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Feral vs. wild horses

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Monica Gokey | Apr 11, 2013 05:00 AM

The question of whether mustangs in the West are feral versus wild is a controversial one; it’s got a knack for appearing in the comment section of many a mustang story. Mustang advocates are adamant the wild horse is a bona fide North American wildlife species – on par with deer, elk, bison and pronghorn. Scientists, ever the party poopers, beg to differ.

Horse evolution is well documented in North America’s fossil record – first as a small dog-sized animal that walked on five toes over 50 million years ago, on to larger equines that bore their weight on single hooves. Horses went extinct on North America some 12,000 years ago – likely due to some cocktail of climate change and overhunting by man – but not before they migrated over the land bridge into Asia (where they further diversified into asses and zebras).

Despite their extinction on North America, horses guaranteed themselves a permanent spot in history when humans domesticated them some 4,000-5,000 years ago on the Asian steppes (possibly earlier). A partnership was born, and equines became a catalyst for human migration (and war).

Once domesticated, horses carried Gengis Khan’s empire into power. They were painted by Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. They bore the weight of the Crusaders on their backs (nobody said being friends with humans was easy). And 500 years ago, Spanish conquistadors couriered horses back to their evolutionary homeland aboard ships. Some escaped and became the seed stock for what would become a burgeoning wild horse population.

But are the horses here today the same animals that left 12,000 years ago? That is, how much did horses change in the 4,000-5,000 years since they were domesticated?

In wild species, nature selects for traits that best equip an animal for survival. But when humans are involved, we select for traits that meet our needs – a practice dubbed selective breeding. A new study in Nature suggests that by domesticating animals (dogs, in this case), we actually cause changes in their genetic hardwiring.

Selective breeding is generally obvious to the naked eye -- no need to zoom-in on genetics. Take a golden retriever for example. Its wild ancestor (by tens of thousands of years) is a wolf. Generation after generation, humans selected for the traits they desired: a caramel-colored coat, a can-do attitude, and an endearing tendency to slobber. Likewise, horses brought to the Americas by Europeans were purposefully sculpted beasts of burden.

Today’s wild horses often exhibit certain breed characteristics: Oregon’s Stinkingwater Herd Management Area (HMA) has a noticeable influence of draft horse; many of Wyoming’s HMAs are notorious for paints. Despite living in the wild, their domestic origins are clear.

One equine geneticist, Dr. Philip Sponenberg of Virginia Tech, points to color as a prominent indicator of mustangs’ domestic origins: wild populations generally have a single color and no white markings, he told me.

In North America, most native fauna are brown (think of deer, elk, bison, etc.). White isn’t an advantageous color in the wild (well, not in North America anyway) – but to humans who adore unique markings, perhaps it’s irresistible. Many mustangs bear white snips, stars or blazes in addition to sporting a variety of coat colors: palomino, sorrel, dun, grulla, chestnut, bay, and so forth.

A lot of mustangs don’t behave entirely like wild animals either (though this varies depending on the HMA). In the Pryor Mountains of Montana, for example, the Bureau of Land Management posts signage asking visitors not to approach the horses – because visitors can approach the horses. That approachability is a non-reversible remnant of domestication.

While science has soundly established that America’s mustangs are feral, not wild – the issue of whether horses are a native species keeps cropping up among mustang advocates.

Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick is one of the few scientists to strike a middle ground on the issue. He calls horses a “reintroduced native species” – but also says that it doesn’t matter which biological category you put them in (feral or wild), their fecundity begs for outside management. Though horses evolved on North America, today their population is no longer naturally controlled. Left alone, modern horse herds can double in size every 4-5 years (where are those darn saber-toothed cats?). Kirkpatrick is a pioneer in wildlife contraception, and has already shown that birth control can be an effective means to control wild horse numbers (read more about his work on Assateague Island).

So does the label really matter?

Some advocates argue it does, feeling that formal designation as a native North American species would entitle mustangs to more stringent protection.

