Yakima area wild horses crowd out native species

TOPPENISH, Yakima County — The faded-gray stallion with four white socks and a long face fervently nods his head, serving notice not to come any closer to his herd. Moments later, startled by a sudden movement, the horses kick up a cloud of dust as they storm across the hillside, disappearing behind a ridge.

The stallion is just one of several thousand wild horses thundering across south-central Washington's Yakama Indian Reservation. Their exact numbers are unknown. But in the desert scrubland known as Dry Creek, tribal wildlife officials know there are too many to share habitat with the native species they aim to restore to the land.

"We know just by observation that there are problems — inbreeding, overgrazing, lack of range management. We know that they have displaced other natural species, such as deer and elk, in some places of the reservation," said E. Arlen Washines, wildlife manager for the Yakama Nation. "But we don't know what's needed to fix that, to create a balance."

Yakama Nation officials have begun preparing a wildlife-management plan they think will enhance their understanding of how plants and animals best coexist on the reservation. They also hope to reintroduce some native species that haven't been seen in the area for decades, including pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and sage grouse.

But to reintroduce native species, the tribes first must learn more about the wild horses that roam across the land.

Research has shown that wild-horse herds across the West are the descendants of horses brought to North America by Europeans. Whether horses were extinct on the continent before the Ice Age remains under debate.

American Indians think the horse was already on the land, much like any other native species, Washines said.

"We believe that the Creator put them here for a reason. For that reason, too, managing the herds is a very delicate balance for our cultural significance," he said.

At one time, the Yakama Nation's wild horses numbered more than 15,000, but the herds were managed and horses used on a daily basis, Washines said. The numbers stand at about 4,500 today, but much of the 1.4 million-acre reservation is in agricultural use, and small areas can't support large horse herds, he said.

"Since our homeland was shrunk down to the present-day reservation and the use of the horses on a daily basis has almost disappeared, we have small pockets ... that explode in uncontrollable or unmanageable size," he said.

Such overpopulation leads to inbreeding and concerns about disease, as well as overgrazing, which destroys native plants and drives out other species that American Indians still rely on for food.

The tribes have applied for a third grant to better study the wild-horse herds. The research would include tracking their migrations, getting a more accurate head count and studying their genetic makeup and the vegetation that makes up their diet.

Birds, rattlesnakes, coyotes and lizards abound on the reservation, but native species that compete with wild horses for food in drought-stricken areas will struggle without a comprehensive plan for reintroducing them, said Gaylord Mink, a retired researcher with Washington State University who spent four years observing the horses to produce a film for the tribes as a private consultant.

The state of Washington supports tribal efforts to reintroduce native species, said Jeff Bernatowicz, district wildlife biologist in Yakima and Kittitas counties for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But drought and overgrazing affect not just the native species that will be reintroduced, he said.

"It's not just sage grouse, or bighorn sheep or antelope. Any time you have a range that's overgrazed, there's a lot of other things that may benefit if there weren't all those wild horses out there," Bernatowicz said. "There's a lot of things that will change for the whole ecosystem."

Tribal wildlife officials hope to have a management plan in place by 2006. Meanwhile, dealing with the overpopulated herds on one section of the reservation isn't necessarily proving popular among some tribal elders, Washines said.

"Some tribal members think that because we want to manage the populations, we want to get rid of the horse. That couldn't be further from the truth," Washines said. "That concern that our elders have about us wanting to get rid of the horses — nature may do that for us if we don't do something about it," he said.