Sound assessment, RareCJ8! The last place you want a feral horse is as a hood ornament, one more issue. Many horses and motorists have met that fate on Highway 95A between Fernley and Silver Springs, Silver Springs to Dayton, the Virginia City Area, all over NW Nevada. Horses have totaled cars and pickups in these encounters, resulting in fatalities all around.
The hooves and a horse's weight can make issues with springs and watering holes. There are instances, too, where horses actually open up subsurface water and other animals benefit. Worth noting, we live in an imbalanced ecology, and there are no wolves or cats to cull out weak or sick horses. Horses are prey and flight animals. Considering the suspected cause for the disappearance of Equus across North America (click for a quick history of Equus), the most significant "predator" to horses may well have been human beings. One accounting is that human beings drove the true native horse to extinction in North America by killing and eating them.
Horse populations and the size of bands can balloon where there is enough forage and water. Horses are very tough, as my video account illustrates, so the climate in itself does not reduce these bands; however, drought and no grazing grasses can, as you note, RareCJ8.
The Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 has always been a controversial subject at northern Nevada. The Act's intent was to round up animals humanely for impound, with interested parties adopting the horses and pledging to train and properly care for the adopted animals. When huge numbers of horses get rounded up and contained in BLM impound areas, kicking and severe injury results from fights between dominant stallions and even mares. What started out as an alternative to rounding horses up for "glue factory" slaughter house extermination has backlashed into a huge population of roundup animals. As for adoption, older horses may get passed over, less desirable horses may get passed over, injured or lame horses get a pass as well. Many supporters of the Wild Horse and Burro Act are themselves incapable of quartering and training a horse. Add to that a national economy where many otherwise sympathetic parties are preoccupied with keeping a roof over their own heads. The result is a huge number of horses that remain impounded.
Most ranchers and others whose livelihoods are tied to Forest Service or BLM livestock grazing rights have highly resented the wild horse preservation approach. As you note, there is large competition between livestock and feral horses on the public range. Frankly, propaganda on both sides of this issue has not helped the controversy. Like your view, I think it very inappropriate for animals to suffer, and that's a good position to take when trying to find a sensible, or at least acceptable, longer term solution.
The argument that all feral horses are ill and starving does not hold up in many cases. I've personally watched wild horses, in reasonable band numbers, thrive in the most harsh and frigid environments, not looking in the least bit emaciated but rather making me wonder where our own species' Ice Age genetics got lost. One recollection is four-wheeling through snow to camp at a remote spot in the general vicinity of Sunrise Pass and lower Mt. Como. This would have been mid- to late-January of 1976, sub-zero weather at well over 6000 feet elevation. I knew that feral horses roamed this area in the spring, summer and fall months.
In the middle of the night, I was awakened by horses running past my Chevy K10 4x4 pickup! At dawn, the same band was breaking through ice to drink from the trickle of the nearby creek. Before I packed up, this band was "browsing" on last summer's slim grasses, buried within snow. These horses could easily have moved down into the Carson or Dayton Valley areas and remained undisturbed. They chose to stay up in these high canyons.
Regardless of where you line up on this issue, there are some clear facts. Facts like these horses are overcrowded into huge compounds where adoption is not the result for many. Facts like the Wild Horse and Burro Act was supposed to lead to adoption of these horses. Adoption has always been fickle, and the impounded horse numbers kept creeping upward over the years. During the economic recession/housing debacle, many domestic horse owners, financially strapped and unable to feed their "hay burner" horses, turned these animals loose around our area and places like this. At least some of the horses and their offspring are running around Dayton, Fernley and Silver Springs, Nevada, turned loose by irresponsible owners.
As for adoption, self-proclaimed "horse lovers" who have the wherewithal and space to adopt, care for and properly train an impounded horse might consider doing so. For those skeptical of whether these horses can be trained, I highly recommend watching the documentary "Wild Horse, Wild Ride". You can stream this documentary from Netflix if you have an account. Some of the trainers are extraordinary, others quite ordinary. Judge for yourself, this is a very well done documentary that does not get into politics, ideology or the controversy surrounding the Wild Horse and Burro Act. The documentary also avoids depictions of the BLM impound facilities. Instead, the focus is about these horses, trainers and what the right care and training can actually yield.
Regarding the over-ranging and over-population of feral horses, the mistreatment of horses during aerial/helicopter roundups, life at a BLM impound facility and the politics of grazing rights in the Far West, each of these issues deserves public attention. The cost of beef and lamb is high enough now. Without inexpensive public grazing access, ranchers at Nevada and other Western States would have much higher overhead. The price for beef and lamb would go even higher...
Note: For anyone who thinks ranching is an easy, lucrative business, guess again. Yes, there is "industrial farming", the profitable hay and grain fed large cattle operations, but many rural ranches in the Far West are still family owned and hard working with dicey returns. You've got to love hard outdoor work and 24/7 weather challenges to sign up for this lifestyle. I grew up at Carson Valley, Nevada and knew many folks from that lifestyle.
So, enjoy my wild horse footage from the local area. These are tough, "real" animals on the range, and there are many more out there. If you really like wild horses, do your homework. Are you or anyone you know in a position to adopt an impound horse or burro? Consider saving an animal from the impound life and help reduce the crowding at these facilities. Otherwise, we do need to reach consensus on a sensible and better way to address this issue.
Footnote: We have always been an outdoor oriented family and enjoy the natural world. Four-wheeling for four generations now, some of us also ride single track on dirt motorcycles. Hiking and filming these feral horses on foot for a day was very gratifying. Wife Donna and I were pleased to share the wild horses and their habitat with our youngest grandson Camden, just a year old at the time. Separating politics and controversy from this engaging, visceral experience, it was a privilege to observe these animals in a natural setting, behaving much as they did eons ago at North America. We enjoyed watching the horses "do their thing", on their own terms. They brought us closer to our roots...We're grateful!