This year, wildlife ecologist and Mustang advocate Craig Downer has noted an intensification of attacks on America’s wild horses and burros by what he chooses to call “the establishment”.
Concurrently and probably in reaction to these attacks, an increasing revelation of the wild horses’ and burros’ greater story and justification for being here has occurred. As well as in the popular media, including television programs viewed by thousands, these attacks have appeared in supposedly fair and balanced, erudite textbooks, articles, and conservation magazines. These may present much information that is valid and important, defending various species and ecosystems, but when it comes to the naturally living horses and burros, suddenly an attitude of bias creeps in, causing a filtering of facts and a twisting of their interpretations in a deliberate order to discredit America’s wild horses and burros.
This discrediting downplays or ignores the importance of the deep origin and long-standing duration, involving thousands of generations, that present-day horses and burros and their ancestors have evolved throughout North America and right up to geologically recent times.
Generally, the claim that the horses disappeared at the close of the Pleistocene Epoch, or the Ice Age, around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, is made together with the claim that the ecosystem has changed to such a degree since then that the equids no longer have a legitimate niche or role to play here. This blanket statement then permits the detractors to pin the label of “destructive invasive, exotic species” on the wild horses and burros.
Though there is much credible evidence that horses survived in North America up until much more recent times, a more objective and expansive view of life’s evolution reveals that even 10 or 12 millennia amount to only a very tiny fraction of life’s history. It would be unreasonable to ignore the previous thousands and even millions of years during which equid ancestors played major roles in North American life.
The co-existence, co-evolution, and interrelating between these equids and North American plants and animals should not be so blithely dismissed.
Interrelationships between and among organisms and their species build communities and enhance life on Earth – and these are not simply erased. In spite of the vagaries of conditions on Earth, such as climate, and newly emerging or immigrating species, ecosystems persist through their resilience and an important part of this involves the re-establishment as well as the refinement of vital mutualistic symbioses, or ways of living together.
An additional important point is that wild horse and burro detractors often overlook the global nature of life’s evolution. This involves the interties between and among the various continents and their biomes. In other words, North American fauna and flora did not evolve in a vacuum but have experienced much interchange of species – a point particularly relevant to northern hemisphere continents and the repeated back-and-forth exchange of their equid species.
The various races of horses and burros that have returned to North America from Asia, Eurasia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere are, in fact, returning to their greater “cradle of evolution”. This is based upon millions of years of prior ancestry, which makes possible their ready adaptation to many of North America’s ecosystems, even those that have somewhat modified since the Pleistocene epoch.
The present ecological states are not so different from those of the past, as wild horse detractors like to claim. Both phenotypically and genotypically, the horse and burros have a great head start when they return to the wild because of the re-emergence of adaptive traits and behaviors that are suited to survival in North America.
Generally negative claims of those denying wild horses’ and burros’ place in North America often revolve around the view that modern horses and burros are not North American natives. Though this view is strongly opposed by many professionals, some continue to try to discredit the evolutionary place of wild horses and burros in North America, particularly in the West. This at times also reflects the policies of the institutions to which they are beholden.
Some publications show disrespect for wild horses and burros by labeling them “feral”, or escaped domestics, rather than “wild”. In doing so, they set the stage for a discrediting of these legally protected animals who, in fact, possess deep and long-standing North American roots. They ignore the fact that the horses and burros quickly revert to their respective “wildtypes” and that they do so by reviving instinctual behaviors and adaptations for survival that reflect their deep ancestral roots. Both horse and burro are much more natural than altered due to domestication by humans.
The adoption by some of the species’ name Equus ferus caballus purports to recognize a new species of horse, to wit: the feral, or escaped domestic, horse. Yet, upon escaping their human-imposed confines, these horses usually quickly revert to a nearly totally wild state. They become adapted to habitats that have much more in common than different from where their ancestors lived not only for thousands but millions of years. Also, they often readily interbreed with horses whose lineage has always remained in nature. These points prove that they are the same species: Equus caballus – not Equus ferus.
