November 27, 2023 | By:

No to Feral Horses

Wild (feral) horses Monitor Valley, Nevada © George Wuerthner

Wild (feral) horse, Monitor Valley, Nevada © George Wuerthner

Editor’s note:  Had we wanted to test the alertness of our readers, posting an article titled “Rewilding with Wild Horses” was a way to do it!  Seldom before has Rewilding Earth received so many tendentious responses to an article as we got to that one, posted in early November. In retrospect, we should have prefaced it with an editorial note explaining that The Rewilding Institute remains open-minded on the question of whether and where wild horses, mustangs, may belong in North America. We have heard credible arguments, like the one we just ran, suggesting that the wild horses now roaming some parts of the American West are—although brought here by European colonists—appropriate surrogates for the original, native horses that galloped about much of our continent before (more & more evidence suggests) being hunted to extinction by the first peoples on our continent (part of the Overkill Hypothesis, of which our founder, Dave Foreman, was an articulate proponent).

Most of our respondents, so far, have countered that horses in North America today are exotic and destructive. George Wuerthner, an ecologist who has probably visited and photographed as many wild areas as anyone alive in North America today, takes this more purist perspective in his essay below, urging that we recognize wild horses in the American West as a non-native species that ought to be removed.

Opinions expressed in this horse debate are the authors’ and not necessarily endorsed by The Rewilding Institute.

For my own tiny part in this equine saga, I admit to having grown fond of wild horses after admiring their small swift herds while I was backpacking through Wyoming’s Red Desert years ago. To me, the horses looked wild and natural, whereas the cattle looked exotic and destructive.

Whatever your view on this controversial issue, your feedback is encouraged. We’ve long wanted Rewilding Earth to be a forum for healthy debates on complex matters pertaining to the protection and restoration of wild Nature.  If we have enlivened that forum by running a controversial piece, we are glad to have added a few sticks to old Uncle Dave’s Campfire.

John Davis, US Northeast resident, Western wanderer


No to Feral Horses
By George Wuerthner

A recent commentary by Liz Koonce published by The Rewilding Institute titled: “Rewilding with Wild Horses” deserves an alternative perspective. Koonce proposes using horses to “restore” grassland ecosystems, increase carbon sequestration, and provide opportunities for “horse-obsessed girls” to see wild or, more appropriately, feral horses.

Although I can not respond directly to most of Liz Koonce’s assertions, partly because she provided no references, I will attempt to explain why such a plan would be disastrous for rewilding efforts and landscape conservation.

Let’s start with a few of the assertions she got right. Like most feral horse advocates, she correctly notes that there are far more sheep and cattle on public lands than horses. Many ranchers and agency folks ignore the damage done by domestic cattle and sheep and use feral horses as scapegoats.

There is no doubt that livestock are the dominant harmful influence on public lands, and removing domestic animals would benefit ecosystem integrity. However, permitting another exotic animal to colonize and exploit public lands can have a major impact on native wildlife and ecosystems.

However, there still are 83,000 feral horses on public lands, and their numbers are growing rapidly, at a rate of 20% a year. Numerous studies document the ecological impacts of feral horses on native plant communities and other wildlife.

As ranchers, agency managers, and scientists note, horse populations are not managed like livestock. It’s an exaggeration for livestock advocates to claim cows and sheep are effectively managed. Still, putting that aside, it is true that domestic livestock have seasonal grazing schedules, limits on numbers, and other regulations that, when fully implemented, do mitigate to some degree livestock impacts.

Feral horses at Pryor Mountains, Custer Gallatin NF, Montana © George Wuerthner

Feral horses at Pryor Mountains, Custer Gallatin NF, Montana © George Wuerthner

By contrast, feral horses are on the land year-round, with limited management other than attempts to capture and remove animals. In the Great Basin, where most feral horses are found, the only significant predators are cougars. Cougars stalk horses and ambush them with a sudden run.

Horses are cursorial animals that rely on their ability to outrun predators, which limits cougars as an effective population control. The fact that many horse herds multiply rapidly suggests that cougar predation is not a significant population control agent.

Horses can become an alternative prey that sustains higher cougar populations. This could permit cougars to capture bighorn sheep struggling in many parts of the West—admittedly primarily due to domestic livestock.

Feral horse advocates argue that horses fill a missing niche because they were essential to late Pleistocene faunal assemblages. Animals are not cogs in a wheel. They are part of a complex web of interactions with other plants and animals.

Ranchers and livestock advocates like Allan Savory use the same argument, suggesting that domestic livestock merely replace the missing herbivores that existed at the end of the Ice Age and that plant communities are adapted to the influence of grazers. Horse advocates like Koonce make the same basic argument when they suggest the “grass remembers” the horse.

The problem with this logic is that all plant and animal communities evolve in response to climate, animal, and plant influences. The plant and animal communities that existed at the end of the Pleistocene no longer exist. Substituting either cattle, sheep, or feral horses for the diversity of native herbivores that once existed results in different ecosystem functions.

For instance, one of the major changes in Great Basin plant communities is the absence of large herds of grazing animals. Consequently, many species of Great Basin plants do not tolerate heavy grazing pressure. As a case in point, bluebunch wheatgrass, a common grass species in the Great Basin, can take up to ten years to recover from a grazing event. This long recovery time for the grass is one reason domestic livestock grazing is so destructive to Great Basin plant communities. It is also why this region’s ecosystems are so vulnerable to grazing damage from herds of horses and burro.