In his HCN feature story, “Nowhere to run,” author Dave Philipps describes mustangs as “technically feral, non-native transplants like hogs or knapweed,” but notes that their relationship to humans and history makes them different than other invasive species.

“Centuries of living alongside people in the West had made [mustangs] an emblem of the wide-open landscapes, and of the grit, defiance and hardiness that Americans still believed defined their nation.”

Even though mustangs are not a native wild species – they are feral – most will agree America’s mustangs are a species of cultural importance, and one that deserves protection as such.

Monica Gokey is finishing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Montana. She is producing a radio documentary on mustangs in the West, with a focus on the Pryor Mountain mustangs of Montana. In getting to know the horses, Monica has also gotten to know their cohort of people – an equally colorful bunch (she says that fondly).

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell Subscriber
Apr 11, 2013 08:21 AM
There is no middle ground to factual science. You can't say, "well maybe global warming isn't reality", because someone says it isn't.

That said the issue isn't horses, it's people, and it pervades our relationships to animals wild or domestic. Feral horses or cats, wolves or mountain lions, stray dogs or pets, modern affluent peoples detached from the natural world have a difficult time dealing with animals.

There is no balance of nature. The year is 2013.
Nancy Thompson
Nancy Thompson
Apr 11, 2013 09:58 AM
I disagree with horses becoming extinct in America. Just because an explorer said he didn't see them in South America or Mexico didn't mean they weren't in the USA. Cortez saw them in Oregon,herds of them along the coast and there was no way they had time to migrate and breed that large in a few short years. Native American's had horses then also. They were a smaller,stouter horse then the Spanish horse and were thicker haired like the Curley.
 I also disagree with true wild animals all have a fear of humans. Lots of wildlife will not fear humans unless given a reason. There are many documented cases of deer,bear,birds,wolves never touched by man coming up to a human.I myself have had fawns come up to me in the wild.Animals have a curiosity and will approach humans under certain circumstances.
 I also disagree with wild horses not having natural predators....they do. Mountain lions,bear,coyote and wolves are all predators of horses. The problem arises when ranchers are allowed to kill the predators out thus throwing the balance of nature off. Leave the horses out there,stop killing the predators and they will in turn go back to killing deer,elk and horses instead of cattle. Cattle which are most likely grazing on the land set aside for the wild horses in the first place.
Steven Stapp
Steven Stapp
Apr 11, 2013 11:49 AM
Gee...could you have any more outdated information? Your theory of science being so sound on this subject is pretty lame.

New translations of Spanish Explorers logs tell us they found horses here not only in South and Central America but even on some of the islands in the Caribbean. Think about it...have you ever seen a replica of the Nina, or Pinta or any other Spanish galleon? They were entirely too small to carry the sailors, the exploration forces, armaments, food and water to survive the months on the high seas to be carrying a couple of hundred horses. That argument is just silly.

As to the white coloration...the Spanish bred to brown horses as uniform as possible. We know that Native American History tells us that there were thriving horse cultures on the plains hundreds of years before Columbus much less the Spanish. The Natives had a multitude of colors (white being perfect camouflage during the winter months or hiding in the aspens.)

Now connect the dots... the spotted horses pictured in caves in France and the appaloosa bred by the Nez Perce. Needless to say not all the horses in this country were derived from the Spanish herds.

