Wild Horses: Native or Invasive Species?

wild-mustangs-gardner-ranch-californiaFor the past few months, I’ve been involved in a training course to become certified as a Texas Master Naturalist. It’s a program whose mission is to train a corps of well-informed volunteers to provide education, outreach, and service to help with the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities for the state of Texas. It has been a great experience, and I’m looking forward to starting my volunteer service — likely for the Katy Prairie Conservancy — now that the training portion is drawing to an end. Tuesday was our last class, and each of my class members was expected to give a 5-minute presentation on the topic of their choice.

Shockingly, I chose to talk about horses. I’ve been reading about and learning about the U.S. wild horse population for years now, ever since I went to the horse exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History many years ago and saw information about adopting a wild horse. I lived in NYC at the time, and I mistakenly believed this was the kind of “adoption” where you send some money and you get a picture to put on your fridge. It was the closest I could imagine getting to one of these creatures at the time, as when I learned that it meant really actually taking a horse home with you, I doubted the BLM would deem a one-bedroom in Brooklyn a suitable living space for a horse, wild or otherwise. Later, I learned about the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge from watching the movie “Wild Horse, Wild Ride,” which I still dream of participating in one day. I’ve even taken a course on how to gentle a wild mustang.

Clearly I have a lot of background in this topic. But the learning I’ve done in my Master Naturalist program has framed the issue in a new light for me, one I hadn’t considered before I started putting together this presentation. A huge part of what we’ve been taught in our training is about the role of native species and non-native invasive species in ecosystem management. Often this relates to plants, but it can refer to animals as well. (A really common example is European starlings, which were introduced by a man who was part of a society in New York in the late 1800s that decided we should import all of the species ever mentioned in Shakespeare. Starlings are all over the place now, and giving a lot of grief to Eastern Bluebird populations.) The problem with situations wherein a new species that not native to the area is introduced is that they compete with the natives for resources, and can choke them out. The native species are integral to the ecosystem, like plants that provide food for pollinators such as bees and birds, and if they are diminished, it can throw everything out of balance. If a food source for pollinators is decimated by an invasive species taking over, it can disrupt every level of the food chain.

When it comes to wild horses, almost all of them in the U.S. are under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), based on the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burros Act of 1971, which covers the management, protection, and study of horses on public lands. The BLM currently manages horse populations in ten states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming), where it manages herd numbers by rounding up horses in excess of what the land can bear (to prevent overgrazing, and all its attendant problems for long-term rangeland health, as well as so there is enough food for the horses remaining loose.) Currently, there are over 44,000 horses in BLM holding pens throughout these states, most of whom have never interacted with humans (and if they have, the experience has likely been unpleasant.) The cost to keep these horses is about $50 million a year — which is 2/3 of the BLM’s entire budget (they do a lot of other stuff besides manage horses). The Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burros Act prohibits the sale of these animals for profit (meant to prevent their sale for slaughter), and some of these horses are able to be adopted, but that’s not enough. The Bureau is now considering drastic measures, including wide scale euthanasia, to deal with the problem.

What I hadn’t realized, prior to working on this presentation, is that the BLM classifies the horses as a non-native species, and this classification frames its management decisions. Their mission is to protect native species from non-natives that would harm the land. If the horses are non-native, then they are viewed as part of the problem, not a valuable form of wildlife (not to mention an enormously symbolic one in American heritage) to be protected.

But are the horses really non-native? We all know that horses were brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s. The mustangs now roaming on BLM-managed public lands are the descendants of those horses, and are therefore technically “feral” — the term for animals from a domesticated species that have gone back to living in the wild — rather than truly “wild.”

However, fossil evidence has shown that horses did once reside in North America; in fact, it was a center of horse evolution. An excellent read on this topic is The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy Williams, which chronicles the fossil evidence showing the North American horse’s evolution through millions of years as it adapted to drastic changes in climate and the subsequent rise of the grasslands, and evolved from a four-toed creature to the one-toed creature we ride today.

For reasons not entirely understood, after millions of years of evolution and adaptation, the fossil record indicates that the North American horse became extinct here around 13,000 to 11,000 years ago. Luckily, animals from the genus Equus had already migrated, via land bridges, to other parts of the globe: Asia, Africa, and Europe — making them available to the Europeans, who reintroduced them to North America in the 1500s.

And herein lies the crux of the debate into whether these animals can be considered native or non-native: Is the species that was brought by Europeans to the Americas (Equus caballus; the horse as we know it today) the same species that was present in North America 13,000 – 11,000 years ago and became extinct?

