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A herd of wild horses just moved into this iconic California destination. No one knows what comes next

San Francisco Chronicle 10/14/2022 By Kurtis Alexander

MAMMOTH LAKES, Mono County — Beneath the distant peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada, just east of Yosemite National Park, a bicyclist was pushing through a 100-mile road race last month when the unthinkable happened.

The 51-year-old rider ran, literally, into one of the biggest quandaries of the American West: wild horses.

Traveling downhill at 40 mph, the bicyclist was unable to avoid a group of mustangs crossing the highway about a two-hour ride from the mountain town of Mammoth Lakes. His bike broke in half as he collided with a large, brown horse, sending the racer into the roadside sage with several broken ribs and a collapsed lung, according to a preliminary accident report.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Tamara Bankson, organizer of the Mammoth Gran Fondo event and executive director of the Mammoth Mountain Community Foundation.

Wild horses are a stately animal and an icon of the nation’s heritage. But they can also pose major problems. In several Western states, the herds have toppled pristine lands, commandeered the forage of livestock and ended up in unfortunate run-ins with humans. Restraining the horses while respecting their freedom, as required by federal law, has been an ongoing challenge.

The incident at the Mammoth Lakes bike race stands out because it marks a new outgrowth of wild horses in California, and it’s fueling a fresh round of debate about how to respond to the widely revered, yet sometimes nuisance animals.

Only over the past few years have the horses become a familiar sight in the eastern Sierra. They’ve pushed west from their historical stomping grounds in and around the White Mountains on the state’s remote border with Nevada toward a handful of California communities.

Scientists and land managers aren’t sure why they made the move. Finding food and water in a time of drought is believed to be one of the reasons.

Whatever the case, their arrival has begun to stir both wonder and worry among those living in the Highway 395 corridor on the Sierra’s eastern edge.

“It’s kind of cool because we’ve never seen the horses so close to town before,” said Margie Beaver, a longtime resident of Lee Vining (Mono County) who has witnessed dozens of horses congregating in front of the famous tufa towers at Mono Lake. “But you really got to think about the impact they have.”

Concerns about Mono Lake, road safety

On the south shore of Mono Lake, one of the most popular landmarks in this high-desert region, the first sign of horses is the manure.

Earlier this year, the patties of waste got so plentiful amid the rabbitbrush and sage that volunteer crews at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve started hauling them out.

“We had a group of 20 that spent a whole day cleaning up,” said Mono County Supervisor Bob Gardner, among those who contributed shovel time. “We had a pile (of manure) about 3 or 4 feet high and 10 feet in diameter. That’s a lot of horse poop.”

While the dung may be unsavory, the larger concern at the vast saltwater lake is damage to wetlands and geologic formations. Researchers with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, UC Davis and the nonprofit Mono Lake Committee have begun conducting long-term surveys of the impacts of the horses. But already the toll is evident.

Freshwater springs where the horses have sought water have been trampled. Meadows where they graze, and refuge for shorebirds, ducks and songbirds, have been mowed down. The renowned limestone tufa spires, at times, have become scratching posts.

“They’re changing the habitat of the lakeshore,” said Bartshe Miller, eastern Sierra policy director for the Mono Lake Committee, which advocates for the health of the lake. “They’re turning areas into muddy mosh pits, and they’re destroying bird habitat.... It’s important that there be a place for the horses, but around Mono Lake is not that place.”

The lake and its flora and fauna are already stressed by the lack of water after three years of drought.

And then there’s the issue of road safety in the region.

Even before the bike accident at the race on Sept. 10, which occurred on Highway 120 east of the busier Highway 395, a handful of collisions between cars and horses had taken place there, according to reports with the California Highway Patrol. Only minor injuries were documented, though there was extensive damage to vehicles and mustangs, the reports show.

The fear is that the westward migration of horses will continue and eventually bring them to Highway 395, which runs four lanes in its tack from Los Angeles to Reno and beyond. The animals have already been seen a few miles from the thoroughfare.

“Hitting a horse is not like hitting deer,” said Miller, who also volunteers for a local fire department that has responded to wrecks with horses. “They’re much larger.”

The journey to the eastern Sierra

From the window of a slow-moving car, the clusters of horses on the open plains of the eastern Sierra appear anything but problematic.

The mustangs stand out as regal, with their thick manes, brilliant hues of cocoa, cream, chestnut and charcoal and big eyes and purposeful gaze. They look every bit the romantic stallions and mares played up in old Western films.

A few hundred might be spotted on any given day between Mono Lake and the Granite Mountain Wilderness to the east. No official count of the horses in this area has been conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, which is charged with managing the group.

“The wild horse has been in people’s imagination for a long time,” said Craig London, owner of the Rock Creek Pack Station outside of Bishop (Inyo County) and a veterinarian who leads tours of the horses along the California-Nevada border and has watched them crop up farther west. “Everyone has a different reason for why they like them, but people get excited.”

