America’s wild horses: The conversation has begun

Lower jaw of Equus scotti, an Ice Age horse from Tule Springs.
Lower jaw of Equus scotti, an Ice Age horse from Tule Springs. © San Bernardino County Museum

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.

An artist's impression of the Yukon Horse, dating back 26,000 years. © Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre
An artist’s impression of the Yukon Horse, dating back 26,000 years. © Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre

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.

Wild horses running free.
Wild horses. © Cynthia Smalley

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.


Wild horses in the Owyhee management area.
Wild horses in the Owyhee management area. © BLM

9 thoughts on “America’s wild horses: The conversation has begun

  • June 11, 2013 at 1:43 am

    An extremely well thought out article. Thank you! As to the use of contraceptives…drugs are dangerous and have no place on the range or with wild animals. Not to mention that the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act requires the Secretary have a current census…She does not!

    We’ve been asking for a ‘visual’ census for a year or so now and they haven’t produced one. In fact their employees in Washington work tirelessly to avoid the subject saying an FOIA is required when clearly it is not by their own transparency rules.

    The NAS does mention that the computer program WinEquus is quite capable of producing numbers based on the data entered. The problem is the BLM enters the data and can make the results come out however they want.

    There is NO overpopulation of wild horses and especially burros so why would you even contemplate the use of dangerous drugs?

    • June 16, 2013 at 10:29 am

      The 1982 NAS report stated that WinEquus was flawed and put the actual population increase closer at 9 to 10%. This can be found on the AmericanWildHorsePreservation website. Furthermore, the specific issues with this system is that it treated all herds as if they all lived in the same eco-system whether there were predators or not and did not consider the number of horses that were capable of reproducing healthy offspring. Most significantly, it does not account for the first year mortality rate in foals.

  • June 11, 2013 at 7:30 am

    Stop all the roundups and birth control. There is no excess population of wild horses. With 70% of the herds belong genetic viability and sustainability they are being “managed for extinction” and this must stop now.

    • June 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      Wild horses/burros constitute only 1% of grazers on the public domain. Congress designated herd areas that BLM has converted to other uses and diminished the critical habitat necessary and imperative for genetic health on our cultural landscapes. The DOI is responsible for listing these herds as a special status species since Congress initially declared them special and wild. They are to be managed on their 1971 migratory ranges…that DOI overlooked.

  • June 12, 2013 at 7:18 am

    While the NAS report did point out something wrong with US wild horse and burro program, it was not the fine and thoroughgoing, honest and objective analysis I had hoped for. In the video summarizing some of the results and recommendations, committee chairman Palmer basically goes along with the lies that the BLM wild horse program have been purveying to the public for years: overpopulation, urgent need to reign in populations before they destroy the habitat, etc. So the upshot is for more bloody manipulation of the wild horses and burros through chemical sterilization of the stallions, more PZPed mares, etc. As a wildlife ecologist who appreciates the deeply native place and substantially positive ecologically restorative role of the returned native equids in America, and as one who gave much input to this committee at a professional level, I am very disappointed. I describe the solution in my book The Wild Horse Conspiracy, and it is not the “quick fix drug” approach, but actually taking responsibility for what has gone so dreadfully wrong and actually putting the wild horses and burros best interest at heart and making the sacrifices in terms of old outmoded and disharmonious lifestyles so that long-term viable and ecologically well-adapted populations of wild horses may be restored. By doing what’s right in regard to the horses and burros and their rightful freedom on their rightful land, for a change, humans will find they will also be helping themselves, though this must not be their reason for so acting. Please check out my book The Wild Horse Conspiracy (available on for my more detailed description of what must happen, i.e. restoration of herds, decrease in livestock, energy development, etc., in legal areas, and the implementation of intelligent and caring, by-wisdom-governed Reserve Design.

    • June 13, 2013 at 10:09 am

      Great response Craig. While I think this is at least a step in the right direction, I am so glad are out there calling out all the details that need to be addressed.

  • June 16, 2013 at 10:53 am

    According to the Gore-Clinton theory of Biological Diversity, it order to prevent extinctions of flora and fauna, only those animals and plants that co-evolved in the ecosystems where presently found should be allowed to live there. Their annointed scientist developed a hair-brained theory that the modern horse did not originate in North America, was some other species, and that the horse is non-native in any ecosystem in the United States. At this time this theory was being advanced is sciences that do not rely on evidence (essentially not sciences at all), paleoanthropologists, geneticists, geologists, biologists (the kind who look under microscopes), moleular biologists, were making all kinds of scientific discoveries based on new discoveries. But of course, why would mathematicians construcing models look at sciences that used evidence??? And why would scientists that rely on evidence and then perhaps test models based on evidence look at models created without any evidence? So, there were two parallel scientific universerves.
    The trouble is that the Clintonian-Gorish scientist is still active in the control of U. S. science and influential in international science.

    But this isn’t about science. If this were truly based on the necessity of including native species and excluding non-native species, our public lands would be filled with bison and horses, as well as burros, rather than sheep or cows. The BLM is in a difficult position because they are being forced to carry out a program that is at odds with almost any real science produced by real scientists anywhere. You can bet that whoever was chosen to present the NAS report was the least administratively hostile scientist in the room. These guys know better, but their tongues are tied.

    If we are going to reverse the status of our horses and burros as non-native, invasives that began when we elected air salesmen to the Presidency, we are going to have to stand up for the scientific work produced by scientists, not numbers people pretending to be scientists.

    When President Clinton signed the 1992 UN Convention of Biological Diversity in 1993, he created a mechanism for federal agencies to eliminate America’s native horses and burros. American scientists involved with the groups drafting the Convention had been throwing native horses and burros into the non-native cattle, sheep, goats, and other grazing livestock category. Not many people who read these articles and reports had much interest in the scientific facts regarding the horse, and since the other animals are generally known to have been imported these scientists were not made to prove their conclusions.

    After being confronted with legislative efforts to protect other native wild horse herds, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13112 the Alien Species Act and created a National Invasive Species Council with a 30 member citizen advisory panel who were far more interested in protecting birds such the Sierra Club, the Audobon Society, the Wilderness Society, Ducks Unlimited, etc. and corporations wanted in sell seed to farms and land developers than in following correct science helped to advance the notion that an animal whose ancestors were here from the pre-Eocene era, but who evolved here during the rapid climate changes during the Pleistocene period. The modern horse has a larger brain and enough genetic variation to allow the horse to make specific genetic adaptations to climate prior to birth.


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