Horse & Burro Management
On September 27, 2012, following four years of public involvement and planning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) approved its Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for managing Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, including management of non-native horses and burros. Additional information about the planning process and the final CCP can be found at: http://www.fws.gov/pacific/planning/main/docs/NV/docssheldon.htm.
Based on all collected information, the Service has revised its management direction to address the issue of feral horses and burros on the Refuge, located in northwestern Nevada. Populations of these non-native horses and burros within Sheldon Refuge are destroying important habitat and are competing with native fish and wildlife for forage and water resources. Horses and burros also pose a public safety hazard to travelers along Highway 140. The change in the Horse and Burro Management Program is to remove horses and burros from Sheldon Refuge by 2017.
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These above two photographs were taken one year apart at the same site, Big Spring Creek on Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. The first photograph was taken in August 2004 at the time of a large horse gather on Big Spring Butte which resulted in the removal of 293 horses. These horses were placed in homes through adoption. The photograph shows the extensive damage to vegetation along the riparian area caused by horses. The second photo was taken one-year later (August 2005) at the same position and angle, and shows the response of vegetation from reduced grazing pressure of horses. Woody vegetation and other responses of the ecosystem will take many years for restoration from the damage.
This photograph was taken in September 2002 at Big Spring Creek. The tall vegetation was protected from grazing by the cage on the left side of the photograph. Stubble height of vegetation outside the cage was 4 cm, and 35 cm inside the cage, nearly 10 times the height. The intensity of horse grazing pressure was high until the gather in late 2004. Additional photo comparisons are available from other sites.
Why are horses and burros not priority species on Sheldon?
National wildlife refuges are established for the protection of native wildlife and habitat. Sheldon, located in the northwestern corner of Nevada, occupies over 575,000 acres of high desert habitat and is managed for native plants and wildlife. This refuge was set aside in 1931 by Executive Order, primarily for the conservation of pronghorn antelope and other native wildlife species. The purpose was defined “as a refuge and breeding ground for wild animals and birds.” The 1997 amendments to the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act established an even higher threshold, which reinforces the focus on the refuge purpose and management for biological integrity, diversity and environmental health. Horses and burros are not native to Sheldon and cause considerable damage to Sheldon Refuge’s natural resources. They must be managed consistent with the refuge’s purposes, which emphasize conservation of pronghorn antelope and other native animals and plants.
What is the History of Horses in Northwestern Nevada ?Prior to these lands becoming a national wildlife refuge, ranchers raised European horse breeds as working stock and as remounts for the U.S. Cavalry. When the need for saddle horses diminished at the turn of the 20th Century, these horse herds were released on lands that are now the Sheldon refuge and other public lands where they became free-roaming animals. Active interbreeding of feral horses with ranch horses continued well into the 20th century. A more thorough coverage of the history can be found in the EA.
Why should horses be removed from Sheldon?Relevant federal law and Service policy require that we manage non-native animals to prevent damage to native wildlife habitat and other resources. These horses and burros have no natural predators in the West, other than an occasional mountain lion. Horse and burro populations increase at a very high rate when compared to populations of mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and other native species for which the refuge was established.
During the past ten years, the non-native horse populations have greatly increased, causing damage to upland areas and water sources on the refuge. The herd’s growth rate is very strong, averaging about 17 percent to 23 percent annually. With an estimated current population of about 800 horses and 90 burros, about 155-200/year animals must be removed each year just to keep the current population stable.
The horse and burro populations on Sheldon are causing negative impacts to native wildlife and their habitats. Conflicts over scarce water in this desert environment include trampling of vegetation along stream banks and at springheads, physical exclusion of other species by dominant stud horses and burros, and contamination from feces and urine. Horses and burros also cause habitat degradation by trampling and destroying vegetation in the upland areas. Together, these areas provide important habitat for native species such as pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, waterfowl, many species of native songbirds and mammals. This habitat is most valuable to wildlife when it is not grazed by livestock and has healthy native vegetation. Removal of this natural cover allows native predators to more easily locate and kill the species that depend upon that cover to hide, especially during the fawning and brooding seasons.
Cattle grazing was removed from Sheldon in the early 1990s because of many of these same conflicts with wildlife. At that time, the population of non-native horses was much smaller (200-300 animals) and their impact was not as severe. However, these populations have increased greatly in the past 15 years and habitat damage and conflicts with wildlife have continued to rise.
Horses and burros removed from Sheldon Refuge are found good homes for adoption.
How long has horse and burro management occurred on Sheldon?
Federal agencies have managed these herds for more than 70 years, and the current program to remove horse and burro populations is consistent with the Mission of the Service, policies for the National Wildlife Refuge System, and the purposes for Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. We have endeavored to meet Service and NEPA policies in implementing horse and burro management..
How will the horse removal program affect visitors?
Visitors travel to Sheldon from diverse domestic and international locations to view native pronghorn, sage grouse, mule deer, bighorn sheep and other native wildlife species in their natural habitats. Many other visitors enjoy viewing horses and burros on the Refuge. A number of visitors have expressed concern about the impacts that horses and burros are having on native plants and animals.
How does the Sheldon removal and adoption program work?
The Refuge staff seeks to ensure that all horses receive good homes by working with organizations, individuals, and private contractors who serve as adoption agents for the Service. Horses are rounded-up using standard techniques, such as helicopters working with horse-back wranglers or horse-back wranglers alone guiding horses to a trap corral. Burros are captured using temporary corrals baited with food. Animals are sorted and transported to our holding facilities where food and water are provided. If there are mares with foals, they are given preferred treatment to make sure they are matched-up and safe. All horses and burros are tested for diseases, inspected and treated for injuries, and receive a brand inspection before being transported to adoption agents or adopters. Animals are handled by horse/burro experts and a veterinarian is onsite or on call during operations. The agency is making every possible effort to gather, adopt and transport animals in a humane manner. Handling horses and burros can be dangerous for both humans and animals. Death and severe injury for horses during the roundup have been less than one percent, and none known for burros. A great deal of information on the program is available in the revised final Environmental Assessment.
J&S Associates at (601) 546-2555