Horses and New Mexico Rangelands

By: Andres F. Cibils, NM Section of the SRM, Las Cruces, NM

Just when we thought the ‘Range Problem’ in New Mexico (as E. O. Wooton referred to it in 1908) was a thing of the past , challenges surrounding horse population growth in many parts of the state are making us reconsider. E.O. Wooton, the Experiment Station Botanist at New Mexico’s College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts at the time, visited all corners of the NM territory while on his botanizing commissions. He observed ubiquitous signs of range degradation. As in other places across the West, the NM territory had experienced a dramatic surge in livestock grazing pressure during the last two decades of the 19th century. Between 1880 and 1906, head of cattle increased eightfold, from less than 150 thousand to almost 1 million; sheep numbers more than doubled, from 2 to 4.5 million head; and horse numbers more than tripled from 14 thousand to approximately 50 thousand head1. The impact on the range was formidable and Wooton was not alone in his assessment of the severity of the environmental crisis of his day. He apparently found time to visit extensively with ranchers around the territory who provided depth and context to his observations. Wooton concluded that the ‘range problem’ (i.e. overstocking) was rooted in the open access land tenure system that prevailed at the time. Advocating for tighter government control of public lands, Wooton masterfully wrote: ‘The whole question resolves itself into the administration of a policy for the good of the many instead of for the few’ . Reining in of livestock numbers by those entrusted to watch over the ‘good of the many’ was at the core of this radical change in public (federal) land use in New Mexico.

While NM is the western state with the second lowest population of wild horses and burros (170 according to 2016 estimates published by the BLM), unauthorized horses on public land allotments, especially in checkerboard areas of the northwestern part of the state, are cause for alarm among land managers and ranchers alike. Two years ago, it was estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 horses in excess of permitted livestock grazed BLM allotments in the Farmington area alone. On rangeland not far from the checkerboard, BLM and USFS are striving to find creative ways of managing wild horses on the Jicarilla Joint Management Area (JMA). In 2014, it was estimated that horse populations were almost 3 times higher than appropriate levels for JMA. With annual population growth rates at 20%, the horse problem continues to worsen across the region. Overuse of the range is not only impacting ranchers’ livelihoods it is also severely damaging former winter habitat of already declining mule deer populations. Some of the vegetation depletion that can be observed locally suggests that E.O. Wooton’s ‘range problem’ is making a comeback.

Although the solution to our ‘horse problem’ perhaps continues to lie in seeking the ‘good of the many’, controlling stocking rates of horses in the American West of the 21st Century is several orders of magnitude more complicated than in Wooton’s 19th Century New Mexico. Rangelands have become complex social-ecological systems. The land owners of western public rangeland (i.e. the American people) are increasingly embracing belief systems and values which often stem from urban-centered views of nature and the environment. Still, as in Wooton’s times, it will take all parties involved to find long-term solutions that ensure the preservation of NM rangelands for future generations.

WOOTON, E. O. 1908. The range problem in New Mexico. Albuquerque, NM, USA: Albuquerque Morning Journal. New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin No. 66. 46 p.
Sayre, N. F., W. deBuys, B. T. Bestelmeyer, and K. M. Havstad. 2012. “The Range Problem” After a Century of Rangeland Science: New Research Themes for Altered Landscapes. Rangeland Ecology & Management 65:545-552.
Wooton, E.O. 1098. p.46.

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