Horse Sense, Teaming Up on the Issue of Wild Horses
As far back as she can remember, Heritage senior Cialita Keys and her family have collected roots on the closed shrub steppe portions of the Yakama Reservation. The harvest of these precious first foods is a defining cultural tradition that connects Keys to her heritage. But over the years this Environmental Studies major noticed disturbing changes to the lands; the once-plentiful flora that had sustained her ancestors for generations was becoming harder and harder to find. At the same time, the population of wild horses roaming freely over the open land was growing. Could there be a connection, she wondered? And she wasn’t the only one.
“Our Yakama science students were coming to me and telling me they were concerned about the impact that the wild horses are having on the environment,” said Dr. Jessica Black, environmental sciences professor at Heritage.
This, thought Black, was the perfect study for a long-term, cross-generational research project that would bring together high school students and Heritage students with tribal elders and Yakama Nation scientists. The university partnered with the Yakama Tribal School and Yakama Nation Department of Natural Resources (YNDNR) and developed a project that would block the horses’ access to portions of the land so that the high school students could observe the impact of the restriction over time. Professors from Heritage University and Yakama scientists would teach the high school students the science behind the experiment, Heritage students would share their research on the subject, and tribal elders would tell their stories to help the students understand the cultural significance of the wild horses and the plants that grow in the region.
It is estimated that roughly 15,000 wild horses live on Yakama Nation’s 410,000 acres of shrub steppe—which may be far too many for the land to sustain. Overgrazing paired with the destruction that the horses’ hooves do to the land and tender young plants destroys the vegetation. The destruction of the flora means there are fewer resources available for the animals that depend on these plants to survive, and as Keys pointed out, fewer roots for the Yakamas to dig.
The situation presents an interesting dilemma that both scientists and students are considering. Both the horses and the vegetation have cultural significance for the Yakama people. How to manage the horse population is just one of the questions. The young budding scientists are looking first at whether the damage that is being done can be directly tied to the horses alone, and whether the shrub steppe will repair itself over time if the horse population is controlled.
“We know that there is an impact,” said Black. “The question is how much and how long it will take to recover.”
The project kicked off this winter when students from the high school went with scientists from YNDNR to build a 15-footsquare exclosure on the shrub steppe that will keep horses out of a control zone. Students used GPS to locate the areas for the structure posts, dug and set the post holes in the frozen ground, and enclosed the area with wire fencing. Using photo plotting, they recorded ground samples inside and outside the exclosure for comparisons over time. Later, in March and April, they returned to take more photo plot samples and noted the changes in their journals. Fifteen-year-old Adam Howell, a freshman, noted differences between the vegetation inside and outside the exclosure just a few months into the experiment.
“Inside we saw more things growing. There was more piling up of grass and sagebrush. Outside it looked like there was less vegetation, and it looked eaten,” he said.
The students will return to plot the lands three to four times annually. Plans are in the works to build a second exclosure in the future. Black points out that this is a long-term project, one that is expected to continue over the course of many years.
The horse project is an example of how Heritage is blending traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) into its academic programming. TEK approaches science with a mix of modern Western practices and the observations, stories and legends of indigenous people. As students learn about a subject, such as botany in the case of the horse study, they meet with tribal elders who talk about the cultural significance of what they are studying.
“There is a growing movement in academics to incorporate TEK into education for Native American students at all levels, from elementary school through college,” said Black.
This kind of experiential learning that incorporates TEK connects kids with the subjects they are learning in the classroom, their community and their culture, said Yakama Tribal School Principal Relyn Strom.
“A lot of our kids have taken an interest in the closed area, in the land itself and in preserving the land. It has sparked a lot of interest in learning and is engaging the students in their education,” she said.
For Black, the long-term value of projects like this will be realized as the students graduate from high school and set their sights on college.
“It is important that all students are exposed to STEM careers and that they have the opportunity to do real, meaningful research,” she said. “A lot of kids have thought about college, but there is a clear plan that they need to follow to be college ready by the time they graduate from high school. The sooner we introduce them to the concept of going to college, the sooner they can set their path and the more prepared they will be.”