Wild Horses and Wildlife: Our Precious Water Resources

Summer months in the West are very hot and dry. Each day, wild horse bands gather together to cool off and drink from the river.
Learn about how wild horses depend on fresh water in our rangelands and what is happening because of climate change.

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In these times of great uncertainty, we are constantly being bombarded with information about our health and the things that are necessary to keep us healthy. The pandemic of 2020 has pointed out how vulnerable we are, the importance of our connection to the natural world, and how critical it is for us to respect and care for her. 

With all the medicines and treatments that modern science has to offer, it is water that is the number one medicine in the world. But what do we really understand about water?  

We know that the chemical formula for water is H2O, and water is comprised of oxygen and hydrogen. That is easy to understand. We know that we need oxygen to breathe and that our bodies carry oxygen in our blood in order to feed our organs and to live. These are the things that we have been taught by conventional forms of education.  

But…. did you know that water is conscious? It is actually alive and ever flowing. And more importantly in need of our respect. These beliefs are those of the tribes of the Great Plains. Their understanding about protecting the sacredness of water are expressed through spiritual practice and ancient knowledge––knowledge that native peoples would be willing to share with the world if we were only open to listening. 

The world is facing many environmental crises and the biggest one is the onset of the megadrought that is encroaching and specifically targeting the western states due to climate breakdown. 

What will happen when the lands turn into desert from lack of water?

A Great Blue Heron is startled when a Spanish mustang mare drinks from the stock pond. Photo: Karla LaRive

In the Great Plains, wild horse rangelands depend on fresh water. Its rivers, streams, lakes and aquifers support natural habitats, species and plant life. All along the wetlands are varieties of wildlife species, flora and fauna that are interdependent with one another. The Cottonwood (Populus deltoides), the largest of trees in the Plains, is found along rivers and wetlands throughout the region. Their tall, hollow trees make ideal den sites for wildlife and birds.

Stock ponds and lakes are very important watersheds for all wildlife including, wild horses and waterfowl. Bird species like the Great Blue Heron will often fish amongst the cattails growing in stock ponds. The heron is a shy bird that migrates to the region in the spring to nest in colonies in the tall cottonwood trees along the river corridors. In the fall, and after the young birds mature, they will fly way to southern regions for the long winter months, awaiting their return. 

The cattails (Typha latifolia) found along the banks of ponds provide nesting habitat for blackbirds and some duck species. They are helpful in preventing erosion of dams and pond banks. The “hintkan” (cattail in Lakota) is edible if gathered at appropriate stages of growth. It is utilized as fiber for baskets, bedding and ceremonial bundles.  

A Dragonfly rests amongst the cattails at the lake. Photo: Karla LaRive.

Our life and history would not exist without our iconic wild horses and buffalo, along with other large fauna to the region, such as deer and elk and predators such as mountain lions, cougars and bobcats. The starling birds that migrate to the west and the iconic sage-grouse with their courting season dance… What will happen to them when the rivers and streams dry up and the grasslands disappear? How will this domino effect of desertification and destruction affect our health and well-being when the water is gone?

Even though we see ourselves as separate places, states and countries, the world is really all connected. What happens across the globe will eventually affect us, as we have learned through the pandemic of 2020. Whether it be through a disease such as Covid-19 or a mega drought out west, the loss of water will ultimately lead to habitat loss, which will lead to loss of biodiversity, and then ultimately desertification of our range lands. This will ultimately be our undoing for our health first, and then great economic downfall. 

Because much of the Western states consists of dry, arid regions needing freshwater resources, there is currently not enough water to go around nor waste. Proposed mining exploration and energy development have already threatened and destroyed many of our fresh watersheds. Natural aquifers that are a part of tribal communities most sacred sites are being fought over by uranium mining companies that are from across the globe.  

Fresh watershed is vital habitat for wild horses, wildlife and other riparian species. Wild horses enjoy the cooler fall days along the river. Photo: Karla LaRive

Native teachings show us that water is not a resource, it is a gift that is for our well-being and survival and to be cherished, respected and honored.  

Think back to the April 2016 the Dakota Access Pipeline or DAPL Protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota and surrounding Native American communities. They organized to stop construction of the oil pipeline, which put clean water from the Missouri River in danger. The Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) Leaders and many youths were called to action to stop the potential contamination of their ultimate water and lands. They rallied for direct and spiritual resistance to the pipeline, which was impeding their Indigenous sovereignty and cultural heritage… Believing so strongly in the sacredness of water and the need to protect it for our very survival that they were willing to risk their lives for it, as without it there is no tomorrow. 

In his July 2020 ruling regarding the Dakota Access pipeline, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg wrote that the federal government had not met all the requirements of the 50-year-old-law, which the administration is seeking to rewrite. The ruling means that the Army Corps of Engineers must conduct a more thorough analysis of how a leak could affect the watershed of the Standing Rock Reservation. 

In the heat of the summer, the mustangs take a dip in the cool stock pond. They will roll around in the mud to protect their themselves from the heat of the day and annoying insect bites. Photo: Karla LaRive

As a contemporary society with cutting edge science, modern technology and logic, it is the simplest of concepts that we take for granted that will be our undoing. We must learn from the wisdom of indigenous cultures as they are the keepers of the knowledge that speaks to the protection and the understanding of our planet, our home, Unci Maka (Mother Earth.)  We must continue to protect our precious water resources and keep them safe for future generations of natural habitat and people. Our health and our future depend on it!

About the Author: A long-time advocate for preserving the legacy of wild horses, Karla LaRive comes to the CANA Foundation with a background in photography, communications and marketing.

Her production company, PK Productions, LLC was founded in 2006 with a focus in media production, music management and cultural awareness. In 2015, PK Productions LLC was nominated for a Grammy (NARAS) for “Best Regional Roots Album” as Producer on GENERATIONS featuring Windwalker and the MCW. Her company has also won two Native American Music Awards (NAMA) in addition to other memorable music nominations… More on Karla.

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