Musters blamed for declining genetic diversity in Colorado herd

Wild horses in Colorado.
Wild horses in Colorado.

Genetic diversity in Colorado’s Pryor Mountain wild horse herd has declined, a geneticist says.

The Cloud Foundation blames roundups staged by the Bureau of Land Management for the decline.

For over thirty years, the genetics of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Herd have been tracked by equine geneticist E. Gus Cothran.

His first revelations linking the herd to the horses of the Spanish Conquistadors and Old World Iberian Horses were cause for celebration among local supporters of the herd, who long believed that the appearance of some Pryor horses were indicators of their Spanish ancestry.

Cothran indicated in earlier reports that the genetic diversity of the herd was good.

But his latest report, issued on August 22, reveals a herd at risk of losing genetic variability.

Cothran said that “compared to past sampling of this herd, variability levels for all measures has been in decline”.

He said the expression of the Spanish heritage is “stronger than seen recently”, but it could represent “the very beginning of evidence of inbreeding”.

The Cloud Foundation’s executive director, Ginger Kathrens, whose documentaries about the Pryor stallion, Cloud, brought world-wide attention to the herd, said she had feared the loss of genetic diversity since 2009, when the bureau announced plans to reduce the herd to population levels not seen in many years.

In response, the foundation filed a lawsuit against the bureau in 2009, challenging what it believed was a dangerously low appropriate management level (AML), asserting that such low population would damage the genetic diversity of the herd and put the animals at risk of inbreeding and eventual die-off.

The lawsuit was expanded to include the Forest Service in 2010, when it announced plans to build a two mile long, buck and pole fence on the border between bureau and Forest Service lands atop East Pryor Mountain.

The fence was completed in 2011 and denies wild horses access to thousands of acres of high quality, late-summer and fall meadows, the foundation says.

The litigation is still pending in Federal Court and it is believed that a verdict will be rendered before the end of the year.

“We’re at the point where it is imperative that the Bureau of Land Management work closely with both the Park Service and the Custer National Forest to increase the range for the Pryor Mountains,” Kathrens said.

“Unless the range can be expanded it will be difficult to allow for a significantly larger population.”

Cothran concluded his Pryor report: “The best way to maintain the current levels [of genetic variability] would be to increase population size if range conditions allow.”

The foundation said the problem of declining variability was not unique to the Pryor Mountain wild horse herd.

More than 70 percent of all western wild horse herds were managed at levels under 200 horses and faced the same threat, the foundation said. However, most herds occupied much larger acreages, but competed with privately owned livestock.

On these ranges, the wild horses receive less than 18 percent of the forage, with the rest available to livestock.

Kathrens called for more forage to be allocated to mustangs.

“If BLM continues their business-as-usual approach to wild horse management, we will begin to see significant inbreeding,” she said.

“I have been talking about the need for larger herds in order to maintain genetic viability for 15 years. Maybe now, with this very clear report on Cloud’s Pryor Mountain herd, mustangs will actually be given a fair share of forage on their legal ranges.”

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One thought on “Musters blamed for declining genetic diversity in Colorado herd

  • September 24, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Back in 1934, the ranges were in such bad shape, so overgrazed the Bureau of Land Management was formed to manage the grazing, the mining, the water, wildlife – everything that walked or resided in or needed the land. In order to have good input to BLM for such management, boards of advocates were created to monitor information being supplied and policies being developed. Well, guess what – most of the seats were ranchers or paid “grunts.” In 1971 responding to the murderouos and unreasonable behavior of ranchers wanting extra money for the slaughter of the wild horses, the wild horses and burros were placed under protection of the American citizen and BLM was appointed administrator of the wild horse and burro program. Since that time, there has been a huge conflict of interest, for obvious reasons. The vendors who are siphoning off millions of taxpayer dollars each year to roundup, process, vet, transport and maintain long term holding are all ranchers or their ilk. The only exception was the holder of the license for PZP, the pig uterine derivative which was so badly administered, it did nothing to control the population but cost the American taxpayer millions.

    When reporters start asking for the truth, we can all work on the solution. As long as this facade of information pandering continues, the controversy and deaths of beautiful WILD horses and burros will continue. These horses are as wild as elk, deer, bear, lions – but they resemble the manmade freaks known as dometically bred horses and so are treated as badly as any horse on its way to slaughter. The roundups have been so devastating to the poipulations that we will soon start seeing recessive traits, bad tempers, bad confirmation coming in.

    We do need a moratorium on these roundups. The Americna public has got to be fully informed and equestrienne scientists and horse culture participants engaged to provide a safe and realistic management of these beautiful WILD animals. They have all kinds of protection, they are designated wild non-game animals. The National Academy of Sciences has performed a two year review of BLM’s management – they say the program is tattered and besought with prejudice and needs SCIENCE. Anyone who has a horse knows that. You cannot go out and golly gosh your way around a horse. You have to study and learn and do the right thing and all will be well on its way to a successful outcome. This is what the wild horses and burros need.


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