Feral horses at Steens Mountain Wilderness, Oregon © George Wuerthner

Feral horses at Steens Mountain Wilderness, Oregon © George Wuerthner

EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY

The ancestor of today’s horses first appeared in North America approximately 55 million years ago (about 10 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct). The earliest relatives of today’s horse were small forest-dwelling animals.

Due to the changing climate, grassland expansion began about 20 million years ago, and among the species that exploited this expanding habitat were the early relatives of today’s horse. They became larger, longer-legged, and fleet of foot.

As recently as ten million years ago, there were up to a dozen species of horses roaming the North American landscape. Only one branch survived into the modern era. The oldest known species of what is commonly assumed to be a modern horse evolved about 4 million years ago. From North America, the animals dispersed to Asia, Africa, and Europe several times and twice to South America. In the Old World, horses, zebras, and donkeys did not die out. Around 5,500 years ago, people in Kazakhstan began riding horses for the first time.

The horse and numerous other Ice Age mammals disappeared from North America sometime between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago. There is significant debate about the causes, but most theories suggest changing climate, perhaps augmented by early human hunting pressure, led to the demise of the horse and other larger mammals. However, it’s important to point out that horses survived in Asia, where plenty of human hunters existed.

There is controversy about exactly when horses died out in North America. Though most scholars agree with an extinction sometime between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, some researchers from the Yukon using DNA in the soil suggest horses may have survived until 6,000 years ago.

Some even suggest that Indigenous oral history asserts that horses never went extinct. Oral history is an unreliable source of biological information. As every child knows from grade school, if you whisper a sentence or phrase in the ear of someone and repeat it around a circle, it seldom comes out the same at the other end of the process. To suggest that oral traditions are accurate over hundreds or thousands of years begs credibility, especially without additional physical confirmation.

If horses were still part of North American fauna, why didn’t tribes notice them and utilize them for food or pack animals? And why did Indians adopt horses big-time when they became available after Spanish colonization but chose not to adopt them before the Spanish came?

You must ask yourself why Indians would use inefficient bison jumps if they possessed horses. Why didn’t early Hudson Bay Company traders report horses among the tribes they traded with until the late 1700s and early 1800s? Why were horses buried with chiefs in sites after the spread of horses but not before? Why aren’t there horse remains with mummies (like the mummy cave by North Fork Shoshone) when there are other big animals such as elk and bighorn sheep?

But others assert that the lack of any “hard” evidence, like horse bones younger than 10,000 years, is inconclusive, in part due to uncertainties with carbon dating issues and soil contamination from either burrowing rodents or the freeze-frost of permafrost that could have mixed up DNA from older layers with younger soil samples. One of the problems with archeological studies compared to other sciences, where duplication of results provides some test of conclusions, is that archeological procedures are often destructive. Archaeology is a destructive science—meaning that once a site is excavated, it is gone forever. The artifacts and information gathered remain, but the site can never be recreated.

Still, with a few exceptions that are debated, most archeologists believe the horse was extinct in North America 10,000 years ago or at least so diminished that they were functionally extinct. Extinction for the horse was gradual, with some holdouts that lasted perhaps a few thousand years longer.

Feral horses at Pryor Mountains, Custer Gallatin NF, Montana © George Wuerthner

Feral horses at Pryor Mountains, Custer Gallatin NF, Montana © George Wuerthner

THE SPANISH AND HORSE ADOPTION BY INDIANS

The Spanish brought the modern horse to North America in the 1500s, and by the 1600s, the horse was being utilized by Indian people. With the coming of the Spanish into what is now the United States, Indians were trained to work with horses on Spanish ranches. The widespread adoption of the horse by tribal people is attributed to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, where Indians overran the Spanish outposts in New Mexico. The Ute quickly adopted the horse, and horses were traded or stolen by other tribes further north. For instance, by 1730, if not earlier, horses were common among the Shoshone and Nez Perce.

However, there is historical evidence of the presence of horses among Indian tribes by the 1600s. For instance, La Salle documents the presence of horses among the Kiowa by 1682. It can be inferred that the Kiowa and other Caddoan tribes had horses before this date. As Wissler concludes: “It seems quite reasonable to assume that horse raiding by the Pawnee and Kiowa had begun in the early years of 1600. If this is correct and these historic tribes were in the same relative positions as later, 1650 should have found the horse abundant on the Saskatchewan River.”

However, some archeologists push back the adoption of the horse by tribal people by a hundred years or more, although this is based primarily on a few skeletons and oral traditions of Indian people. For instance, researchers found bones from one colt on the Blacks Fork, Wyoming, dated about 1650.

Just because a horse was found in Wyoming does not mean Indians were involved in horse culture. The discovery of horse remains could merely be evidence of individual animal movement rather than a viable population. Even today, there are records of long-distance movement of individual animals to areas well beyond their current ranges.

For instance, a South Dakota cougar managed to move all the way to Connecticut before he was killed. Such long-distance movement of animals in the days before there were freeways, large human populations, and many more people with guns would have been relatively common.