Genetic analysis strongly substantiates the long-standing evolution of the modern horse species in North America, dating back to at least 1.8 million years (Forsten 1992; Vila 2001).
While some critics of wild horses and burros state that “… the lack of research on burros has resulted in a general gap in our knowledge of this species”, there have been several significant field studies.
A recent study by Dr Erick Lundgren has shown how wild burros, as well as horses, sniff out and dig down to subterranean water sources, thus creating ponds of fresh water that become accessible to many other species of animals that would be unable to do this. These equid-created ponds can generate desert oases that are filled with many plants, including keystone willows and cottonwoods, as well as animals that otherwise would have a much harder time surviving in arid or drought-stricken areas.
In fact, wild burros, as well as wild horses, are returned keystone species. And although there are claims of a major difference between domestic and feral [wild] horses today and their non-domesticated ancestors (Fage et al, 2019 in chapter), other thorough analyses indicate relatively minor differences.
As opposed to being described as “feral”, the unanimously passed Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (WFHBA) clearly designated wild horses and burros as “wild”.
Regulatory tricks have been subverting the true intention of the WFHBA for many years. Such disregard for this law has been eliminating wild horses and burros from the majority of their legally declared habitats “where they were found” in 1971 on a year-round basis throughout the 52 years of the program’s operation. Originally, many more legal equine “ranges” on BLM-USDI and US Forest Service-USDA lands existed. Their true legal area should be equivalent to at least double the presently overly reduced Herd Management Areas (177 HMAs) on BLM and Wild Horse and Burro Territories (53 WHBTs) on Forest Service lands in the western states. As for their original legal acreages, by far most are now “zeroed out” of their original wild equid herds. This has occurred to the detriment of these ecosystems, which lack the healing balance as well as resilience, and enhancement of biodiversity that is brought about by these Perissodactyla herbivores (see Ripple, et al. op. cit.).
Another important point concerns the government’s duty to achieve fair “multiple use” on public lands. To ignore the fact that at present the wild horses and burros are grossly outnumbered and receive only a small portion of the forage allocation relative to, not only cattle and sheep, or livestock, but also to big-game animals is outrageous (see graph above; Eckhoff, V. 2020. Cattle vs. Wild Horses 2002-2018 All data by BLM; PEER 2022; also see the articles America’s rangelands deeply damaged by overgrazing, and Nevada has a very bad grazing problem).
This recent report compares livestock and wild horses and burros on US public lands and the tendency to fix the blame on the wild equids. Furthermore, America’s wild horses and burros should be protected under the National Historical Preservation Act, as they constitute a “living heritage/treasure” dating back to colonial and even pre-colonial times. Their unique lineages should also be protected by the Endangered Species Act.
A federal lawsuit filed in September by PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) is demanding that the BLM step up its range health protections.
Some television programs and magazine articles have disseminated alarming disinformation about wild horses and burros that equates them to destructive invasive species. One places them alongside such truly alarming invasive species as the Asian carp in the upper Mississippi and the wild boar on the Big Island of Hawaii. Since so many of the public land grazing permits are issued to multi-millionaires and their corporations, it is not hard to imagine that publications and broadcasts are subject to undue influence from these politically and economically powerful interests.
So many wild horse and burro herd reductions have been authorized in part under the “Multiple Use and Sustainability Act,” yet these reductions are perpetrating monopolistic uses by “permitted” public lands livestock ranchers, as well as mining and energy, hunting, land developing, and other interests at the direct expense of a relatively small number of wild equids and their relatively minor forage and water consumption. Also concerning is the approval of Off-Highway-Vehicle (OHV) races and recreational sites on public lands. One such is in the Conger Wild Horse HMA in western Utah on BLM land. Here OHVs are often allowed to devastate the natural serenity along with the habitats of wild horses and burros and other wildlife. (See photo below and this field report.)
