The Bureau of Land Management—or "mismanagement," depending on your point of view—has come under heavy fire recently for a series of controversial "gathers" of wild horses. (The semantics of the BLM operations are interesting. Calling the roundups "gathers" conjures up a genteel process and presumably does not invoke troublesome images of wild horse herds, foals included, being driven across miles of range in 100-degree heat by helicopters.)

A flurry of lawsuits and tons of adverse publicity failed to stop the roundups, which so far have resulted in the deaths of some two dozen mustangs.

Coasting along under the horse welfare radar, to this point at least, is a controversial plan to remove all the wild horses from the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nevada and southern Oregon. According to the National Wildlife Refuge System ("NWRS"), the wild horse population in the Sheldon Refuge represents an "exotic invasive species" that is destabilizing the refuge ecosystem by destroying native grasses and plants, degrading the water supply, and contributing to soil erosion. The Sheldon Refuge was established during the 1930s and includes more than 500,000 acres. It was developed to preserve the natural habitat for pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, mule deer and "other species of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem."

Paul Steblein, project director at the Sheldon Refuge, briefed Congress recently on the removal plan. According to Steblein, the National Wildlife Refuge System wants to remove all the wild horses from the refuge over the next five to 15 years. The removed horses would be either adopted out or, if necessary, auctioned to the highest bidder. Steblein said that the refuge currently "gathers" 350-400 wild horses every year, adopting out roughly half of them and returning the others to the refuge after sterilization procedures. Even so, according to NWRS, more than 800 horses remain at the Sheldon Refuge.

Ironically, NWRS cites the efforts of the BLM as one of the reasons that wild horse populations in the West are not threatened and are, in fact, increasing.

A draft environmental impact statement is scheduled for release in September, and NWRS says it will solicit public comments on the proposed wild horse removal. A similar plan to de-horse the Sheldon Refuge was abandoned in 2007 in the face of public opposition and stinging criticism from Congressman Nick Rahall II, Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

According to the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, an "exotic, invasive species" is "any species . . . not native to that ecosystem, and whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health."

That definition arguably covers much of the wild horse population in the West, assuming that they are descendants of horses introduced to North American during the Spanish conquest. (There is research indicating that today’s wild horses are genetically similar to native horses that died out at the end of the Pleistocene, however, making them actually a native species that was re-introduced by the Spanish.)

Stretched to its logical conclusion, the definition of "exotic, invasive species" also includes us—people. With the exception of Native Americans, who were here first and are called Native Americans for a reason, we are all exotic and invasive. The environmental harm wreaked by us is obvious.

Maybe it’s time to pack our bags and get out.

Happy Birthday to Me!

On a personal note, Horses and the Law is now officially a yearling. The goal when we started the blog last August was to examine current events in the horse world in a legal context. If we’ve been successful in that endeavor, let us know. If not, let us know. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments.