In the high desert of southeastern Oregon, every water source matters. That’s why rancher Stacy Davies is particularly frustrated that a spring west of Steens Mountain that should nestle in a lush green meadow instead oozes to the surface in a messy mud hole.

“It’s actually being destroyed by horses,” says Davies. “There haven’t been cattle in here for a year and a half.”

There’s no sign of cow manure or hoof prints from cattle.

But horse hoof prints are so numerous they can’t be counted. Davies says he regularly sees 50 to 200 mustangs using the watering hole. They found a reliable spot and return to it often.

Stacy Davies

Davies manages one of Oregon’s largest cattle operations, the Roaring Springs Ranch south of Frenchglen. His cattle graze on both private and public land.

“We like horses,” says Davies. “We want them to be here. But we want them managed according to the plans that were laid out 40 years ago.”

The 1971 law that protects the horses also notes the range should be managed “in keeping with the multiple-use management concept for the public lands.”

The BLM’s Sharp says, “There really is no rank structure when you’re talking multiple uses.”

All the users – horses, cattle, sage grouse, pronghorn, elk and recreationists – must share the land.

The Bureau of Land Management is tasked with deciding how many horses, cattle and wildlife each area can support.

“Range” means the amount of land necessary to sustain an existing herd or herds of wild free-roaming horses and burros, which does not exceed their known territorial limits, and which is devoted principally but not necessarily exclusively to their welfare in keeping with the multiple-use management concept for the public lands.
— Wild Horse & Burro Act of 1971

“What you need to understand is permitted livestock are managed seasonally out here,” says BLM Oregon wild horse manager Rob Sharp. “They’re out on the range for five to six months every year. Whereas, you look at wild horses, they’re largely an unmanaged grazer out here.”

Davies points to some wisps of grass that have been chewed to a nub next to the watering hole. “Some of these plants are dying,” he says. “They need a chance to set seed.”

While cattle get rotated out of grazing land like this after a few months, horses graze here all year. Says Davies, “They’re consuming forage 12 months of the year and the same plants get bitten time after time.”

Scott Beckstead, Oregon director of the Humane Society of the U.S., says horses aren’t the ones damaging the landscape.

“Nine million livestock versus 40,000 wild horses, there’s not a balance in terms of what the horses are using versus what other users of the land are using,” Beckstead said.

Wild horses, not cattle, trampled this spring into a mud hole.

Beckstead concurs with an independent panel of scientists who found dubious support for BLM’s estimates of the appropriate number of cattle, horses and wildlife on a particular portion of land.

“The best science is not being utilized to determine the appropriate herd levels and population levels,” Beckstead says.

Davies, the rancher, expresses frustration with people who consider horses a higher priority than other users of the land.

“These horses are not pets,” Davies says. “They’re a wild animal. They’re species introduced by man and as far as I’m concerned, they should be treated more like livestock.”

He does share one thing with wild horse advocates: frustration with the BLM. “To allow these herds to just grow exponentially and shun the responsibility of management is just unacceptable,” says Davies.