Tom Ross: Ecologist tells Steamboat audience wild horses play a vital role in the West |

Tom Ross: Ecologist tells Steamboat audience wild horses play a vital role in the West

— Ecologist Craig Downer came to Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat Springs on Thursday to make the scientific and archaeological case for one of the most romantic figures in the American West: the wild horse.

Wild horses and burros, Downer told his audience, mistakenly have been cast as an invasive species to North America when in fact they roamed here for tens of millions of years, evolving along with other flora and fauna until they formed mutually beneficial relationships and became an integral part of the ecosystem.

Today, in Downer’s opinion, an unwise effort by the Bureau of Land Management to round up thousands of wild mustangs and reduce them on their ranges until their populations are genetically untenable is opening the door to damaging the grasslands of the intermountain West and even promoting the spread of forest fires.

Downer is the author of the 2012 book “The Wildhorse Conspiracy,” available locally at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.

One of the places where wild horse herds still can be observed is Moffat County’s nearby Sand Wash Basin, Downer pointed out.

Ultimately, the horses and burros, or equids as he refers to them, migrated out of North America, not the opposite, as commonly is thought.

“The horse family is one of the most native of any group in North America,” Downer said. “They were here continuously since the end of the dinosaurs.”

Horses and burros complement ruminant species like cows, deer, sheep and pronghorns, which have multiple chambers in their stomachs and chew their cuds, Downer said. Instead of directly competing with those animals for forage, they graze on coarser material. Their wallows serve to collect water in arid regions where many smaller species benefit. And their waste contains viable grass seeds that can germinate in what amount to small packets of compost the horses leave behind.

In winter, their heavier hooves can break through icy snow crust on the landscape, benefiting the survival of deer.

“Horses and burros represent a giant missing piece in the ecological puzzle,” Downer said.

Most of all, Downer said, he objects to the BLM’s wild horse roundups, which he describes as being in direct conflict with the Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which calls for the wild horses and burros to be “protected from capture, branding, harassment or death.”

I’m not prepared to make a judgment about the science Downer references when he calls on our society to accept the moral challenge to “share the land with such magnificent creatures,” but his passion for and knowledge of the animals is inspiring.

And I do know that anyone can read the Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act on the BLM website.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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