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Most people, even some so-called ‘scientists’, who enter into the debate on the causes of the degradation of range-land and riparian areas have some gaps in their understanding as to the evolutionary origins and differences between wild horses and cattle as well as the mechanics of soil compaction and disruption.
Then there are cases where scientists do have an understanding of the truth, however they intentionally obfuscate such information in their discussions and reporting to some degree or another in order to support the needs of the entities funding research and subsequent published studies. Some folks would call this ‘intellectual dishonesty’; where researchers know the truth but spin the debate towards a predetermined outcome.
Too often today we find many academic institutions funded and motivated by industries or organizations which have either a political or monetary reason (sometimes both) for seeking an ultimate result in a study or thesis, which they may fund via a grant or subsidy.
Department professors are very keen on who has and controls the grant money and how to get that money, which in some cases involves some level of helping to support some form of a predetermined end-result or thesis.
Many times, when examining a newly published study, a professor will first turn to the back pages to see who funded it, even before looking into what is posits.
And as most people in the academic world know, he who has the money makes the rules these days. Going against the grain, even when following the noble effort of discovering and illuminating the truth can in some cases lead to a severe lack of funding. As a result, many inquires of various subjects are scantly funded, and the ones available posit positions that tend to skew in favor of supporting the position preferred by the funding entity.
This is no stretch of the truth, the foregoing is a serious and genuine issue as is cited by the National Institute of Health, and is pervasive in most academic disciplines.
So this brings us to the politics and money related to the cattle industry, where in the west (at least until recently) the livestock industry controlled politics with an iron fist. However, now there are many industries which are much larger and which have some competitive interests in regard to the uses of public lands and natural resources. This has led some people in the livestock industry to resort to the promotion of junk science. And in some cases, we are even seeing examples of so-called scientists attempting to defend studies based on junk-science using obfuscated and sophisticated arguments designed to confound most people, but really just boil down to a ‘liar-liar pants on fire’ defense of a study or thesis.
In the case at hand, where the livestock industry has desperately attempted to paint wild horses as the Tyrannosaurus Rex of all rangelands and riparian areas, we find that the allegations are not only absurd, but are completely unfounded when examined under the scrutiny of hard science.
For the purposes of sustainable and highest, best use of our public lands, it is absolutely essential to have a clear understanding of the evolutionary sciences behind the vast differences between horses and cattle and how these different species affect the American landscape, especially its rangelands, forests and riparian areas.
So with that said, here are some well-supported truths that set the foundation and provide the insights that allow a clear understanding of the grazing dynamics that separate cattle from wild horses on public lands.
First off, the livestock industry has spent an inordinate amount of capital and energy trying to convince average Americans that wild horses are not a native species that evolved in North America, which is a false and reckless agenda given there are only about 107,000 wild horses left in America, and 50,000 of those are held in captivity.
The fact is, wild horses are a native species that evolved in North America when there were no horses anywhere else on the planet.
The paleontological record of the evolution of wild horses is incontrovertible and native American horse fossils are located in many locations across America and greater North America.
The curator of vertebrates at the prestigious American Museum of Natural History, Professor Ross MacPhee, makes no bones about the fact that wild horses are a native species in America. And in a transcribed lecture lambastes the BLM for promulgating lies about the origins and native status of American wild horses.
It is interesting to note, there is not a single cow fossil anywhere in North America, and that is because cattle evolved offshore from the North American continent and were initially imported from overseas countries in the late 15th century.
There are many cultural and historic records that also support the existence of wild horses in parts of America before the arrival of reintroduced horses from overseas in the late 15th century.
Once such record is a very interesting scholarly document that was submitted to the Congress of the United States by Ms Claire Henderson from the History Department – Batiment De Koninck Laval University, Quebec City, Quebec Canada. That document was titled ‘The Aboriginal North American Horse‘, which offers some very compelling historical and cultural archaeological evidence for American wild horses predating the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas.
Then we have the genetic data that is now forthcoming with the advent of the relatively new discipline in science known as molecular biology, which is the science that allowed the latest understandings of the human genome.
There are numerous genetic studies now that point to the fact that wild horses in America today are a native species. This article discusses that subject in depth, and in short states: “The work of Michael Hofreiter examining the genetics of the so‐called E. lambei from the permafrost of Alaska, found that the variation was within that of modern horses, which translates into E. lambei actually being E. caballus, genetically.” (M. Hofreiter, M., Serre, D. Poinar, H.N. Kuch, M., Pääbo, S., Ancient DNA. Nature Reviews Genetics. 2(5), 2001, pp353-359). Thus, as Hofreiter adds, “the molecular biology evidence is incontrovertible and indisputable, and is also supported by the interpretation of the fossil record, as well.”
There is further reading to the same point here.
And like any other native species on the North American landscape, wild horses have many mutualisms within the ecosystems where they exist.