I recommend reading a 2022 treatise by a Native American wild horse advocate and legal worker (see Barbour, T.J. 2022. Relabeling of Acreage Created the Overpopulation Myth of Wild Horses and Burros. (Published by Citizens Against Equine Slaughter, P.O. Box 115, Drain, OR 97435; email@example.com).
Over the course of the past 52 years, there has been an insidious “zeroing out,” or elimination, of wild horses and burros from the major portion of their rightful, legal Herd Areas on BLM and Territories on US Forest Service lands, involving many millions of acres. On top of this has occurred herd reductions to genetically sub-viable population levels. This has been “achieved” in collaboration with some of the wild horses and burros’ most inveterate enemies, through the assignment of inadequate “Appropriate Management Levels” (AMLs). The latter set the herds up for alarming future decline and eventual demise. Their demise is further assured when the remaining equids are subjected to major fertility control and sterilization programs that interfere with their basic physiologies, survival fitness, and ecological adaptations.
It is known, for example, that the largely untested and unmonitored sterilization drug PZP (Porcine Zona Pellucida) not only replaces natural selection with human selection but that those mares who have the weakest immune systems are precisely the ones for whom it is least effective. Hence, I predict it will not take many generations of PZP administration to have created a population with an extinction-bound, defective immune system. How this meshes with such major survival challenges as global climate change, environmental pollution and overpopulation by humanity may not be an easy or pleasant contemplation.
While we must not overlook the many illegal removals of wild horses and burros that occurred during the early years of the act, neither should we overlook how, in spite of an effort to fairly implement the WFHBA during the 1970s, since the early 1980s there has prevailed an extremely negative policy that aims to obliterate America’s wild horses and burros, regardless whether Republicans or Democrats are in power (see The Wild Horse Conspiracy, especially Ch. III: Injustice Toward America’s Wild Horses and Burros & What Must Happen; and its various reports and sources).
The recently published textbook Rangeland Wildlife Ecology and Conservation chose to show a few photos of wild horses in emaciated body condition as well as horses in difficult, mid-storm conditions where they had to paw through snow to obtain forage (a behavior often of great benefit to weaker animals). This ignores the great majority of wild horses and burros who are in excellent condition and do not live in such trying conditions. It did not acknowledge that wild horses and burros are often excluded from water sources and more fertile soil through the construction of fences.
The Feral Equines chapter in this textbook ignores the ability of these deeply rooted wild horses and burros to reactivate similar traits and behaviors that their more ancient North American ancestors possessed. These enable them to adapt and survive in North America, their greater evolutionary cradle, when contrasted to the Old World: Europe, Eurasia, Asia, and Africa. In this regard, (a) the great genetic variety of both horses and burros (as related to their deeply rooted inheritance) and (b) the difference between dormant and activated traits and behaviors associated with these genes should be given careful consideration. Both these factors enable a great plasticity in the wild horses and burros that, in turn, enables a greater adaptability to changes that have occurred since the great Pleistocene die-out or diminution of species around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. This also relates to the major changes that are now occurring due to Global Climate Change and the human population explosion of what many are now calling the Anthropocene epoch.
Other large ungulate species, including game animals such as mule deer, elk, bighorn, and pronghorn, and, of course, domesticated cattle and sheep, have distributions, numbers, and forage and water consumption totals that considerably outweigh those of the wild horses and wild burros. And burros consume considerably less than a horse, estimated at about one-half, although the BLM and US Forest Service frequently lump them together as though equivalent.
An extreme example of this imbalance is found in the vast two-million-plus acre Apache Sitgreaves National Forests of Arizona. Here the US Forest Service’s plan is to relegate the horses to a mere 19,700 acres with an AML of 50 low to 104 high for a mean of 77 wild horses. (See Heber Wild Horses of Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests with 40 Ecological Transect Results and Herd Description).