Another issue is the relative dates for a mere presence of horses among tribes vs a significant population of tribal horses. Some evidence suggests tribes killed horses for food before they learned to breed and use them for transportation.

The widespread adoption of the horse that led to the Plains bison hunting culture is a relatively recent and short-lived phenomenon. Research suggests that the Sioux, Crow, Arapahoe, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche, and other horse-mounted bison hunting people only adopted bison hunting culture in the 1600s-1800s. The Crow and Cheyenne lived along the Missouri River, growing corn and other crops in the 1600s, and only gradually adopted the typical plains bison hunting culture. The Sioux lived along the Great Lakes and only moved out to the plains in the 1700s. The Cheyenne only moved into Wyoming and Montana in the 1830s.

The DNA from archeological findings still links these horses to Spanish animals introduced in the Southwest sometime in the 1500s. Here, we get to the heart of the argument about whether horses are a “native” species that should be reintroduced across its former territory or an invasive exotic species no different from cattle. Putting aside whether horses survived somewhere in North America until 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, the fact remains that horses were no longer a prominent influence on grassland ecosystems by the end of the Ice Age.

Wild horses on snowfield Pryor Mountains, Montana © George Wuerthner

Wild horses on snowfield Pryor Mountains, Montana © George Wuerthner

CLIMATE CHANGE AND FAUNA EXTINCTIONS

When people suggest that our continent was populated with horses, mammoths, camels, giant sloths, and other now-extinct North American Ice Age mammals at the end of the Ice Age and thus the mega-fauna could and should be reintroduced, they neglect to consider the entire ecological landscape is changed. The plant communities in the Great Basin 12,000 years ago were different. Water was more abundant, and the climate was cooler. Many species once common in the region are wholly gone or restricted to higher elevations and smaller footprints. Creosote bush, a common species found today in North American deserts, was utterly absent from the region 12,000 years ago.

Creosote did not become established in the region until 6,000 years ago. Juniper and pinyon covered much of the area that today sustains desert cacti. At the same time, ponderosa pine, a species common today in many mountain ranges in the Southwest, is virtually absent from the paleo vegetation record of the Great Basin.

With these changes in plant communities, there was a corresponding change in animal communities. The idea that you can reintroduce animals from Ice Age America back into the same regions today ignores the fact that there have been substantial changes in vegetation and wildlife.

For instance, at the end of the Ice Age, there were many more herbivore species residing in the West including camels, llamas, and giant sloths. These herbivores competed with horses for forage and habitat and had to deal with numerous predators like cheetahs, giant bears, and jaguars.

Climate changes resulted in changes in human predation influence. For instance, the warming and drying climate led to the extinction of mammoths approximately 11,000 years ago and a switch to human predation on bison. But by 8,000 years ago, even bison numbers were diminished, and Paleo-Indians had to switch to a diet of smaller mammals and plant materials.

CARBON SEQUESTRATION

The idea that horse grazing will sequester carbon is another myth that livestock advocates like Allan Savory perpetuated. The issue of carbon sequestration is complicated and dependent on many factors, including climate, plant communities, and current carbon storage.

For instance, carbon may for a time be stored most rapidly in depleted rangelands. As rangelands improve in ecological conditions, the rate of carbon sequestration slows, though the amount already stored is likely much higher than in degraded lands. It is similar to putting water into a glass. The more water already in the glass, the less additional water the container can hold.

While it is true that horses, as cecal digesters, do not emit nearly the amount of methane that results from domestic cattle, they still can damage rangelands and thus the ability to absorb and store carbon.

Wild horses on snowfield Pryor Mountains, Montana © George Wuerthner

Wild horse, Pryor Mountains, Montana © George Wuerthner

SHELDON NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Domestic cattle were removed from Sheldon NWR in 1994, but feral horses remained. Horses severely impacted riparian areas, competed with native herbivores for forage and water, and caused soil erosion.

An aerial survey in July of 2012 showed the 575,000-acre refuge along the Oregon border is home to at least 2,508 antelope, 973 wild horses, and 182 wild burros, said Aaron Collins, a park ranger at Sheldon.

An effort to remove feral horses was largely successful. Sheldon NWR is the largest expanse in the Great Basin without domestic or feral livestock, including horses.

SUMMARY

The bulk of evidence suggests horses once were abundant members of the late Pleistocene fauna; however, the plant and animal communities they once were members of no longer exist. Today’s feral horses were introduced into North America by the Spanish colonists. While they are not nearly as abundant on public lands as domestic cattle and sheep, they threaten ecosystem integrity.

To suggest that conservationists should ignore the impacts of horses merely because the damage from domestic livestock is more widespread is analogous to suggesting that society should ignore the impacts of heroin abuse because alcoholism affects more people. Domestic livestock and feral horses are problematic and must be removed from public lands.

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Jon Rezendes
6 months ago

George, thank you for your well-informed wisdom. Very appreciative that Rewilding Earth has given the community a forum to analyze this topic from both perspectives.