Of all the large herbivores that currently roam the American rangelands, horses are the only large grazing herbivores that have a single stomach. This is very important in that, unlike other large grazing herbivores, wild horses (horses) have comparatively poor digestive systems and as a result, most of the grass and plant seeds that they eat pass through their digestive systems and are deposited back onto the range intact and ready to grow, integrated with a source of nutrients by way of the manure. Many gardening articles speak about this phenomenon as a problem because in the home garden it is all the undigested grass and plant seeds that can be a nuisance if you’re not looking to cultivate various random grasses and plants. This is in stark contrast to herbivores that are ruminants (such as cows), which have very effective digestion as a function of complex stomachs capable of fermentation, which breaks-down and digests a greater percentage of grass and plant seeds.
“Ruminants are mammals that are able to acquire nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it in a specialized stomach prior to digestion, principally through microbial actions. The process typically requires the fermented ingesta (known as cud) to be regurgitated and chewed again. The process of rechewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called rumination. The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin ruminare, which means “to chew over again”. The roughly 150 species of ruminants include both domestic and wild species. Ruminating mammals include cattle, goats, sheep, giraffes, yaks, deer, antelope, and some macropods.” – (from Wikipedia)
As we consider these facts, it becomes obvious that ruminants which exist and graze American biomes do not effectively pass viable seeds back onto the lands they have grazed, and therefore leave only feces behind.
Clearly, the relationship between the biomes of rangeland and alpine meadow grasses and wild horses is mutually beneficial and is a true mutualism that is the result of co-evolution over many millennia. The wild horses are nourished by the grasses, who in turn benefit from the spread of their viable seeds mixed with a nutrient rich manure back onto the soils and distributed over relatively large areas. This reseeding of the rangeland is accomplished effortlessly by wild horses and their nutrient-rich droppings help to rebuild damages soils.
NOTE: The photos here that show cow claw and horse hoof penetration depths in a native pasture, were all taken in the same immediate area (by the author) where cattle and horses had walked in a native pasture on the same morning.
Now we arrive at the simple mechanics of the evolutionary hoof designs of horses and cattle, and how each design uniquely impacts the soils in our forests, range-lands and riparian areas … and this is straight-forward and easy to understand for anyone who has used basic digging tools.
The photo above shows the underside of a cow’s hoof, which as we see, has what are termed as pointed claws. Like the point of a pick-axe tool, the points on these cow claws are very effective at penetrating deeply into soils, especially soft or wet soils. We also note that these claws present a relatively small surface area (pounds/square inch loading) upon which the entire weight of the cow is supported. And this point is obvious on its face.
The photo above is an example of what a cow’s claw does in soft pasture as a result of the shape and high ground loading (weight/surface area of claws). As we see, the cow that made this imprint (weight est. 800-900 pounds) penetrated the soil at least five inches deep.
The above photo is another imprint from a cow claw on the same soil in the same area as above. As we see, the depth of soil penetration is about five inches.
Now we turn to the design and effect of the horse’s hoof on soils.
In the photo above we see the underside of a horse’s hoof. It is distinctly different from the cow’s claw in many ways that protect the soils where they tread. First off, the shape is as we see rounded and the surface area is relatively large (lower ground loading in pounds/square inch). The hoof is dished-in on the underside (concave) and that shape tends to trap water and air under the hoof and allows it to ‘float’ hydraulically on the soil instead of piercing the soil like the pick-shaped cow claw.
As we see, the hoof in the photo above has a lot of surface area compared to the cow claw, and that greater surface area distributes the weight of the horse over more area on the soil, which limits the penetration of a horse’s hoof into the soil.
In the photo above we clearly see the horse hoof makes an impression in the soil of less than one-inch deep (same area/soil which contained cow imprints). The horse that made this imprint in the photo above weighed about 800-900 pounds (similar to the weight of a cow), which is a typical weight for an adult wild horse.
In the photo above, another horse’s hoof imprint in the same area (same soil) shows little penetration into the soil.
In the photo at right we clearly see the aggregate damage of a few cows tracking through the same area of soft springtime pasture. The damage to the soil is undeniable and was the result of two cows and a calf.
As can be seen, the claws of cattle are devastating to soft soils, and this of course extends even more so to their ability to devastate riparian areas.
Wild horses co-evolved with deer, elk, moose and caribou (‘cervids’) on the North American continent. Over the millennia they developed mutualisms within the various ecosystems where they lived, and unlike cattle, native wild horses are ideally adapted to live in nature in North America. In fact, another interesting evolutionary advantage that wild horses have is their immunity to the prion-based disease that causes the deadly mad-cow disease in cattle and chronic wasting disease in cervids.
If the cattle industry wants more grazing then they should just say so and end the false narratives about wild horses.
Honesty is always the best policy.