, Oct 14, 2016




ISPMB has, at last count, 810 horses on 680 acres near Lantry, SD. The ISPMB herd was and is a failed experiment in self-regulation. Supposedly, the horses would not breed past their food allowance. It was expected that some would starve. They bred, and even now continue top breed  and when the money and food ran out it became a horror show.


Wild horse advocate and ecologist Craig Downer has put forth the idea that horses will self regulate if predators are in the environment. That presumes that the reserve (as he diplomatically avoides the word sanctuary2) is in a topographical environment large enough to allow seasonal migration and also contains and can sustain numerous mountain lions or large, experienced wolf packs.


Size Matters

Thousands of tourists flock to Yellowstone Park each year. The park’s advertising campaign last year, “Find Your Park” was so successful that a park representative this year suggested their pitch be “Find Another Park.”

What’s been learned over the past century is that even Yellowstone Park at 3,468 square miles is not large enough to provide a healthy ecosystem for the magnificent fauna that live there. This led to the establishment of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, linking Teton and the interstitial areas, increasing the size a thousand percent to 34,375 square miles. Kruger National Park in South Africa pales at only 7,532 square miles, while the stunning ecosystem of the Okavanga Delta has been transformed into the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area 17,8415 square miles.3

In the case of ISPMB, one has to wonder about the sanity of attempting a self-regulating environment for 810 mega fauna on 680 acres. From Heisenberg to Hegel, it’s not a new idea removing an object from its environment changes everything.

Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the US Forest Service, and a founder of the Yale School of Forestry was a close advisor to Teddy Roosevelt, who understood the need for large, unaltered landscapes. Pinchot was instrumental in establishing the national forests and parks we enjoy today, due to his understanding that size matters. In 1905, when Pinchot became chief, federal forests totaled 56 million acres. In 1910, only five years later he left the service with 172 million acres as federal forest land.4

When it comes to mega fauna what is known is: 1. Almost impossibly large tracts of land with varying topography are required for a healthy ecosystem. 2. That we can’t divorce a species from its ecosystem and expect it to self-regulate the way it does in that ecosystem. 3. Horses are mega fauna requiring many, many square miles and the ability to migrate.

In my opinion, this is the downfall of the HMA (Horse Management Area) system as created by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act of 1971. Interestingly, today we just call it the Wild Horse & Burro Act. The “Free-Roaming” part seems to have gotten lost.

In an interview with author Paula Morin, Tom Marvel of the famed Marvel ranch of Nevada recalls wild horses migrating from Austin, NV all the way to Battle Mountain, with the only fences in Nevada being along the railroad. He said it took about a year for them to make the run up and back, a migration route of about a hundred miles each way.5

Today wild horses are confined to the artificial boundaries of HMAs that are between roughly 25,000 and 500,000 acres. And yes, there is some migration happening between HMAs and USFS land that are adjacent, and yes the horses do wander off the HMAs onto other holdings. Now, not only are the great migrations that allowed horses, like other ungulates, to move with the seasons not allowed, much of the land the HMAs occupy have other uses. Human development, ranching, mining and extraction are all effecting resources and water tables.

Do I have a simple answer? Of course not. However now more than ever, it’s vitally important to realize some source infinitely more intelligent than us has created a system so diverse, complex and inter-dependent and we should fall on our knees in beauty and wonder. We should be earnestly learning all we can before it disappears forever. There is almost no place on earth, and certainly no place in North America where the natural landscape has not been negatively impacted, if not irrevocably damaged by man. Now more than ever, there’s no place for ego, hubris or profit at all costs.


  1. A Sand County Almanac, Leopold, Aldo; Estella Leopold. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949
  2. Oxford definition: 1 [mass noun] Refuge or safety from pursuit, persecution, or other danger. 2 A nature reserve. 2.1 A place where injured or unwanted animals of a specified kind are cared for. 3 A holy place; a temple.)
  3. Various sources, easily verified.
  4. http://connecticuthistory.org/gifford-pinchot-bridging-two-eras-of-national-conservation/
  1. Honest Horses, Paula Morin. University of Nevada Press (February 13, 2006

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