Tabitha Romero is responsible for all the wild horse and burro herds here. She shares her work and passion for these special animals that confront constant challenges where water and forage is always so precious.
By Glenn Ritt
When Tabitha Romero comes to work, her “office” happens to extend 2.3 million acres across all of southern Nevada.
That’s the vast territory this 30-year-old northern Wyoming native is solely responsible for as a wild horse and burro specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Growing up hunting, fishing camping and riding Mustangs, Romero always knew she wanted to work outdoors and be involved with horses, but she never imagined it would be this challenging.
With a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Resources for Fisheries and Wildlife from Oregon State University, Romero’s responsibilities are wide-ranging, often changing by the day and circumstance. It requires long hours crossing rugged terrain by herself in a Jeep, many trials and errors and a willingness to learn on the spot.
“That’s why I love my job,” she says. “It’s rarely the same from week to week.”
During spring – which is the busy season – Romero will be in the field about three days a week monitoring water and forage for the animals – and sometimes training volunteers who help her cover such a vast region.
She must balance that with constant office work such as writing and analyzing environmental assessments and other documents, as well as spending time from Red Rock Visitor’s Center to Pahrump and Amargosa conducting outreach programs about wild horses and burros.
Another aspect of her wide-ranging job is working with people adopting wild horses – from interviewing them to inspecting how they are treating the animals.
Recently, The Rock spent a day with Romero driving across part of her immense region – Red Rock Conservation Area – inspecting bands of wild horses and monitoring precious watering locations ideally fed by natural springs, but during drought conditions reinforced by tanker trucks that must navigate rutted and rock-strewn remote paths for a full day.
What are the most significant challenges in your job?
Romero: Human interaction with the wild horses and burros, forage and water conditions. In the Southern Nevada District, we have a very high number of people who can encounter these animals, so we are constantly trying to educate them. if they want the wild horses and burros to stay wild, they have to let them be wild.
We have domesticated these animals for more than 6,000 years. So, they revert back to domesticated behaviors very quickly if they experience human interaction. Many people do not understand that these are not backyard barn animals. They are wild and can be dangerous.
Feeding them increases their dependence and stops them from looking for natural forage. This leads to more private property damage, animals being struck on the highways, and declining body conditions.
Forage and water availability always is a challenge within the Mojave Desert. Despite many different natural spring sources, they go dry during warmer times of the year, especially if we suffer from low precipitation.
Currently we have been hauling water to two separate areas since June, one every week and the other every 3-6 weeks. We also have to haul water to two other areas within the district seasonally. Since June 2017 we have hauled approximately 180,000 gallons of water.
What brings you the greatest satisfaction in your job?
Romero: When I’m able to place wild horses and burros into good adoptive homes. We currently have approximately 46,000 wild horses and burros that we care for long-term holding corral and pasture facilities. If not adopted, horses eventually move to holding pastures in the Midwest where we maintain them for the rest of their lives. Roughly $50 million a year is spent on these facilities each year. So being able to get as many animals as we can into their forever adoptive homes is very gratifying.
What are the current conditions of wild horses and burros?
Romero: As numbers stand now the wild horse and burro population is over-populated.
Throughout 10 western states there are 26.9 million acres of public lands managed for wild horses, wild burros and other species. While this may seem like a lot of land, you have to understand that the vast majority of these areas are arid or semi-arid and contain limited resources that must not only support healthy wild horse and burro populations but also grazing permittees, mineral, oil, and gas development, native wildlife, and outdoor recreation to name a few.
Congress designated BLM a multi-use agency, so we have to strive for the best balance between all stakeholders. As of March 2017, we estimated that on BLM administered lands alone there are approximately 73,000 wild horses and burros. But we have determined that to maintain healthy range lands and herds, only about 27,000 should be on the range.
This is causing range degradation and unhealthy competition among wild horses, burros and native wildlife such as elk, deer, pronghorn and sage grouse. Wild horses and burros do have predators such as mountain lions in some of areas, but they do not make a big enough impact on herd numbers to help properly manage the populations. With an average growth rate of 20 percent per year, a wild horse or burro herd can double every four years; so, it is up to us to properly manage them.
At this time, what is the population of wild horses and burros in Red Rock Conservation Area?
Romero: There are 200 wild horses and a wild burro population of approximately 70.
When bands get overpopulated, does BLM let them die naturally if they are malnourished, or are all horses relocated?
Romero: If there are animals that are in distress due to lack of water or forage the BLM typically removes them from the range permanently. Dying of starvation or dehydration is a very painful death and is not a humane form of management.
How do you go about observing and measuring their numbers and impacts?
Romero: We do flight inventory surveys where we count the animals from a helicopter every two to three years. We use a simultaneous double-count method where we have two observers in front and two in back sighting and counting animals over predetermined flight lines. We fly approximately 150-200 feet above the ground to better see the animals.
Every year we conduct forage utilization surveys of our herd management areas. This allows us to see how much of a key species of forage is being consumed on a scale of zero to 100 percent. We also monitor spring conditions to measure impacts to riparian areas from wild horse or burro usage.
When there is drought and water is not naturally arriving for the animals, what happens?
Romero: As an emergency measure we are authorized to haul water to the animals or develop springs to allow for better storage of water that is naturally occurring. If we haul water for long periods, then we analyze range conditions and animal numbers more closely to determine if we need to gather excess animals from the area.
What do you want the public to know about these animals?