6 months ago

I agree with Geo on many issues but not this one. Enviros are often accused of being unhappy about everything and non-supportive of anything. The damage wild horses may do on public lands is minuscule compared to the multi-millions of cattle and sheep. Once they are all removed, we can talk about horses. 83,000 wild horses is a drop in the ocean compared to domestic livestock. There are far bigger fights to fight. Whenever I see wild horses on public lands I pause and appreciate them, unlike when I see cows and sheep which turn my stomach. Seeing a stallion lead their herd is a sight to behold. It may not be true wildness, but it comes close in today’s artificial world.

Thomas Hulen
5 months ago

George Wuerthner’s essay is spot on with our current knowledge of the issue of feral horse on our public land.

Several years I asked an employee and friend of a major land conservation organization about helping with the feral horse catastrophe on the Tonto National Forest north of Phoenix . The friend responded, we are only focused on cattle on public land. Besides I like horses.

I like horses as well, but they are feral because of irresponsible horse owners and the lack of gumption of state livestock agencies who because of the lack of money and their belief in the mythology of the horse in the west.

Carroll Bennett
5 months ago

Should we get rid of humans the environmental destroyers?.. Who do destruction of our lands: Mining and its waste, industrialization and it’s waste, pesticides, the way we use the land to farm, the way we raise livestock, air pollution from gas driven vehicles etc. The wild horses are a small part of the problem. The worse plague is human consumption and greed. Our country was great as the land was great and not exploited by the Indian people. America had great forests, rivers, minerals to be mined. The Great plaines with 20-50 feet of black top soil to farm, the Great Lakes, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Then humans found oil and vehicles and industrialized the country. Our ancestors left exhausted lands in England and Europe to exploit the New World. What do we do about the human condition and lack of awareness of the land? Senator Nelson, Wisconsin, the father of “Earth Day” knew the plight of our country’s environment. All I can think about the wild horses is figure out a cost effective way to do population control. We have much bigger fish to fry in this country: Human Greed and Waste. But our Western world especially the USA, are not listening to the plight of the air, land and water. The population is so obtuse they deny Global Warming. Humans are the worse enemy, not the wild horses.

Chas
5 months ago

Let’s get rid of the humans

Bruce
5 months ago

I think people forget, if it weren’t for horses, we wouldn’t be here.

Tom Tyree
5 months ago

Aren’t cattle an invasive species as well? Cattle weren’t introduced to the USA until the 1500’s.

Ann Darby Hutchinson
5 months ago

Mr. Wuether is erudite, educated and thoughtful in his proposal. Still, I do not concur with his conclusion. Life is always changing, not static There is a place for wild horses now on these American continents, as there is a place for the European peoples. I believe that there is a place for the older people and cultures, for older fauna and fora as well.

Ann Darby Hutchinson
5 months ago

My sincere and heartfelt apologies to the people who have come to the Americas from Asia and Africa. My omission in my previous statement is clearly due to the myopia of my white privilege. There is a place in the Americas for people from all over the world.

Ann Darby Hutchinson
5 months ago

What is “native” really? Life involves change. The American continents are far too big to become a large Galapagos Island. How did flora and fauna come to the Hawaiian Islands? The solution to the wild horses will be found in creative, cooperative, heartfelt investigation and thinking.

Cynthia Nielsen
5 months ago

I live less than a mile from BLM land where a small number of wild horses (less than one hundred and probably just a couple dozen) and literally hundreds of cattle have been present during the twenty years I have recreated here. I can tell you which species is damaging the rangeland the most based on my observations for the past twenty years: #1 cattle, who hang around the riparian areas for hours at a time permanently destroying large areas of vegetation that increase in size every year. I’ve watched the horses visit these same areas and they spend maybe 30 minutes at the same watering holes then leave. #2 humans, who bring their very loud OHVs -causing native herbivores to permanently leave the area – and their RVs – permanently damaging large areas of vegetation by driving over and parking on it.

This is my back yard basically. I have hiked and ridden horses here for twenty years. I see what has happened and who has caused it. Don’t argue with me that horses are not native unless you point out the same about cattle, who NEVER lived on this range land until humans put them there.

The damage done by cattle is enormous compared to horses.

Cath
5 months ago

Why do people constantly lie about the Wild Mustangs. They are not feral. They are protected by our President Teddy many years ago, please have respect for them, its the Cattle destroying the countryside not the Wild Mustangs. Please stop your hatred. Leave our Country as it is quit destroying our American History leave our Horses alone, their ours

Keri Harneck
5 months ago

Leave wild horses WILD .. FREE THEM ALL FROM THE CRUELTY & ABUSE IN HOLDING PENS .. AMERICA IS NOT FOR YOU KILLING OUR HORSES THERE IS MILLIONS OF ACRES OF PUBLIC LSNDS .. NOT FOR CATTLE OR SHEEP .. THEY ARE THE DESTRUCTION OF LAND .. NOT HORSES .. WHAT LIES . TOLD ON HERE . SHAME IN A OF YOU .. GOD SEES EVERYTHING

5 months ago

I thing it’s wonderful to have wild horses in the west, it’s now part of our American heritage. But in fairness to the horse and the land they should be managed so their numbers don’t over grow the pasture available. I read in the Western Horseman when I was 15 now 70 that the Government turned some quality Quarter Horse Stallions our with them to improve their looks which makes them much easier to adopt out when culling the herd which as s horseman I think was a great move. I have seen many of them after adoption and I can tell you they have the strongest, toughest hooves of any breed.
God Bless America and our wild horses!

