The recent discovery of the skull and lower jawbone of an extinct species of large horse in Nevada has added another small piece to an extraordinarily complicated jigsaw that forms the picture of equine habitation in North America.
The new fossils belong to the extinct species Equus scotti, a large horse common in much of western North America during the Pleistocene Epoch – the “Ice Ages”.
The species has never before been reported in Nevada and the remains, dated at nearly 12,000 years in age, make them the youngest record of Equus scotti anywhere in North America.
Was this horse among the last of his kind to inhabit North America or did pockets persist even longer? Either way, the absence of horses from North America is but a blink in the eye in terms of the many millions of years they have inhabited the continent.
It is perhaps ironic that horses, reintroduced by the Spanish to the Americas in the 1500s, grew to become one of the icons of the United States. They were essential to the settlement and growing economic strength of the country.
Today, the place of the wild horses that roam the western rangelands is a contentious political issue. They are celebrated by many Americans as an symbol of their nation, but considered a nuisance by many ranchers, who feel they compete for grazing resources.
Politically, it a headache, with powerful farming interests unwilling to cede much ground to the dwindling numbers of wild horses still in the west.
Last week, a two-year independent review delivered harsh criticism of the wild horse and burro program run by the Bureau of Land Management.
The report by the National Academy of Sciences review team stated what just about everyone involved in the wild horse debate could agree upon: that the current program of capturing and stockpiling mustangs in long-term holding facilities is costly and unsustainable, soaking up an increasingly large percentage of the bureau’s budget.
The report further acknowledged that the strategy did not sit well with the American public, and that the bureau had not been transparent in dealing with the wild horse issue.
That US authorities have persevered with his strategy for so long is damning in itself.
Indeed, the review suggested that the bureau had not used sound science in forming its wild horse strategy, and that the removals were actually encouraging a much higher population rate on the range, as depleted herds built up their numbers again.
Essentially, the review listed criticisms that had been leveled at the bureau for years by wild horse advocates. On the whole, the bureau has appeared to pay them little attention, seemingly dismissing them as well-meaning but misguided horse lovers.
The review proposes much greater use of long-term contraceptive measures. This strategy has its support among horse advocates, but some have concerns. Their use is certain to change herd dynamics and more scientific work is undoubtedly needed in this field.
Politically, there is still the need to balance the management of wild horses with the needs of ranchers.
What is ultimately important, however, is that the conversation has begun.
New Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has had the shortcomings of the wild horse and burro program laid bare, and all parties seem to agree that a new approach is needed.
Let us hope that her department pays long-overdue attention to the views of wild horse advocates, who themselves must ensure that they take sound advice and good science to the table, and not emotion.
It is clear that US federal authorities have not been great custodians of the wild horses that inhabit the western rangelands. Now is the time to make amends.
What is needed is a transparent program based on good science, which is humane and cost-effective. No-one suggests it will be easy, but it is now clear to all that the status quo is not an option.