Where Wild Horses Still Roam

Sand Wash Basin Herd Experts point to a new foal while a second band of horses watches from the bluff.

Sand Wash Basin in Northwest Colorado is home to a large herd of American Mustang. These horses freely roam over 100,000 acres. In late June over a dozen people from all walks of life and from as far away as Georgia joined folks from YampatikaColorado Environmental Coalition, The Wilderness Society, Humble Ranch, and the Bureau of Land Management on a guided tour to view the wild horses of Sand Wash Basin.

The BLM is currently seeking public comment on the future management of Wild Horses and Burrows on Federal Public Lands. CEC staff in Northwest Colorado are able to help you learn how to participate in this important process.  To learn more contact  me, CEC Northwest Organizer Sasha Nelson, sasha@cecenviro.org

Photos, videos and current projects involving Sandwash horses are now available. To learn more contact  me, CEC Northwest Organizer Sasha Nelson, sasha@cecenviro.org

Keep reading to lean more of my thoughts as to why the American Mustang, a reintroduced species, has a ligitimate place on our Public Lands. 

The views represented in this essay are my personal opnions and do not necessarily reflect the policies of CEC or partner organizations.

What is Wild? Native versus Feral Horses
By Sasha Nelson

I’m admittedly a “horse person.” I do and have always loved, if not understood,  everything about these creatures. I also hold advanced degrees in animal science (zoology and animal behavior). In the course of my studies, I’ve read much of the fundamental research on the evolutionary genetics of the American Mustang. Recently I reviewed this work to try to find an answer to the question — are Mustangs wild or feral animals?

This question seems an important one to answer as other demands for public lands and the surplus of Mustangs in holding facilities has increasingly led to the call for the removal of this species from public lands in the west.

Most of the species of the family of horses (Equidae), from which modern horses are derived, originated in North America. About 3 million years ago Equus, the ancestors of ALL modern horses, originated in North American before traveling to Europe & Asia via land bridges. Over time, these land bridges became submerged. Then about 10,000 years ago all species of horses still in North American died off, most likely as a combined result of changes in environment as a result of climate changes, disease and/or over hunting by humans who likely killed them for food. The American Museum of Natural History provides one of the best non-science, geek-free explanations of where horses originated and how horses evolved.

In contrast, Equus survived in European and Asia as a feral species (feral, as they did not originate in Europe or Asia) and were domesticated.  The process of domestication resulted in breeds of horses or varieties selectively chosen for specific traits that were desirable for particular purposes such as large horses bred to be used to pull or draft large loads. In a twist of fate, domesticated horses, the direct ancestors of Equus, were transported back to America during European exploration and settlement. Some of these horses were deliberately released while others escaped.

These free roaming horses over time became wild, untamed and mingled and mixed resulting in the genetically diverse American Mustang. Mustangs are not bred selectively as a result may be the closest of all present day horses to the genetics of the original Equus that once roamed their native North American plains over 10,000 years ago. If the genetic code of American Mustangs are close to the original North American stock, then they are best called a reintroduced native species. As such, they are legitimately native, wild creatures having originated HERE and NOT in Europe. Moreover, research using the latest techniques in evolutionary genetics is showing that “extinct” North American horses and “domestic” European horses, share enough DNA to be considered related–closely related.

Science is increasingly clear about the genetic origin of ALL modern horses. However, debate as to whether Mustangs are native or invasive is really less about science and more about values. Those who tend to believe wild horses in American are invasive, pests or feral or escaped livestock tend to use these terms as the basis for their arguments for the removal or even elimination of wild horses from the American landscape.

One person’s feral is another’s wild

Unless objective scientific measures are used, the lines begin to blur between what is and what is not wild and so unworthy or worthy of protected, and this lack of clarity can be exploited for political or economic gain.

Here’s an example…if a wolf breeds with a dog how do you classify the offspring? Moreover, if that breeding happened several generations ago and every breeding since has been hybrid to pure wolf, what about those critters? Should the part-dogs be protected? Or not? What if all dogs and all wolfs are genetically related (which they are)…at what point is wild, wild? And it’s not just, about what you can tame as “pure-wild” wolves can be tamed. So where do you draw the line? How far back on the family tree does one go? Not so simple to decide what is wild, is it?

Given that terms like feral and wild are value laden this debate will never end unless we set aside politics and personal opinion in favor of verified scientific research. Personally, I think most of the arguments for killing or entirely removing wild horses from America’s public lands where they still roam free is appalling and more often than not, motivated by greed and ignorance. I believe that unlike many of the consequence of European exploration and settlement of North American, the reintroduction of the Horse to the land of their origin, a land suited specifically for their adaptations, was not a mistake in need of correction. Instead, I believe we should look at this as the most successful species reintroduction process in the history of such efforts. And we didn’t have to pay a single tax dollar for the project. The expensive part of the process, where we are arguably spend far too many tax dollars,  is managing the herds in light of the removal of key wild horse predators such as wolves, grizzly bear and humans.

Why Genes don’t really matter & Terminology is moot

Regardless of genetics or the terms used to describe wild horses in America, they have been granted a place on public lands. Mustang preservation is congressionally mandated in the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act that promises to preserve Western Heritage and Culture by protecting the wild horse as an important part of the history and the ethos of the west. The act recognizes America’s wild horses and burrows as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands where they are found. This act also protects these animals from capture, branding, harassment, or death; practices once rife throughout the West.

The care of our Country’s wild horses is given over to a number of federal agencies. In Northwest Colorado, that means the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM management is described in the Federal Wild Horse and Burro Program.

Does this program adequately manage wild horses and burros on BLM land? I my opinion, NO, not when there are currently more Mustangs in holding pens than on the range. Could wild horse management be improved, yes.

We, the American public, currently have the opportunity to engage with the BLM as it reconsiders their approach to Wild Horse and Burro management.

To learn more about how folks in Northwest Colorado, home to one of the largest and most genetically diverse Mustang herds on Public Lands, contact me,  Sasha Nelson at sasha@cecenviro.org