In many other countries where wild horses are scientifically investigated, a more positive view of their contributions to ecosystems is emerging. The international organization Rewilding Europe has promoted several successful projects in which naturally living horses are allowed to fill their ecological niches. These monitored projects are proving the substantial value of wild horses both to the natural community and to the people who live in and around them, also in terms of ecotourism.
Recently a thorough assessment of suitable habitats for rewilding worldwide by means of naturally living horses has produced some positive results. This has shown that horses fill vacant niches for medium-to-large-sized herbivores, which is very important in many ecosystems. This study was conducted by a team of ecologists and equine experts and took over a decade. Among other continents, it indicated that North America, including the western United States, is, in large portion, ecologically appropriate for naturally living horses in terms of soils, vegetation, topography, climate, and other ecological factors.
In the Rangeland Wildlife Ecology and Conservation textbook, a need is revealed to compare wild equid numbers, as well as the forage, water, and other resource consumption amounts with the same factors for domestic cattle and sheep as well as big game herbivores. This would provide a just perspective concerning what is happening on US public lands.
It is not enough merely to uncritically repeat that the equine numbers exceed the assigned AMLs without providing a greater range of factors. These include livestock and big game, mining and energy development, aquifer pumping for development of adjacent lands, vehicle disturbance, including OHVs and vehicle off-roading and predator elimination. (See this report from 2012 and updates; Eckhoff, V. op. cit; Downer, C.C. 2015. Pine Nut Mountain Wild Horse HMA/HA report for Friends of Animals, Darien, CT)
There are enough well-reasoned and substantiated points to justify an update of my earlier peer-reviewed treatise, The Horse and Burro as Positively Contributing Returned Natives in North America.
- America’s wild horses and burros are legally protected on a relatively small fraction of the public lands, and the currently herd-occupied habitats (HMAs on BLM; Territories on USFS) are considerably less than their original 1971 legal areas (called Herd Areas – HAs on BLM). These amount to only about 12% of all public lands on which private livestock are permitted to graze, drink water, etc.
- Privately owned livestock are allocated the great majority of the grazing resources on these public lands including within the legal habitats of the wild horses and burros, who are supposed to be the “principal” resource recipients within their legal habitats as per Section 2 c of the WFHBA.
- Wild horses and wild burros are being managed at substandard population levels according to criteria for genetic viability in the wild (see Duncan, P. 1992. Zebras, Asses, and Horses: An Action Plan for the Conservation of Wild Equids. IUCN Species Survival Commission, Equid Specialist Group. Gland Switz., p.5 for the recommendation of 2500 individuals for a viable equid herd in the wild – much less than most such recommendations for other taxonomic groups).
- Furthermore, land designated for wild horses and burros within the original legal areas has been and continues to be consistently reduced. This amounts to tens of millions of acres, conservatively estimated at 22 million acres, though many objective researchers put this amount much higher (McDonald, C., July, 2008).
- The fact that BLM only plans to “manage for” wild horses and burros on 26.9 million acres out of the original legal Herd Areas amounting to at least 53.8 million acres (some researchers put this at 88 million acres or higher) indicates that already at least half of their legal habitats have been taken away from them along with their rights to freedom. (See Downer, CC. 2014. The Wild Horse Conspiracy. Pp. 225-229.)
- America’s “national heritage” wild horses and burros are much more the sons and daughters of nature than the creations of humans. They benefit myriad plants and animals with which they have formed mutualistic relationships for, not just thousands, but millions of years including us “two-leggeds” and could do so to a much-needed and greater degree today – if we would only learn how to justly share the land and freedom with them.
- One immediate practical step would be to support and pass the “Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act” legislation that would allow many of America’s targeted wild equid herds to be restored to genetically viable populations. (See the 117th Congress HR 6935. Referred to Subcom. on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands – Tim Tiffany, office chair of Nat. Res. Subcom. Tel. (202) 225-5965 – ask this bill be reintroduced and that a hearing on it be held.)
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