Both fossil evidence and the emerging science of studying mitochondrial DNA seem to answer that yes, it was the same species. This article goes into great detail on the subject, and provides citations for the research being conducted, but the main points are these:

  • The fossil record indicates that Equus caballus is about 2 million years old, that it originated in North America, and that there is no evidence for its origination elsewhere.
  • While the genetic analyses of mitochondrial DNA do not indicate the origination of the Equus caballus species, it does indicate that it underwent genetic divergence around 200,000 to 300,000 years ago — from which we can extrapolate that if it was present that long ago, surely it originated earlier than the 11,000- to 13,000-year time frame given by the fossil record for North American horse extinction.
  • Furthermore, the study of many species’ genomes has led to the reconsideration of much of our taxonomy — showing that animals we believed to be related may not be, and showing that we have perhaps been overzealous in species splitting, creating subspecies based on observational differences that are not reflected on a genetic level. This seems to be the case with horses as well. Genetic analysis indicates that Equus caballus is genetically equivalent to Equus lambei, the horse that according to the fossil record was the most prevalent and recent species in North America prior to extinction.

Does this information make any difference to the 40,000+ horses now sitting in pens awaiting slaughter? Not likely. But this points to a serious gap between scientific research and the management decisions made by the governmental agencies in charge of the protection of our public lands. It is vital that this gap is closed, and that we begin using fact-based evidence to manage our lands and natural resources — not just the bottom line of a corporation, or the rhetoric of a politician, or the hysterical ranting of people on the Internet who think they are “raising awareness” but who are, in fact, fear mongering and spreading ignorance.

As a final thought, I’ll leave you with this quote from the Texas Master Naturalist curriculum textbook, by Gregory Bateson, an English anthropologist:

The major problems in the world today are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way people think.

As a naturalist, I am committed to continuing to form an understanding of how nature works and to educating others. I believe this is important in order for us to work in concert with nature to both further our goals as human beings and protect the land we live on for ourselves and its other inhabitants.

 

 

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Technology of Taming

Back when I was still riding in Brooklyn, I wrote about how I’d heard of an internship program out in New Mexico for taming wild mustangs. I was very demoralized at the time, feeling trapped in my life there and like I’d never have the opportunity to do something like that.

Life is quite a bit different now than it was then. I’m now a freelancer instead of a commuter, and it gives me the opportunity to move around and explore the country in ways I’ve only dreamed of.  It’s opening me up to looking at what is really important to me and forcing me to give up the excuses and take action.

To that end, I recently completed the online course offered by the mustang camp that does the internships. I wasn’t able to go out there and learn in person, but you have to work with what you have in front of you.

The course was focused on using the principles Applied Behavior Analysis to taming and training wild mustangs. The skills taught can be generalized to any animal, but Mustang Camp is a non-profit organization focused specifically on the preventing cruelty to the wild horses that are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management each year.

In 1971, Richard Nixon (who, despite being an extraordinary slimeball, turns out to have left a legacy of environmentally-friendly policy including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of Clean Air Act of 1970) signed into law the Wild Horse and Free-Roaming Burro Act, which covered the management, protection, and study of “unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands in the United States.”

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service now manage these herds, but it requires a difficult balance to prevent the herds from overwhelming the small amount of public lands available to sustain them. The solution since 1973 has been to round up excess horses and to adopt them out to private owners.

You can adopt a horse directly from the BLM for only about $200 if you have the required facilities; they have an internet adoption site  that I look at all the time and fantasize about bringing a mustang home. However, these are wild animals that have had very little–and often unpleasant–associations with humans.

The BLM therefore has a program where it sends its horses out to trainers who gentle the animals and then adopt them out to private owners. (I wrote before about the movie “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” that chronicles the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, wherein 100 people take home 100 horses for 100 days and then showcase them at a competition and auction). On a much smaller scale, this is what Mustang Camp does. Using humane techniques based on teaching the animals rewards and consequences, the horses are trained to accept human touch, allow grooming and veterinary care, and willingly board a trailer.

I would have loved to get out to New Mexico for a month to get the hands-on experience, but it just wasn’t feasible. Perhaps sometime in the future. But in the meantime, the online course was challenging and interesting, giving me new insight into animal behavior that I have brought to my interactions with horses as a rider. (It also has brought new insights into interactions with my cats. As I said, the principles are good for all kinds of animals; cats are notoriously independent and sometimes seem all but untrainable, but that’s not really the case).

It also felt good to be getting training/education in an area that has always fascinated me: animal behavior. Doing the readings and working on the assignments brought me back to how much I enjoyed my grad school courses and makes me wonder if now’s the time to go back to school for a career change. Actually, it wouldn’t be so much a career change as it would be returning to the field that I started out working in as a teenager: environmental education and wildlife conservation.

TechTameJessicaFilippi