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Experts propose a new strategy for managing wild horses

A new study led by the University of Wyoming and Oklahoma State University has argued that the U.S. federal government’s management of wild horses will likely fail without major legal and policy changes. 

According to the experts, since contrasting societal views have led to an approach which simultaneously manages horses on the range as wildlife, livestock, and pets, current government programs of managing wild horses are incapable of succeeding.

“For the federal government to sustain healthy populations, ecosystem health, and fiscal responsibility, lawmakers must properly define how feral equids should be labeled. Each label (wild, livestock, pet) has validity, and management plans can be implemented to optimize equid populations with other land uses. Furthermore, providing a clear definition of feral equids will determine the legal tools that can be applied for their management,” the authors explained.

Although the fossil record provides evidence that there were horses in North America previously, they went extinct about 10,000 years ago. Thus, the horses that currently inhabit the continent are descendants of livestock that underwent thousands of years of domestication and artificial selection. Moreover, most of the large predators which could help limit their population growth went extinct at the end of Pleistocene. 

Since horses have no natural predators, cannot be legally hunted, and are no longer slaughtered as livestock in the U.S., their populations have nearly doubled over the past decade. In addition, the number of horses removed from the range by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and held in government facilities and private lands has grown by 33 percent, with BLM spending more than $550 million since 2013 to support these captive populations.

“The BLM has increased the number of individuals removed from the wild in each of the past four years, leading to decreases in the on-range population,” the authors wrote. “However, the total on-range population is still approximately 50,000 individuals above the maximum (appropriate management level), and the recent moderate decrease in on-range individuals is directly correlated with an increase in the off-range population and subsequent expenditures.”

According to the scientists, removing wild horses from their Western range to place them in long-term holding is not an efficient solution, since such a method “simply exports the issue elsewhere – including the imperiled tallgrass prairie ecosystem – with unknown ecological effects.” And while fertility control has helped to a certain degree, there are still too many horses on the range for such an approach to work. 

These problems are compounded by the fact that wild horses are treated differently from other wildlife, since the federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 prohibits their hunting, while the BLM’s practice of gathering and removing wild horses from the range resembles livestock operations rather than wildlife management. At the same time, “adoption programs, sales restrictions, and the abolition of slaughter have resulted in feral equids effectively serving as society’s pets.” 

In the experts’ opinion, a better alternative would be choosing one of the labels – wild, livestock, or pets – and apply different rules for the management of each category. 

“As a wild species that lacks sufficient predation to keep most populations in check, a hunting or culling program, like those for other wild ungulates, could slow their population growth. As livestock, gathers and removals that lead to sale or slaughter would limit growth and give the animals the monetary value they currently lack. As pets, simultaneously conducting large-scale removals and administering fertility control, including permanent sterilization (and potentially euthanasia), could reduce population sizes and slow growth,” the authors explained.

“The current state of feral horse and burro management in the United States is unsustainable and will continue to be a painful resource sink without fundamental changes to the law. We recommend that the U.S. federal government should officially declare the status of feral equids as either wild, livestock, or pets and should provide the BLM and (U.S. Forest Service) the legal latitude and funding to develop and implement respective management options,” they concluded.

The study is published in the journal BioScience.

Wild horses in the American West

The history of wild horses in the American West is an intriguing tale of resilience, adaptation, and survival. The wild horses that roam the western landscape today, also known as mustangs, are descendants of domesticated horses brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers and settlers in the 16th century.

Early introduction

The initial wave of horses arrived with the Spanish conquistadors, such as Hernán Cortés in 1519, and later with colonizers like Juan de Oñate in the late 16th century. The horses were of various breeds, including Andalusians, Barbs, and Garranos, and they were primarily used for transportation, agriculture, and warfare.

Escaped and released horses

Over time, many horses escaped from the Spanish settlements or were released into the wild. These animals began to breed and form feral populations, which eventually led to the emergence of the mustang. The term “mustang” comes from the Spanish word “mestengo,” which means “stray” or “ownerless” animal.

Expansion and adaptation

As the Spanish territories expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, the mustangs’ range also grew. They adapted to the harsh conditions of the American West, developing characteristics such as hardiness, endurance, and agility. The Native American tribes of the Great Plains, like the Comanche and the Sioux, quickly recognized the value of these horses and began to capture and domesticate them for transportation, hunting, and warfare.

The horse’s impact on Native American cultures

The introduction of horses had a profound impact on the lives of Native Americans, transforming their cultures, economies, and modes of warfare. The tribes that mastered horsemanship became powerful and influential in the region, and horses became central to their way of life.

19th-century westward expansion

As Euro-American settlers moved westward in the 19th century, they encountered vast herds of wild mustangs. Ranchers began capturing and using these horses for work, breeding them with other breeds to create the American Quarter Horse and other popular stock horse breeds.

Wild Horse Protection and Management

In the 20th century, concerns about the mustangs’ dwindling numbers led to efforts to protect and manage the remaining herds. In 1971, the US Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which aimed to protect, manage, and control the populations of wild horses and burros on public lands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) were tasked with managing these animals, using techniques like roundups and adoptions to maintain sustainable herd sizes.

Today, wild horses continue to be an iconic symbol of the American West, representing freedom, resilience, and the untamed spirit of the frontier. Efforts to protect and manage their populations are ongoing, with the goal of preserving these magnificent animals for future generations to appreciate.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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