Vanessa Donnell
5 months ago

The opinion that the wild or feral horses is an invasive species and destructive to the federal lands that they roam is one foisted on the public by the Cattlemen’s Assn who owns the BLM & the Dept of the interior. There’s plenty of research that points to the opposite being true. The Cattlemen’s Assn is greedy for federal land & will do whatever it takes to get it. The wild mustangs are an integral part of our Western history and deserve to be loved, respected & protected instead of cruelly rounded up, placed in holding pens where they’re often injured and sickened due to abuse and neglect, then auctioned off where many end up in the horse meat slaughter houses outside of the US. This inhumane treatment of our wild mustangs must stop!!

Don Snyder
5 months ago

LIVE AND LET LIVE HUMANS ARE THE INVASIVE SPECIES.

Maria Gautier
5 months ago

Leave the Wild Mustang horses and Burros Free!!!!! Stop lying about these wild Mustangs and burros!!!!
Corporate greed trying to push out all the horses and burros off BLM lands. These beautiful horses and burros are being shipped to slaughter in Mexico for human consumption if they can’t be adopted out. And being replaced with cattle on the same BLM lands. Destroying the natural landscape of the West.

Joel
5 months ago

There should be a hunting season on wild horse just like other wildlife. People have been eating horses since before time.

Nolita R Nelson
5 months ago

Horses are beautiful wholesome sentient animals who have the right to freedom. We the people need to stand against those who are evil in mind and soul. Personally the men and women who participate in the torture and murder of innocent animals , should be LOCKED up and throw away the keys. You make me SICK!!!! Save the animals !!! Take down the humans, and greedy cattlemen.
May GOD have mercy on your evil souls.

Kim
5 months ago

How far back in time do you want us to go before you will consider that horses where native. They where here before us. Native enough for me. I disagree with your population growth rate 20% that is BLM Kool aid. The real problem here is greed. Greed from our government officials from Deb Haaland who is a rancher to Tracy Stone Manning. Follow the money – Cattleman’s Association and others are pushing the removal of the Wild Horses and Burros. It’s not because of the Flora and fauna, that’s the excuse. It’s all about the money. Their greed is greater than their humanity.

Kris
5 months ago

I adore mustangs. I’ve trained quite a few that were once feral and they can become amazing horses! But, the feral herds are getting too big. At the bare minimum it helps the existing herds survive and not over graze their range and starve to death. I’ve seen herd management areas with feral populations that are barely surviving. It’s not pretty. They don’t have enough natural predators to control their populations anymore.

I think we should keep some feral mustangs in the wild. But they need more intense management than we’ve been seeing the last so many years. If they are having negative impacts to where they are, then yes they should be removed and/or culled. It’s not a nice thing to think about, but if it isn’t done they’re going to die off in more horrible ways, while negatively impacting other wildlife and ecosystems in the process. We hunt other large mammals to help control populations and to help conserve ecosystems. We remove and don’t grant livestock grazing grants in areas to help our ecosystems, feral horses need to be managed to that intensity as well.

Anonymous
5 months ago

Just add more natural predators if the herd is so large…Let nature do its thing, not humans

Janea Stclair
5 months ago

Wild and feral horses are definitely
Being scapegoated and as we Americans are prone to objectifying bad actors in the animal world instead of embracing them as living, breathing, sensing beings. Cattle ranchers , a horse culture, by the way..demonize feral horses as they do most other animals on their range: prairie dogs, wolves, Coyotes, and many other “varmints.” And I would surmise that they often release their unwanted horses on BLM lands.
Now, the feral horses are being
Culled by rounding numbers up
with helicopters and stuffing them in corrals and attempting to make mares sterile! All at the behest of cattle ranchers and land managers. There s got to be a better solution. So, we re smart people lets find it. Oh and don t forget the beef industry is imperial ed by vegetarianism which is in a large part is due to these folks believing in animal rights and reacting to factory farming s maltreatment of their product.

Dj
5 months ago

We are horse lovers.
And we had adopted a wild mustang.
The horse was a great horse for us until it regained its full health.
When the horse went back to its wild ways.

Barrel horses are a real problem last winter driving through part of Wyoming with the deep snows the only place feral horses had access to food was alongside the road. Feral horses just like lost sheep do not do well on their own..

Locally where I live there’s a huge feral horse population.
And it’s sad to see the condition that many horses get into when they need human care

Cowgirl88
5 months ago

You’re article, though very informative and sounds quite articulate. You’ve failed to mention the very important real reason our land is suffering! Mining and fracking! You might also mention the fact that there are uninhabitable areas now because of it. Greed has destroyed the countrys wild lands, not the mustangs! When everyone realizes just how detrimental having EV’s, thinking their saving the planet, lithium mining is far from Eco friendly! And you won’t want to eat any animal that has grazed around mining areas either. So it’s a lose lose for every human, plant, and especially the animals in the region! But you failed to mention that LITTLE reason!
I find that interesting coming from a professed expert!

