Capturing Balance in an American Icon and the "Ghost King"
By Chase Bergeron
This summer, I feel blessed to be doing what I love; spending almost every day out exploring the beautiful countryside that is practically my backyard here in Modoc County. As an intern with University of California Cooperative Extension, I have had many memorable experiences meeting private landowners, trying my hand at fishing, and hiking with my dog Banjo. Beyond the intrinsic value I have enjoyed from these experiences, they have been invaluable hands-on learning opportunities as I move forward in the field of natural resources.
Photo of wild horses in Devil's Garden.
History of Horse and Elk Interactions
When I learned that I would have the opportunity to study interactions between wild horses and elk on the Devil’s Garden Plateau I was beyond excited. Summer 2021 is the continuation of an ongoing project and marks another year of the elk and wild horse monitoring cameras.
Due to their elusive behavior, in Oklahoma the Shawnee name for elk is “Wapiti,” which means “ghost king.” This can be read figuratively as well as literally: in the 1800’s, due to a combination of over harvesting, competition with livestock and free roaming horses, the elk population came close to disappearing At one time, nearly 500,000 elk traversed the terrain of California. It is estimated that this number was reduced to merely a handful by 1870.
Images of wild horses have long been intrinsic to American perceptions of the West. However, just like with any other species, when horse populations exceed the carrying capacity of their environments, it is detrimental to the ecosystem. Horses have no natural predators in the United States, and they reproduce astoundingly quickly. At present, around 2,000 wild horses roam 500,000 acres of National Forest, Bureau of land management, private land, and tribal land that make up the Devil’s Garden Plateau. This species has exceeded the management population of 300-400 that was established by the U.S. Forest Service. When any species exceeds the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, problems emerge. In the case of the wild horses, these issues become evident in the overgrazing of native fauna and water usage. This competition for water and other resources impacts the dynamics of the entire biological community on the Plateau.
The goal of the project is to quantify elk and wild horse interactions and to determine the number of each species coexisting in the area. Given that the horses and elk move across private, tribal, and public land, a broader goal of the Department of Fish and Wildlife is to build cooperative relationships between stakeholders. Ultimately this equates to research and management working together to make decisions based on data that has been collected.
Photo of trail camera set up.
One instance during the project that stood out to me took place on one of the last days. We were setting up a camera at a site and saw round figures of varying colors moving in the distance. As we approached the site, we soon realized that a herd of more than 20 wild horses and a few foals were grazing 500 feet away from us! We had to stop for a few moments to appreciate what was in front of us. I can see how wild horses are associated with the freedom that is the foundation of this country and many of us hold
Being a part of this project has given me firsthand experience about the importance of balance between different species and the environment. Preserving biodiversity is vital to the health of the entire ecosystem, this requires cooperative management. All Californians benefit when the community has access to healthy fish and wildlife, and a healthy ecosystem occurs when there is a balance of each component.
California Elk Conservation and Management Plan. 2018. <https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=162912&inline>. Accessed 30 June 2021.
Snell, Laura K., and Roger A. Baldwin. "Current Trends and Management of Wild Horses on the Devil’s Garden Plateau." Proceedings of the Vertebrate Pest Conference. Vol. 29. No. 29. 2020
Forest Service, USDA. Modoc National Forest - Resource Management, 2021, www.fs.usda.gov/detail/modoc/landmanagement/resourcemanagement/?cid=fseprd594042.