September 25, 2023

MAMMOTH LAKES, Mono County — Beneath the distant peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada, just east of Yosemite National Park, a bicyclist was pushing through a 100-mile road race last month when the unthinkable happened.

The 51-year-old rider ran, literally, into one of the biggest quandaries of the American West: wild horses.

Traveling downhill at 40 mph, the bicyclist was unable to avoid a group of mustangs crossing the highway about a two-hour ride from the mountain town of Mammoth Lakes. His bike broke in half as he collided with a large, brown horse, sending the racer into the roadside sage with several broken ribs and a collapsed lung, according to a preliminary accident report.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Tamara Bankson, organizer of the Mammoth Gran Fondo event and executive director of the Mammoth Mountain Community Foundation.

Top of story: A small group of horses runs through brush outside Lee Vining (Mono County).

Above: A stallion trots off River Spring Road outside Lee Vining (Mono County).

Carlos Avila Gonzalez, Staff Photographer / The Chronicle

Wild horses are a stately animal and an icon of the nation’s heritage. But they can also pose major problems. In several Western states, the herds have toppled pristine lands, commandeered the forage of livestock and ended up in unfortunate run-ins with humans. Restraining the horses while respecting their freedom, as required by federal law, has been an ongoing challenge.

The incident at the Mammoth Lakes bike race stands out because it marks a new outgrowth of wild horses in California, and it’s fueling a fresh round of debate about how to respond to the widely revered, yet sometimes nuisance animals.

Only over the past few years have the horses become a familiar sight in the eastern Sierra. They’ve pushed west from their historical stomping grounds in and around the White Mountains on the state’s remote border with Nevada toward a handful of California communities.

Scientists and land managers aren’t sure why they made the move. Finding food and water in a time of drought is believed to be one of the reasons.

Whatever the case, their arrival has begun to stir both wonder and worry among those living in the Highway 395 corridor on the Sierra’s eastern edge.

“It’s kind of cool because we’ve never seen the horses so close to town before,” said Margie Beaver, a longtime resident of Lee Vining (Mono County) who has witnessed dozens of horses congregating in front of the famous tufa towers at Mono Lake. “But you really got to think about the impact they have.”

Concerns about Mono Lake, road safety

Nora Livingston, lead naturalist guide for the Mono Lake Committee, points out grasses and other vegetation near a spring that are at risk of being trampled by wild horses.

Nora Livingston, lead naturalist guide for the Mono Lake Committee, points out grasses and other vegetation near a spring that are at risk of being trampled by wild horses.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez, Staff Photographer / The Chronicle

On the south shore of Mono Lake, one of the most popular landmarks in this high-desert region, the first sign of horses is the manure.

Earlier this year, the patties of waste got so plentiful amid the rabbitbrush and sage that volunteer crews at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve started hauling them out.

“We had a group of 20 that spent a whole day cleaning up,” said Mono County Supervisor Bob Gardner, among those who contributed shovel time. “We had a pile (of manure) about 3 or 4 feet high and 10 feet in diameter. That’s a lot of horse poop.”

While the dung may be unsavory, the larger concern at the vast saltwater lake is damage to wetlands and geologic formations. Researchers with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, UC Davis and the nonprofit Mono Lake Committee have begun conducting long-term surveys of the impacts of the horses. But already the toll is evident.