5 months ago

It surprises me that a fellow backwoodsman like Big Dave Foreman would concur with the overkill hypothesis. Yes, the fossil record agrees that the ascent of so called “native Americans” tracks well with the Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions, but I believe that is primarily coincidental. Early humans hunted wherever they occurred, but wholesale extinctions only affected certain, usually newly exploited, areas. Given the technology available, it would have been impossible for our ancestors to eliminate fleet, cryptic, or formidable animals. Ditto with climate change which, though real, may also be coincidental. Most of the affected megafauna were not habitat specific and had wide ranges. I believe that introduced disease, which leave no fossils, is the only plausible explanation.

Insofar as surrogate species are concerned, I am something of an apostate. Most large invasive species like horses have been in the new world long enough to have begun to coevolve with other life forms, and though they may not be identical with their predecessors they do provide roughly equivalent ecosystem services such as grazing and disturbance regimes. Even here in Florida, which has been torn apart by feral hogs, I do not support their total elimination because they provide a disturbance regime similar to that of now absent peccaries.

The real problem is a lack of predators. Until quite recently coyotes were evolving to fill that niche, but over the last decade there has been a severe decline in coyotes here in north Florida, along with the near disappearance of other mesopredators like skunks. I can only attribute that to disease.

Aside from diseases that directly affect predators, they are going hungry. I take careful note of rodent populations, and am appalled by the disappearance of almost all rodents other than squirrels and urban rats. I live deep in an old growth forest adjacent to a wet prairie where there is more than enough food for small herbivorous rodents such as woodrats and deer mice, yet populations of our native rodents collapse for up to a decade at a time, reappear briefly in abundance, then crash again. Again, disease is the only plausible explanation.

I know little about western ecosystems, and very much appreciate George Wuerthner’s contributions to this forum, but personally feel that control, not eradication, would be the best approach to the problem of wild mustangs. If nothing else, conservation is unpopular enough without adding fuel to the fire!

Mary
5 months ago

I agree with Wuerthner on this– it’s an ecosystem out of balance. Better to let Bison return to their original numbers and repopulate the millions of acres they once roamed.

Ellen Pule
5 months ago

There isn’t a good reason to remove the horses which have become native species. They do not rip the grass out by the roots. That was the argument used by the cattle men when sheep herders came. The real reason “people” want to get rid of them is to give cattle ranchers the free grazing. The Carlos family has made 32 million rounding up these poor creatures.

What will you want to kill next????!!!!

Karen Milstein
5 months ago

Yes to wild horses!

Debra
5 months ago

The horse have a right to be there they don’t eat everything like sheep do . Are they going to say deer and antelope are hurting the grasslands The federal lands like cattle and sheep because they receive money from the ranchers to graze their livestock ,wher they do not receive money for the wild horses seemes a little bias to me. The horses do have other predortos.like bears plus cougars. Plus there are rattles snakes a some colts and adult horse get bit y them and it can be fatal .Some break their legs in gopher or Prairiedog holes,so they have things that thin the horses down .There are ways to to slow the breeding down like birth rates .I just think there are other things to do instead of rounding them up and sending them to slaughter. We could be relocating some of them .I am reaching out to the people please call your Governors sign petitions let’s do all we can to saver our wild horses

David
5 months ago

Thank you for the detailed insite. I would suggest, and point out these are not “ferel” but actual wild horses.

The most basic definition of feral: “especially of an animal) in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication”

Horses were released into the ranges in the mid-1800’s “range horses”.

These horses have regenerated in the wild multiple generations, with no direct human contact (other than to be slaughtered or caged) nor has there been domestication.

These are wild horses, for more than 100 years. That is not feral.

People who like to call them feral rather than wild are those who want them rounded up and killed.

Paul Handlin
5 months ago

My wife and I sat down to watch a documentary the other night and to my surprise, it was all about the rounding up of “feral” horses, wild horses. I heard about this long before but never gave it much thought and then I saw for myself, thanks to the film makers, the atrocious way these peaceful horses were being rounded up via helicopter. These people making the herds run for hours to catch pens and to their ends of life as they lived without regard to their safety or anything else. Over the course of an hour and a half I only got more and more, let’s say, ticked off! I was raised on horses and I trained them along with team roping so yes, I love horses and what they can do for the good of man.
If these people are so concerned about the environment, why are they not cutting or culling out the cattle and sheep? There are millions of cattle on our public lands along with sheep and only a few thousand wild horses on the same land. Yet they use the wild horses as a scapegoat for the overtaking of the public lands saying the horses are the ones that are bad for the environment.
The real story here is that the cattle rancher, BLM and I recently found out, the Forest service all are getting paid to use “our” government land. They are all the ones that don’t want the horses because they are supposedly grazing all the grasses that their cattle should be getting. That’s a bunch of bs. The more cattle they have grazing and taking over public land, the more money in their pockets. And the icing on the cake is that they are also getting paid to get rid of the wild horses for sale to slaughter houses in Mexico, China and Europe.
For the love of God people, there are better ways to take care of this without murdering innocent horses. Yes, I said murdering because that’s exactly what it is.
What’s wrong with moving the horses along with the cattle and managing them together. It might surprise you how that works with the environment.
My family ran cattle and horses on the same property for years and had absolutely no problems with grazing or water. There are much better solutions ladies and gentlemen so let’s start using them instead of being greedy and killing these gentle giants. God gave us horses so let’s keep them safe from harms way and start treating them as they should be treated. They helped our ancestors settle this land now let’s help them!

