myPerched high above Yosemite National Park, Mono Lake is an ancient body of water, home to millions of brine shrimp and waterfowl and offering breathtaking views. It is also home to a herd of more than 500 wild horses that began arriving in the area around 2015.
This spring, when snowdrifts from a record-breaking winter storm began to melt, officials were surprised to find horses turning up dead.
“Visitors should be prepared to encounter horse carcasses and manure,” Inyo National Forest officials posted on Facebook in mid-May, saying there had been reports of “several horse carcasses” around the lake, accompanied by disturbing photos. of bone remains. .
Experts believe harsh winter conditions are likely behind the deaths, highlighting the precarious relationship between the horses and this rugged landscape, both in terms of the dangers it poses to them and the dangers they pose to him.
Horses are a potent symbol of the wilds of the American West, but they also pose environmental dangers as their numbers increase. Wild horses, descended from European horses, are not native to North America. In the Mono Lake basin, their presence has already created problems.
The herd’s established territory is about 20 miles (30 km) south of the area, says Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for the US Forest Service, and the number of horses has increased in recent years. When they started arriving in 2015, the herd numbered about 45-50; last fall, an aerial survey counted 570 on the eastern shore of the lake. The Mono Lake area is a saline environment, which is not its typical habitat, Cox says. “They’re looking for food, looking to expand, and now into territory they haven’t been before.”
According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), horses in the Mono Lake Basin belong to the Montgomery Pass Herd Management Area, a 50,000-acre (20,000-hectare) range of mixed public lands located primarily in Nevada, about 30 miles to the east. of Monkey Lake.
Horses leave behind manure, and that can become problematic for the delicate environment. The lake has a series of wetlands and alpine meadows, fragile habitats that have been without horses for 13,000 years, so they have evolved and adapted to shorebirds, waterfowl and plants, says Bartshe Miller, director of eastern highland policies on the Mono Lake Committee. “Horses are changing the environment, stripping areas of springs, probably increasing evaporation, and turning it all over to pasture,” she says.
Geoff McQuilkin, executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, says that if horses continue to proliferate and move west, they will soon run into major highways, which could be dangerous for both people and animals. That is why the forest service is beginning to study what the carrying capacity, that is, the sustainable population, of the area might be.
In a good year, horses can find plenty to eat, but when conditions are harsh, in a drought, or after a heavy snowfall, horses will struggle and push into more areas as well. “There is a real concern not only for the horses, but also for the lake and public safety,” says McQuilkin. A motorcyclist already collided with a horse, and was left with serious injuries.
Cox says that the large snowdrifts this year probably prevented the horses from finding food. “Basically, if they can’t break through the snow to feed on vegetation, they are forced to migrate outside and look for other sources of food,” he says, adding that forest service specialists saw evidence that horses were feeding of weeds, a flowering shrub that is not a primary source of food for feral horses. “That’s a bit telling, they were probably very hungry.”
Wild horses are a federally protected animal that, along with bald eagles, are one of only two species with such a special level of protection. In 1971, wild horses were rapidly disappearing, and Congress passed the Wild Horse Act. Since then, their numbers have skyrocketed: There are 82,000 roaming free and 64,000 in holding facilities, according to the American Wild Horse Campaign.
The nonprofit group advocates tools like birth control as a humane way to manage wild populations on public lands. In the case of Mono Lake, Grace Kuhn, a spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Campaign, said a long-term plan is needed to maintain a balance between population and a sensitive landscape.
“They are beautiful animals. I see why people get really excited about them,” says Miller, who agrees with the need for more planning. “And in large numbers, they can do a lot of damage. So I think the point is to have a plan that protects the lake, the resources and public safety. And right now we don’t have that in place.”