There is an old tale that has been passed down about a frog, who was living in the bottom of a dark well. One day, a toad came and peered down at the frog. He asked, “Why do you remain down there in the darkness? If you climb out of the well, there is a whole new world out here for you to see?”
So the frog did so, and discovered what he had been missing in the darkness.*
It keeps coming up — the tragic plight of our nation’s wild mustangs and burros.
Plight of Wild Mustangs and Keystone Predators
These icons of our nation’s history endure the ongoing cruel roundups by helicopters, forcing them out of their remote refuges and into holding pens. They are no longer free. At this time there are 45,000 of these wild animals being held by the the Bureau of Land Management. Many die along the way, small foals trampled and adults collapse in exhaustion and terror.
Why? It is the story of the frog in the well. As a society we are acting like that frog — just comfortable remaining in the darkness. Not wanting to find another way to share the land with those who were here before us, and have a right to be here for sure; preferring to grab up all the land for oneself, even the land that belongs to all Americans — public land. Our landscape is covered with a monoculture of cows, who are displacing our magnificent wildlife.
I remember when I was participating in research in the Mission Mountains of Montana, my fellow researcher and I came upon a whole herd of cows high up in these mountains, in a very remote area. There were no people around, only the cows, and it seemed so, so unnatural a situation. Even in this remote wild area of a National Forest — they were there. When one experiences this personally, there is a sense of the “unnaturalness” of this situation. There were no wildlife to be seen anywhere.
So why is this government agency rounding up our wild mustangs and burros? First of all, a trust has been broken with these wild beings. They have been pushed to remote areas far too small for them to graze environmentally. The cows have taken their land.
So does rounding them up and keeping them in pens, costing the taxpayer millions upon millions of dollars a year fix their “overpopulation” in shrunken habitats? No!
Will planning all forms of inhumane birth control efforts fix it? No!
Conservation Biology for an Informed 'Land Mechanism'
In my work as a biologist, it is my goal that I never focus on the problem, but instead move on to seek viable solutions and keep my eyes on how we want it to be, not how it is.
So now back to our frog’s story. We need to climb out of the darkness into the light. The words of Aldo Leopold are so appropriate here: “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: What good is it? If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.”
Photo by Tambako
Photo by Ronnie MacDonald
And that land mechanism Leopold spoke of is all about the predator-prey relationship. All these places where the wild Mustangs live, wolves are not being allowed to inhabit, and cougars are being aggressively killed. So if you were a wild Mustang, what would you choose — living with your predators, or being violently chased into miserable holding pens, your freedom taken from you, your families destroyed, and an unknown and painful future at the hands of humans?
Let us come out of the well! Let the wolves, cougars and wild Mustangs find that balance together. Let us allow the wisdom of Nature to create the balance, but also let us share the land.
Is it really all that hard to climb out of the well?
*You can see the frog story told in the wonderful film Mao’s Last Dancer.
Geri Vistein is a conservation biologist whose work focuses on carnivores and our human relationships with them. In addition to research and collaboration with fellow biologists in Maine, she educates communities about carnivores and how we can coexist with them. You can find her at Coyote Lives in Maine, and read all of Geri's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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