Elyse
5 months ago

It’s a republican rich rancher thing. Wild horses do not harm the environment but cattle do.

Kff
5 months ago

Since the bison etc…. Are now not eating the native grasses and Flora why can’t the horses pick up the slack?
And or can we be more aggressive in our rehoming of them

5 months ago

As a retired Arctic archaeologist, I must agree with George Wuerthner’s take (as I usually do!) on wild horses in today’s ecosystems.

Horses are not native to today’s North American habitats or climate. They are Pleistocene mammals that evolved in a far different environment than that which pertains today.

As much as I love horses and have enjoyed horse packing in the Absorakas with a rangy, red-haired, wild-eyed, pull-back, Wyoming wild pack horse, I can’t support unlimited herds of wild horses on any North American lands.

Though the best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse, they’re best kept as working stock for hunting guides and outfitters, and the last true cowboys, if there are any left.

Gabriel
5 months ago

In my opinion, people’s love for feral horses is ridiculous and goes to ridiculous lengths. And not just here in the US. In Kosciusko National Park, Australia the so-called brumbies were given protection from culling, even though those horses cause severe damage to the alpine ecosystem they call home. In Namibia’s Namib Desert, a spotted hyena clan began preying on the feral horse population which caused the horse numbers to decline. Seeing as though domestic horses are not only non-native to the region but also aren’t well-adapted to desert life, one would think they would allow nature to take its course. Nope. The hyenas have been removed and three of them were even shot for eating feral horses.

Feral horse advocates will always mention their supposed environmental benefits and that they do not harm the ecosystems. What they will never mention is that feral horses will displace mule elk, deer, desert bighorn sheep, and pronghorn from water sources and cause them to either be more vigilant at water sources or visit them less often.

I also don’t buy into the Pleistocene Rewilding aspect because modern North America and Late Pleistocene North America have different ecologies, with the Pleistocene landscape having predators such as the Scimitar-Toothed Cat (Homotherium serum) and Dire Wolf (Aenocyon dirus) that, physically speaking, were better suited to keeping horses in line than extant North American predators are.

Megan
5 months ago

I am dismayed by this conversation. How many animals are not native to these lands, and how many invasive grasses threaten our ecosystems? The focus on wild horses as an urgent matter raises questions about the future of… [fill in the blank].

If there is genuine concern, why do we witness constant construction of communities and warehouses on our wetlands, endangering vital ecosystems? The WEF’s real threat is enforcing synthetic meat and insect consumption, claiming we eat too much meat, and insisting we will adapt to the alternatives they choose.

Let’s not overlook Bill Gates’ genetically engineered mosquitoes, released not only in Africa but globally. Did anyone notice the aggressive mosquitoes last year and their prolonged bites? The lack of public input on these releases raises concerns.

The government, along with wealthy philanthropists, will likely use taxpayers’ money to create more non-profits, contributing to the euthanasia of beautiful horses and potentially impacting communities. Things are poised to become more intriguing as global greed reaches its limit, and the pendulum hopefully swings in the opposite direction, dismantling these absurdities.

Michelle
5 months ago

The easiest way to control the population would be to neuter the males. Done all the with with domestic stock.
Yes the would e difficult in the beginning. After about five years you’re looking at the new colts of the heard. Well I’m not aware that a young colt can be neutered. They do have to have some age. If that is too much work remove the males from the herd and offer them to the public auctions.

Pheathers
5 months ago

I don’t know anyone who isn’t noticeable filled with joy and excitement when they see the heard of wild horses on the drive between Maricopa and Phoenix. I am absolutely in awe and inspired by their wild beauty every single time. Especially in the desert to see a group out there with healthy new borns gives one a sense of wonder and hope. It doesn’t seem quite right to call them feral for they have become very much a part of the land. These gentle creatures have been here for hundreds of years and this is their home. Let them be. There are much more serious things to be concerned with when it comes to the protection and preservation of the natural environment.

Marialugo
5 months ago

The dangerous are the humans. Let the all animals to lives free in theirs habitat.

Linda Newbert
5 months ago

It seems to me that humans have caused far more damage to this planet than ANY animal! Leave the horses be! Find a different way to control populations!

Audrey
5 months ago

Why don’t we just kill all the animals? That way we won’t have any problems with eco-system. And while we’re at it, why don’t we just kill all the people that way the Earth will be nice and clean again. Maybe if we start from scratch the next generation that comes up, after we kill everybody, will not destroy the Earth.

