The “Wild” Horse Issue
By Dr. Michael W. Fox
America’s wild horses or mustangs are not a native, indigenous species but an invasive, feral, formerly domesticated one. In one review on the origins of these beautiful, spirited and intelligent beings, “the disappearance of the horse in North America between 13,000–11,000 years ago” is noted. (Kirkpatrick, J.F., and P.M. Fazio. Revised January 2010. Wild Horses as Native North American Wildlife. The Science and Conservation Center, Zoo, Billings, Montana, (https://awionline.org/content/wild-horses-native-north-american-wildlife#)
Archaeologists have used ancient DNA samples to identify the genetic homeland of modern horses, where the animals were first domesticated around 4,200 years ago. They found that modern domestic horses probably originated on the steppes around the Volga and Don rivers, now part of Russia, before spreading across Eurasia, ultimately replacing all pre-existing horse lineages. (Librado, P., Khan, N., Fages, A. et al. The origins and spread of domestic horses from the Western Eurasian steppes. Nature 598, 634–640 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-04018-9).
The estimated 86,000 wild mustangs that roam the West are at the center of raging controversy between horse-protectors and ecosystem conservationists. (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/86000-wild-mustangs-that-roam-the-west-are-at-the-center-of-raging-controversy).
The Bureau of Land Management periodically accepts public comments on the proposed plans to reduce herds of wild horses. For details visit https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro/herd-management.
Widespread and overabundant feral horses and burros wreak havoc on the rangeland ecosystem by overgrazing native plants, exacerbating invasive establishment and out-competing other ungulates. As a result, water resources are impacted and important and iconic wildlife species are threatened. One evaluation found strong support for the interactive negative effect of elevated temperature and subsequent increased activity of horses at water sources on drinking patterns of pronghorn antelope and mule deer. These findings indicate that feral horses further constrain access to an already limited resource for native species in a semi-arid environment. (https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.2096).
Predation is one natural population control and cattle ranchers have virtually exterminated the main predator of equines, the cougar or mountain lion.
This entire feral horse issue is a mess and has been mishandled by state and federal agencies for decades who put the interests of cattle ranchers before those of humane treatment of these equines and sound range management with provision of feed and water especially during periods of extended drought.
Roundups and horse auctions have resulted in thousands of these beautiful animals being transported to Mexico for slaughter after slaughtering in the U.S. was prohibited following petitions by horse-protection associations. This is an instance of good intentions having unforeseen harmful consequences. Horses, sheep and cattle all graze differently and with good rangeland management over-grazing and habitat degradation can be prevented and all three species, at low densities, could sustainably co-habit. But most cattle ranchers see sheep, traditionally, and now the mustangs, as competitors to be exterminated, especially with the high demand for water and feed for their livestock with Climate Change extended droughts and extreme weather events.
It is the cattle industry and associated predator-extermination and not the wild horses that are a blight on public and most private rangelands. Humans have taken over the role of predators and, therefore, some reduction of horse numbers may be indicated along with cattle roundups and finishing for slaughter. Many captured horses can be adopted out to responsible horse and land owners and stallions vasectomized and released back into the wild to help with population control.
I support the humane population control of horses, including the protection of cougars (https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/natural-predators) in the ecosystems they share with antelope and mule deer-along with reduction in cattle and sheep. Throughout much of human history horses have served us and suffered. It should be a matter of national honor and public pride to protect wild horses by reducing their numbers to help restore natural biodiversity in their managed preserves-our “public lands”.
I received this insightful communication in 2021 from veterinarian Wayne Dollarhide:
A little history of the area where most of the “wild” horse problems are. There were historically no large grazing animals year-round in this area. Herds of deer, antelope, and elk migrated through the area spending only a couple months twice yearly in the area. There were no horses in the area in the mid-1800s, reference the book on the travels of John Freemont and personal family history. My family came through the area on a wagon train in 1857 and after a few years in north central California returned to the area and homesteaded in the 1860s. I grew up on the homestead ranch and was involved with it and other holdings until we sold in 1999.
As was my family, most of the settlers were from the southern Midwest where while there can be times that it is cold, livestock can usually survive without supplementing their pastures. Things were working relatively well for the settlers as they developed herds of cattle and flocks of sheep which they grazed on the high desert during the summer months and brought in to the lower elevation home ranches during the winter. Winter of 1886 was particularly severe and resulted in somewhere in the area of 85% of the livestock starving to death.
The ranchers now realized that it would be necessary to store food (hay) for the livestock during the winter months. While many of the settlers came west using oxen for draft animals, they were too slow compared to horses for larger acreage. This created a need for large numbers of draft horses. Ranchers imported some draft horses and began breeding and raising them to meet their needs.
These horses were ranged on the high desert and gathered twice yearly and at these times the young males were castrated and the three-year-old geldings kept on the ranch to either be trained for draft work or sold to other ranches for draft. Secondly there developed a huge need for lighter horses for the army to use as remounts so a second group of horses were also being raised and ranged in separate areas of the high desert. These were also gathered twice yearly to castrate the young males and bring in the castrated three- and four-year-olds to be trained for riding. This part of the raising horses continued through WW l then went away with the military using internal combustion engine power. The need for draft horses continued until the end of WW ll.
After the end of WW ll and the end of gas rationing, ranchers began acquiring tractors to replace horses and by the late 1950s seeing draft horses working became a curiosity. The decline of the use of draft horses accelerated during the Korean war, the combination of WWll and the Korean war left the area without enough men to accomplish the work needed on ranches. A ten-year-old boy with a tractor could do as much as two men with horses, a thirteen year old boy with a tractor could do as much as four men with horses. (that was me).
Due to decreased need for horses and lack of men able to gather those on the range, some started to interbreed and become feral. In 1953 the BLM gathered these horses and cleaned up the range. A few escaped but were kept under control by ranchers until the 1970s.
I will not pretend that ranchers did not, especially before the Taylor Grazing Act of 1936, abuse the range. Ranchers now are mostly well educated and work very hard to be good stewards of the land. Cattle are only allowed on the range from May to October and must be rotated twice yearly to give one third of their range a year rest. There are so few sheep left in the area that they are no longer a real factor. Since 1970s, when gathering the horses was outlawed, the horse population has exploded and since they are there year round, they are literally destroying the area and have done so to the extent that they are starving to death in winter. Starvation has become the limiting factor on their population.
I wish that I could take you out horseback and show you what these “wild” horses do to the environment. Unfortunately, I am to the age I no longer able to ride and no longer have horses. If you are truly interested in seeing this, we can probably arrange to take a UTV and see some of the damage.