Free-ranging horse management in Australia, New Zealand and the United States: Socio-ecological dimensions of a protracted environmental conflict
Management of free-ranging horses (Equus ferus caballus) is a complex socio-ecological issue in Australia (AU), New Zealand (NZ), and the United States (US). In these countries, horses are the results of colonial introductions and occupy very harsh rangeland environments exerting a grazing disturbance that has generated ecological concerns. Although many social and ecological concerns are similar, each country also has nuances. In 2018, we conducted a field-based comparison of AU, NZ, and US using an inductive approach to identify similarities, differences, and emerging themes through conversations with >100 individuals from New South Wales Australia, the North Island of New Zealand, and the western US. Additional data sources included field observations and archival documents. Consistent emergent themes identified included: strong public emotion, politicization of management, population growth concerns, negative ecological impact concerns, agreement that horses should be treated humanely, disagreement as to what practices were the most humane, interest and scepticism about fertility control, the need for transparency, compromise to accommodating horses and acknowledgement of social values, and recognition that collaboration is the only means to achieve both healthy rangelands and healthy horses. Unique themes identified included: NZ empowering advocate groups to become part of the solution, conflict between horses and livestock is a mostly US conflict, equids originated in the US, concern about the sustainability of adoption programs, different expectations/options for management on private lands, cultural history such as brumby running in AU, permanent branding of horses in the US, litigation as a uniquely US strategy (although a judgement on recent AU litigation is pending), government data accepted to guide removals in NZ but not always in AU or US, and complex heterogeneous land surface ownership patterns makes management difficult in the US. The difficulty of horse management in these countries is attributed to social intricacies rather than biological/ecological gaps of knowledge.