Dweed53p@gmail.com
5 months ago

As a sportman in NV. I am out in the bush as much as I can. Not only to hunt and fish. But my family and I will often stop clean up humans trash. As for the magical wild hores (hores crap). They are very aggressive animals. They are very territorial running off native wildlife. They will sample other animals . And we’ll and water holes and springs. Like cat and dogs the Lear stud will mark there areas. We ha e been many times been chances and had to run from them. They are not native to the America’s. And have no native predators to contral them. Yes will cats now and than take one. But it’s not afyen and not enough

Barbara
5 months ago

I love cattle but they are destroying the land not the wild horses. Leave the horses alone

5 months ago

WOW ! Its so good to hear how many people understand the plight of our Mustangs. Didn’t we ( our ancestors) come from somewhere else ? My main concern is to get the Mustangs out of the abusive hands of the BLM. Yes, land needs to be managed, but the care of our Mustangs must be OUT of the hands of the BLM. I don’t understand how they get away with,taking away land that is rightfully and LEGALLY belongs to the Mustangs and other wildlife, to ranchers and infrastructure?? $$$ So, if u REALLY want to help with the fight FOR Mustangs please write and call all your representatives for your state, every bit helps. Then, please look into Wildhorse Education (site)

Jeff Hoffman
5 months ago

First and foremost, the whole idea of rewilding is to put ecosystems, habitats, and species back to as close as possible to where they were before humans harmed or destroyed them. Since horses are native to North America and since humans caused them to become extinct, there is no reason to refrain from replacing the extinct horses with feral ones. I understand George’s position that ecosystems are not static and that the plants & animals evolved with each other, but this position taken to its extreme, as George does by advocating for the removal of horses, that fact would eliminate rewilding altogether. If we conclude the humans caused the native horses to become extinct, then replacing them with feral ones makes sense, and George’s argument doesn’t hold water.

Additionally, George concedes that ranchers are using horses as scapegoats to deflect attention away from the great harms that their cattle & domestic sheep are doing, but then George does the same thing by advocating for removing horses. There are so many more cattle grazing in the west than feral horses that there is no point in focusing on horses AT ALL. If the cattle ever get removed, then we can look at horses, their native habitat, and their natural predators, and try to return to as natural of an ecological balance as possible with horses limited to their native habitats, and native predators reintroduced or increased in order to maintain balance. Advocating for removal of horses at this point is just playing into the hands of the ranchers.

George’s claim about the last native horses in North America is also incorrect. A horse skeleton the size of today’s horses was recently found in North America, showing that these horses existed here until the people who came across the land bridge caused them to become extinct.

“When people suggest that our continent was populated with horses, mammoths, camels, giant sloths, and other now-extinct North American Ice Age mammals at the end of the Ice Age and thus the mega-fauna could and should be reintroduced, they neglect to consider the entire ecological landscape is changed. The plant communities in the Great Basin 12,000 years ago were different. Water was more abundant, and the climate was cooler.” The issue is, did humans cause these extinctions, did they happen because of natural factors like a changing climate, or was it some combination. If the latter, it’s probably unknowable whether these animals would have become extinct if not for humans, and the whole question may be unknowable. So in that case, what should we do? I say return as many of the natives as possible, including horses. If they can’t survive naturally in the current ecosystems and climate, then they’ll once again become extinct or extirpated, and we can leave it at that. But unless we’re sure that horses became extinct naturally, removing the feral horses is just more human harm to the natural environment.

And BTW, horses are not cattle. To say that horse advocates are using the same arguments as ranchers is false for that reason. Cattle are not native, and never were. In fact, they’re not even naturally-evolved animals, because they were bred into existence by humans. Horses, on the other hand, are native to the Americas.

Celeste
5 months ago

I agree with what is being said mostly. But that cattle are monitored I disagree. These cattlemen and cattle association have lots of money to pay off the people who need to be paid off to pass whatever kind of inspection. I believe that if cattle were more closely monitored you would find that they would need to be decreased. And there would be plenty of room for the wild horses. And for those who think that the wild horses should be Roundup….. Go to a Roundup and see how barbaric it is. How many horses die or have to be shot because of broken legs. How many babies get left behind and then have to be shot. Then tell me that these animals are being treated humanely. I’ve witnessed around up from a distance of course because the BLM will not let you get close. Why? Because it is so barbaric. These animals are terrified by these helicopters looming Just feet above their head. They panic, they break bones,they get separated,they fall in ditches. Then once they’re in the pens they do whatever they can to try to escape usually breaking limbs. Like I said go to one of these “roundups” and then tell me what you think.

Tamey Hemminger
5 months ago

Money talks, cattle people can afford to pay government officials to get their way, get rid of wild horses and they have more time to graze their cattle on Our public land. Yes I said public land your’s and mine! And I prefer to have wild horses on my land. Cattle cause more damage to the eco system than horses. Cattle rip the grass out of the ground where horses cut the grass with their teeth, hirses also folliw a trail, cows do not which is what causes damage to the ground. It’s been proven in Alberta Canada with studies they are doing there, with video proof.

Janine
5 months ago

Thank you, John Davis, and Rewilding Earth, for publishing Liz’s article. Can’t wait to see more on this subject from North America’s Rewilding org.

The affect of wild horses on rangeland should not be judged in areas where they are contained by livestock fencing, and where their population is artificially managed. Wild horses evolved in North America, and remote herds continue to adapt to thrive in various ecosystems. They should be allowed to range and forage freely across our public lands, and their populations should be allowed to remain healthy and strong through natural selection, as nature intended.

Science is not static, and old prejudices must be overcome to move forward.

Brian
5 months ago

Utter nonsense from beginning to end. For all of time, species gave moved in and out of various ecosystems and mother nature balances the ecosystem accordingly. The problems start with human meddling and never giving nature the time to balance ecosystems. The more humans meddle, the more unbalanced the system gets. Man should leave well enough alone and let mother nature do what it does best.

The entire invasive species mantra is hogwash.

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