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


Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or

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— 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


Steven Stapp 4 years ago

Mr Ross you may not be prepared to make a judgement on the science Mr. Downer refers to but I am. Over the past couple of years I have been meticulously researching all the theories, assumed "facts", and known "facts" about the history of e. caballus in North America.

At just about every turn of the page I find Mr. Downer has already been there. In many cases he has been referenced by those whose research I'm studying.

When it comes to the wild horses and burros of N. America he's forgotten more than I will ever know. I'm just glad to know when I have a question he'll be there to help me find the answer.

Now as to your community and it's proximity to the Sand Wash Basin and one of America's most beautiful herds of wild horses...Protect them, go to BLM meetings, oppose the helicopters that traumatize the adults and often kill the foals. Get involved. All our wild horse herds are special but there is something so aesthetically pleasing about the Sand Wash Basin Horses. You and the people who live around your area need to stand up and be heard from when it comes to the future of this astounding herd.

Embrace them with all your heart!


Greer Haseman 3 years, 6 months ago

Mr. Ross: First, I wanted to thank you for covering the issue of wild horses and for giving a voice to Craig Downer through your reporting. Those of us who champion the wild horse..even from afar (as I live and work in Oak Park, IL a suburb directly west of Chicago) believe in Craig and his exhaustive research.

I believe that the wild horses and burros belong in the wild. I object strongly to how they are routinely and inhumanly driven into long term holding pens by the BLM, at the cost of tens of MILLIONS of tax dollars per year...and then many are quietly sold off to slaughter. These facts are well documented. These magnificent animals are taken from public land, my land as well as yours, so the government can lease it to cattle ranchers or drillers. The horses and burros do not effect either and could and should co-exist. They do not eat the same thing as the cattle, and they play a vital role in the biodiversity needed to maintain a delicate balance. In addition by eating large areas of the dry brittle grass only they can digest they play a natural role in helping to control catastrophic wildfires.

Please if you have time, research the Sheldon roundup (these are legacy horses) and then read about how the government is going to do a "burn" to reproduce the effects of the removal of the brittle grass the horses would have eaten. Hopefully you will begin to grasp how ridiculous the government can be on this subject but I doubt you will grasp how frustrated those of us who champion the horses freedom are. We are fighting both the Executive and Legislative branches of own government with limited funds and people...when they use our seemingly unlimited tax dollars to keep fighting us while just doing what they deem they need to do without the benefit of solid research.

The wild horses and burros are protected. They helped build this country. They should be left free. They should be left alone and in VIABLE herds to keep the fragile balance and they should be left free so I might one day be able to enjoy seeing them in the wide open spaces that you in Colorado call home.

Thank you,

Greer Haseman Oak Park, IL


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