Your Horse Can Help Orcas
and helping orcas can help you!
By Michael Hipp, Farm Planner – Sound Horsekeeping
Horses are responsible for saving many things over the thousands of years they have been with us – from soldiers in battle (and recently for soldiers recovering from battle and PTSD) to saving farmers plowing the plains on the frontier. Horses are our companions in working cattle on the range, our friends on quiet mornings to enjoy the sunrise, our personal therapists in times of struggle, and our family when all others are far away. They have the ability to be and do many things, and one of the things we have found they can do is to help save our orcas.
Orcas live in communities called ‘pods’. There are two main types of pods – transient and resident. Transient pods are occasional visitors to Puget Sound and travel the Pacific and other oceans in small groups of 2 – 6 individuals feeding on everything from fish to larger mammals such as sea lions. Resident orcas inhabit the inland waters of British Columbia and Washington. The resident orcas are divided into two subgroups, the northern, which range from SE Alaska to Vancouver Island, and the southern, which occupy greater Puget Sound. Both of these resident pods feed only on salmon, primarily Chinook .
The Help That Orcas Need
As stated, our resident orcas feed only – yes, only – on salmon, primarily Chinook salmon. The number of Chinook salmon in Puget Sound has been reduced 60% since 1984 primarily through loss of habitat, which includes reduction in water quality and quantity in our rivers and streams where they spawn . This decrease in food supply has directly contributed to the orcas reaching a 30-year-low population in 2018 . So, the best way to help the orcas is to increase their food source. To do that we need to focus on ensuring good salmon habitat by improving water quality and quantity.
Where It Begins
Clean and abundant water actually begins on the land, with healthy soil. By improving the nutrients and nutrient balance in the soil, we can reduce runoff of excess nutrients that leads to eutrophication and other water quality issues. By improving the growth of grass and their roots and following good-use practices to reduce compaction, we can improve soil tilth - which in turn improves infiltration to ground water - increasing the amount of water feeding rivers and streams. And by improving vegetation, we can reduce surface erosion and nutrient/pollutant contamination – aka stormwater runoff – one of the largest impacts to Puget Sound.
How Your Horse Helps
Every horse owner I know agrees that there are two things that horses do naturally and are very good at – eating and pooping. And it is actually by doing these two things that horses can help orcas the most…with our help, too, of course.
Horses produce some of the best nutrient-rich manure of any livestock animal. When properly composted, this manure can be used as a soil amendment to improve nutrient balance and soil tilth. Doing this will also improve the growth of pasture grasses and vegetation.
Horses are also some of the best grazers of any livestock. By controlling their grazing with good grazing practices, such as rotational grazing, you do two important things: 1) you keep the grass in a vegetative state which allows the grass to take up excess nutrients in the soil, and 2) you keep the grass in a healthy vegetative state, increasing leaf production and photosynthesis, which helps the plant produce a more vibrant root system to reduce compaction and improve infiltration. Grasses with increased photosynthesis capability also take up more carbon dioxide, which helps to reduce ocean acidification, improving the habitat for salmon and orcas.
How You Can Help
There are many ways you can help your horse do the things it can do to ultimately help the orcas, such as:
Compost horse manure and use it to amend your soil.
Practice rotational grazing to improve the vegetative state of your grasses.
Establish and construct heavy-use areas to contain your horse and protect your pasture during the winter months.
Fence off streams and creeks (even the seasonal ones!) to keep your horse from damaging streambanks and leaving manure, which increases sediment and impacts water quality.
Consider adding hedgerows and buffers around streams and creeks to filter any runoff from pastures and provide habitat for beneficial wildlife.
Add gutters, downspouts and underground outlets to divert clean rain water from heavy use-areas, paddocks and pastures.
How All This Can Help You
There are many things that we do for our horses that, on the surface, don’t seem to return anything to us. It is very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day chores of mucking and turnout, and lose sight of our impacts to the environment around us. With that in mind, I want to end on an encouraging note because, yes, doing all these things to help your horse protect threatened large marine mammals – like our resident orcas - can also help you in many ways.
Composting to improve soil health will reduce erosion and increase water infiltration which will reduce wet pastures and mud around your property.
Composting reduces odors and improves the atmosphere around your stable.
Composting reduces parasites that can infect your horse, decreasing medication and vet bills.
Installing gutters, downspouts and underground outlets will reduce mud and soil loss from your pastures.
Creating heavy-use areas outside of stalls, around water troughs and at gates reduces mud and improves hoof health, reducing farrier and vet bills.
Fencing off streams and creeks (even seasonal ones!) reduces soil loss from your pasture and protects the established path of a stream/creek, preventing it from meandering into pastures. Fencing also protects your horse from consuming water from unknown sources, possibly reducing vet bills.
Utilizing good grazing practices increases grass and forb vigor, which can reduce the amount of hay you need to buy in season.
We Are Here For You!
If you would like free assistance making your farm ‘orca-friendly’ and more chore-efficient, please contact us. Our farm planners are here with the expertise and, in some cases funding, to help you and your horse help the orcas…which, in the end, helps us all.
1. “Resident and Transient Orcas”, Port Townsend Marine Science Center, retrieved 11/21/2018. https://ptmsc.org/programs/investigate/citizen-science/completed-projects/orca-project/resident-and-transient-orcas
2. “Chinook Salmon”, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Salish Sea, retrieved 11/21/2018. https://www.epa.gov/salish-sea/chinook-salmon
3. “Pacific Northwest Orcas Population Hits 30-Year-Low”, The Smithsonian Institute, Smart News, retrieved 11/21/2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/pacific-northwest-orca-population-hits-30-year-low-180969582/