The refuge was established decades ago to protect species including pronghorn antelope. But, according to Paul Steblein, project leader at the refuge, wild horses are trampling the native grasses and other plants, degrading springs and streams and eroding soil and ground cover vital to antelope and protected species such as the sage grouse.
He said the refuge staff fenced off one-acre plots to keep the horses out of those areas while still allowing antelope and deer in. He said within two months, grass inside those enclosures was 18 to 20 inches high while the growth outside, where horses grazed, was a half inch.
Although a wild horse management program currently exists at the refuge, according to refuge staff the number of horses is still too great, so refuge management is proposing to remove a larger number of horses through adoption and/or auction.
“What we’re talking about is having one place in the West that has great sagebrush habitat, where wildlife species that are declining can prosper,” Steblein said. “If we want to preserve the natural heritage of the Great Basin, Sheldon is a critical refuge for conservation, and the wild horses make that impossible.”
In the past there has been a great deal of controversy regarding horse round-ups at Sheldon NWR, with groups such as the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign posting disturbing photos that they claim were taken during a round-up, showing stressed and injured horses, as well as orphaned and abandoned foals. Round-ups by the Bureau of Land Management have also met with public outcry over the way in which the round-ups are managed and the time of year in which they are conducted in relation to foaling season.