Most of the animals in the Mono Basin are believed to be a spin-off of what’s known as the Montgomery Pass Herd. This community of horses has long occupied the desert brush and pinyon pine forests in and around the White Mountains at the state line, about 40 miles east of Mono Lake.

Like most of their peers in the West, the equids are descendants of horses that broke free from captivity, in this case, probably from European settlers or Native American groups in the 1800s but possibly from earlier Spanish arrivals.

The Montgomery Pass Herd is considered one of the nation’s wildest, having largely evaded management efforts that have left many horses rounded up by the federal government and sent off for adoption.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971, tasks the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management not only with protecting wild horses, which were being hunted or slaughtered for dog food, but with controlling their numbers once the killing stopped.

The agencies have struggled, though, to keep the population in check. The number of unconfined horses on federal lands hovers around 80,000, according to estimates, as much as three times what the government deems sustainable. California’s big herds, which roam Modoc and Lassen counties in the state’s far north and Kern County in the south, have grown, too.

Complicating efforts to thin the population, euthanization is prohibited on federal lands. There’s also been opposition to government roundups and public support for keeping the horses wild.

The Montgomery Pass Herd, at least until recently, was naturally regulated by mountain lions, according to John Turner, a professor of physiology at the University of Toledo, who has been tracking the horses for decades.

“For many years, 20% to 30% of the foals were being taken,” he said.

Surveys by Turner and others suggest that the herd contained almost 200 horses in the 1980s, a number that only gradually rose over the next two decades, surpassing 300 about 10 years ago. Since then, the herd has both jumped in size, to 654 individuals in 2020, according to one of the latest counts by the Forest Service, and spread westward, deeper into California.

Reports of horses showing up at Mono Lake and along Rush Creek to the south have become common over the past two to three years, especially in wintertime when fewer people are around. Prior to this, the animals were sometimes seen in the Mono Basin but in more secluded areas.

While the reason for the herd’s expansion isn’t fully understood, scientists cite a number of possible drivers. The horses may have figured out the ambush sites of mountain lions, generally at higher elevations, and begun to stay clear. They’ve also found ample food and water at lower points and blossomed there. Additionally, a decade of mostly dry years in California likely sent the animals farther afield in search of springs and vegetation to forge on.

“They go where the water is and when there isn’t water they go someplace else, and that’s probably a big reason why they came down out of the high country,” Turner said.

Debating roundups

Land managers, conservation groups and residents in the Mono Basin have begun discussing what to do about the influx of horses.

Left unchecked, the population of the prolific animals can grow 20% a year, according to the Bureau of Land Management, a bump that could drive the eastern Sierra horses not only across Highway 395 but south into the Long Valley to Crowley Lake, north of Bishop, threatening more ecological harm.

“It’s an issue that’s not going to get better until we address it,” said Stephanie Heller, ranger for the Mono Lake District of the Inyo National Forest, which has jurisdiction over the herd. “They’re beautiful animals, but they’re definitely getting into places where they shouldn’t be.”

Heller acknowledged both the environmental damage and public safety issues associated with the horses. She said the Forest Service is looking to update its management plan for the herd, which dates to the 1980s. The plan called for the horses to remain in a roughly 310 -square-mile area at the state line and grow to no more than about 230 individuals — targets that have not been met.

Heller said it’s too early to know what the new strategy might be. She said the agency’s go-to practice of rounding up the horses with helicopters and wranglers and sending them off to holding pens for adoption would be considered.

Such roundups would inevitably invite controversy, as they have in other parts of California and the West.

“These are federally protected animals,” said Grace Kuhn, spokesperson for the American Wild Horse Campaign, a group that advocates for preserving the herds and has started paying attention to the horses in the eastern Sierra. “They have the same status as the bald eagle. The fact that we would round them up with helicopters is just inhumane.”

Horse advocates have typically been more supportive of managing populations through contraception, specifically using dart guns to inject a fertility control vaccine, as well as putting up fences to slow the migration.

Such tactics, though, can take longer and be less effective.

At Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, state parks officials already have drawn up plans for fencing around springs and tufa formations to keep the horses out. They’re worried that barriers won’t stop the strong-willed animals, however, and they’d like to see a more comprehensive approach to managing the herd.

For Gardner, the county supervisor, a policy that works quickly would be best — before the wild horses are so numerous that they become the region’s main attraction, not the lakes, the mountains and the high desert that the area is known for.

“To be honest with you, wild horses are beautiful, and we pride ourselves on our scenery here,” Gardner said. “But we don’t want to say, ‘Come up to the eastern Sierra and look at the wild horses.’ We want to say ‘Come up here and hike, bike, fish, camp and birdwatch.’ That’s what we’re really about.”

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @kurtisalexander

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