Romero: Wild horses and burros are amazing creatures, and it’s very special to see them on the range. It is important that we preserve and protect these animals for future generations to enjoy by educating ourselves on current issues and trying to collaborate on management decisions with all stakeholders.
Some believe that we are “managing the animals to extinction,” and that we cater to cattle ranchers or private individuals. This is not the case. We are passionate not only about the wild horses and burros, but also the range land and all activities occurring on them. By striking a balance among all these, we benefit all parties, not just a few.
How important are these animals to the sustainable habitat of Red Rock Canyon?
Romero: Scientific studies prove that sustainable numbers of wild horses and burros on the range lands can benefit native wildlife. Wild burros provide fine fuel management with their grazing and help create better soil conditions in some areas. They also create great hiking trails. I always tell people if you go for a hike find a burro trail because it’s going to be the path of least resistance!
At the same time, how do they potentially threaten the habitat?
Romero: When overpopulated, wild horses and burros can overgraze forage, impact soils, and severely damage riparian areas. While this area can support healthy herd numbers, if they get too numerous the results can be devastating. We do not have the luxury of high precipitation and lower temperatures here in the Mojave. The annual rainfall average is roughly four inches, so when our desert ecosystems are damaged it can take decades for them to recover. You can see evidence of this within Red Rock Canyon itself where fires burned through 10-20 years ago and recovery has been very slow going.
For those who have never had the chance to observe these animals, can you describe them – their characteristics, range, predators, interaction with people?
Romero: Wild horses and burros can be very different from their domesticated brothers and sisters. Typically, they are very distrustful of humans because they believe that we can be a predator (which we were during the Pleistocene era). So, when they see people, they will typically head for the hills. But when they become accustomed to humans, they are more willing to stick around and see what’s going on.
The wild horses and burros come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors due to their mixed ancestry; and they are very versatile. We have people that have adopted wild horses and competed in different disciplines such as dressage, reining, endurance, hunter/jumper, you name it.
Wild burros have been used for therapy animals, drawing carts, and even riding if they’re large enough. So, you see a lot of these different personality traits while they are on the range as well. They can travel 12-15 miles a day looking for food and water.
Being that they have few, if any, natural predators on the range, it’s not often you will observe them doing much more than posturing to one another when trying to determine who is the dominant mare or stallion.
And as far as interaction with people, like I stated before, if you want them to stay wild, you have to let them be wild. Observing from a distance is fine, but it is never acceptable for a person to approach or feed a wild horse or burro. This can be very dangerous for your own personal safety; and if caught by BLM officials, you will receive a $500 fine.
How can someone go about adopting a wild horse?
Romero: We have 17 facilities located throughout the United States. The closest facility to Las Vegas is in Ridgecrest, Calif. or Reno. The best thing to do is call us at 866-4MUSTANGS, email us at email@example.com, or go to BLM.gov/WHB to see what the adoption requirements are for a wild horse or burro.
Typically, you will need to have 6-foot panels set up in a space no smaller than a 20×20 area with a shade structure. We also work very closely with the Mustang Heritage Foundation to gentle animals before they go to adopters. Doing this has greatly increased our adoption success rate, and it is a great way to get a wild horse or burro if you don’t have any holding facilities near you.
How easy is to domesticate it?
Romero: They have had little to no human interaction for the majority of their lives. It’s not necessarily more challenging to domesticate them, but you do have to work thoroughly and consistently with them to gain their trust and to advance them in their training. They are highly intelligent animals; so, if you try to speak their language instead of forcing them to learn yours, you will set yourself up for success.
Last year, BLM rounded up many wild horses. What happened to them? Is this typical and if so, how often are there round ups?
Romero: BLM only gathered approximately 4,000 animals. It didn’t even cover the foal crop from last year. Unless an animal is injured or very emaciated and unhealthy, we take all gathered animals to corral facilities. Their age is determined, they are vaccinated, given a health assessment, gelded, and provided a freeze mark.
The BLM attempts to find a home for every animal gathered from the range; however, when an animal is not adopted or sold, they are eventually sent to the Midwest and Great Plains where they spend the rest of their lives on open pasture land under contract for their use.
Gathers are typically conducted in areas where animal populations are very high, range conditions have deteriorated, or animal conditions have worsened. Since wild horses and burros are located within so many different areas, we have to prioritize who gets to gather and how many and for what reason.
Why are there so much activist protests about round ups?
Romero: Miseducation is the number-one enemy of the wild horse and burro program. We are as transparent as possible. If you have access to our website, then you have access to pretty much everything we are currently doing within the program.
Many people are convinced that we send all the animals to slaughter, that we run them down with helicopters, beat them, or kill them for no reason. They think that people who pay to have their animals graze on public lands are receiving large subsidies from the government, and that we are “managing the wild horses and burros to extinction.” These are all very far from the truth. That is why we focus so much on outreach and education. We want people to know about how we manage the program and be as involved as possible.
Within the wild horse and burro program we have very high humane animal welfare standards for the treatment of the animals, and we do everything we can to lessen their stress, whether it be during a gather or on range lands.
Equus evolved in North America, but then became extinct 10,000-13,000 years ago. They were not reintroduced here until the Spaniards arrived in the early 1500’s. Donkeys evolved in Africa and were never found in North America until they too were brought over by the Spaniards in the 1500’s.
The ecology of North America has changed drastically since that time, and while it is possible to have healthy populations of wild horses and burros throughout the western United States, they need to be managed.
It is an emotional issue and a very complicated, multi-faceted one at that. But, we have to strike a balance in order to have healthy herds and healthy range lands.