Wild horses struggle to remain an American icon

A classic symbol of the untamed spirit of the American West, the nation’s wild horses wander lands often not visited by people.

While wild horses represent something so patriotic, the animals are the center of bitter controversy that dates back to end of the Wild West and the beginning of a time when horses weren’t the lifelines of the country anymore.

One may picture wild horses as the brumbies in Australia as portrayed in “A Man from Snowy River” or as the inspiration behind the solid, sporty Ford Mustang. But to the others, the horses are feral animals that are not native to North America and can be compared wild hogs in Texas.

“Wild horses are protected by an act of congress which says they are living symbols of the pioneer spirit,” says Suzanne Roy, the director the American Wild Horse Preservation campaign. “It was found that wild horses enriched the spirit of the country and were deserving of protection.”

Each side has valid arguments, but lost in the controversy is an animal with a long history of ups and downs and comes with complexities no other type of animal has.

Wild horses existed in the prehistoric ages in now North America. Saber-tooth tigers and dire wolves hunted horses, which were the size of house cats. The horses died out at the end of the ice age. The only true wild horse that still exists today is the Przewalski’s Horse, which is native to Mongolia.

Stemming from the Spanish term “mustengo” meaning untamed beast, today’s version of the wild horse was introduced back in the Americas by European explorers and conquistadors during the 15th century. The continent’s first wild horses escaped the herds imported by Europeans. So since these horses come from domesticated blood lines, they are not considered truly wild, but to this day that term is still widely used to describe the feral mustangs.

However, some do not agree that today’s wild horse differs from the wild horse that was native to North America, even though the animal was reintroduced.

“To call a wild horse feral is scientifically incorrect,” says Roy. “The horses evolved in North America. The horses that were reintroduced by the conquistadors were the same as the horses that evolved in North America. There are a variety of experts including a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who say they are the same horse. To say wild horses are a non-native species isn’t correct.”

By 1900, it was estimated two million wild horses roamed freely around the countryside.

Since then those numbers have dropped dramatically. The military utilized wild horses in both of the world wars. Some animals were slaughtered and used for pet food. Some were hunted from airplanes or poisoned.

In 1959, the first law was created to protect wild horses. Motor vehicles were banned from hunting or rounding up wild horses. Then in 1971, the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed unanimously.  The act established the Bureau of Land Management as the authoritative agency that would oversee the newly created wild horse program.

“A wild horse is defined under the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act as a horse or burro roaming on BLM or Forest Service land,” says BLM public affairs officer Tom Gorey. “The term refers to any unclaimed horse and is legal term, rather than on term based on science.”

Today, free-roaming wild horses have disappeared from states in which they once thrived. While a few hundred mustangs roam in Canada, somewhere around 37,300 horses inhabit ten different western states according to numbers given by the BLM at the end of February 2012. About 50,000 horses are held in either short or long-term holding corrals. The BLM says the number of wild horses and burros that roams on government land exceeds by nearly 11,000 the number determined that can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses. The maximum appropriate management level is approximately 26,500.

Montana is home to the infamous Pryor Wild Horse Range, which is currently Montana’s only official wild horse range. The 170 Pryor Mountain horses closely resemble the Spanish horses they descended from. Primitive markings dot the muscular bodies of the Pryor Mountain mustangs. Zebra stripes spiral up their legs and fishbone markings follow their spines. These horses have lived here for a very long time and the BLM has worked to maintain a herd within that natural habitat.

The horses that now inhabit the Spanish Q ranch outside of Ennis originate from short-term holding areas and various herd management areas western states like California and Utah.

“The horses placed outside of Ennis are aged and not adoptable or have gone through several adoptions and not been adopted,” says Carolyn Chad, the acting deputy chief of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro program. “They come from herd management areas that are overpopulated and either the horses or resources were in poor condition.”

Chad says the horses placed outside of Ennis are different than the Pryor Mountain horses in the sense they are confined in very large pastures and are handled in order to take care of horse shoes and vaccines.

A source of fiery debate, some consider the horses the equivalent to knapweed, an invasive species that threatens the integrity of the land. Theories exist that say wild horses can be more detrimental to grazing lands than livestock like sheep and cattle. However, the opposite argument is also present. It is also said that certain wildlife can live in competition with the feral horses. While arguments have been made from both sides, no definitive answer has been reached.

The controversy surrounding the management of wild horse herds across the west has been raging for almost a hundred years now. While the debate remains on fire, the BLM has yet to land on management plan that can keep the number of wild horses on track with the carrying capacity of the land they roam on while making ranchers, hunters and horse advocates satisfied.

“No one can answer when the controversy will end, but I think we could adopt a better management plan that would make all sides happy,” says Roy. “Since wild horses aren’t in a natural environment, no one says they don’t need to be managed, but the federal government needs to adopt a different approach that is both humane and cost effective.”

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