As for Dr. Kirkpatrick you fail to quote his summary..."The key element in describing an animal as a native species is (1) where it originated; and (2) whether or not it co‐evolved with its habitat. Clearly, E. 6 caballus did both, here in North American. There might be arguments about "breeds," but there are no scientific grounds for arguments about "species.""
Carol Walker
Carol Walker
Apr 11, 2013 02:00 PM
Yes the name does matter because there are protections in place for native species, but not for wildlife designated as feral. There is a reason that this shows up in the comments section of articles published here - because the High Country News only publishes articles calling wild horses feral. It is a shame that you did not actually read what Jay F. Kirkpatrick and Patricia Fazio wrote about wild horses as a native species - that the key elements that distinguish them as such are where they originated, which is on this continent and whether or not they co-evolved with their habitat, which they did. If you would like to read the very excellent article it is here: http://www.thecloudfoundati[…]ive-north-american-wildlife
Simply using the wild horses of the Pryor Mountains, who have become accustomed to people because of the volume of visitors each year as an example to "prove" that wild horses are not actually wild is ridiculous. I am sure you have witnessed other wildlife that gets used to human encroachment, and do not call deer or fox "feral."
There is plenty of room for our wild horses on our public lands, and right now the fight is on to save half of Wyoming's wild horses because of the greed of a grazing association who considers all the public land as their own. Our wild horses are a precious resource, and it would be very refreshing for the High County News FOR ONCE to publish and article about wild horses that is not slanted toward needing to remove them as a pest or a nuisance. How about having a wild horse advocate do an article for a change? Sincerely, Carol Walker
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
Apr 11, 2013 02:07 PM
Marilyn Wargo
Marilyn Wargo Subscriber
Apr 11, 2013 02:28 PM
Well, Jodi, a few years back you told me that the wild horses were "just a luxury the West could no longer afford." I sent many well researched papers to editor Jonathan. And in the context of the most recent campaign to save the wild ones you have been printing a great deal of government spin and public relations which are not true. This lady has not got the facts. It is scary when people who know their work and the wild horses are not welcome at HCN and considered 'extremists'. You don't even know them and you accept the judgements from BLM as fact. You are wrong on this one. I have read HCN for 41 years. You are way off base and I believe Carol Walker is right; allow an article by a respected wild horse advocate to be published to allow for balance. The only part of Dave Phillips piece that was positive was the one on Spring Creek Basin. Maybe you need to go down there and spend a little time with TJ Holmes. Open your eyes. None of us are extremists and we have been pushed hard by BLM for years with their disregard for the 1971 Act and the wild horses and burros. We have been gracious and respectful of all. We have too much to lose. most sincerely, Mar Wargo
Marilyn Wargo
Marilyn Wargo Subscriber
Apr 11, 2013 02:40 PM
By the way, the 1971 Act was never fully enacted or developed by BLM. The Act calls for Independent Study to be used to base management decisions upon. This was NEVER done. BLM simply harvested horses and allowed the mustanging to continue while only partially managing the herds. Today the Act is not enforced by any one. This is a a huge land grab. You do not see what we do; the wild ones are a barometer for what is to come. Our public lands are in turmoil. If HCN can respect the efforts of a young man who bid on gas leases in Moab and not show respect for the tens of thousands who love our wild horses and burros then what have we come to? An impasse over semantics? I don't think so. I have to ask if you get any grants from extractive industries or the government. I know, I can go look it up. But for the record, why have you forsaken the wild ones and the lands they represent which should have been nurtured and all species given protection on?
Marilyn Wargo
Marilyn Wargo Subscriber
Apr 11, 2013 04:00 PM
No offense Jody, you published Deanne Stillman because she is Deanne Stillman and the rest was Writers on the Range. Nice but not what I call an article by a wild horse advocate in the NOW. I know 'we' submit and send you informations and releases. So how about something a journalist can be proud of; an article with less bias and more facts?
Ted Chu
Ted Chu Subscriber
Apr 11, 2013 04:01 PM
All horses in the Americas descended from domestic stock and are therefore feral by definition. They did not co-evolve with their habitat here having only recently returned after missing out on the most recent 5K or so years of this habitat's evolution. Horses were originally domesticated to provide a source of meat and milk and to be used as beasts of burden. It is only recently that they have become a pet species. They cause more damage per head to the environment than cows because they are out there 24-7-365 while most other livestock do come off the range for at least part of the year. Lastly they provide a ready scapegoat for poor range conditions for livestock grazers who cows or sheep may actually be the problem.
Marilyn Wargo
Marilyn Wargo Subscriber
Apr 11, 2013 06:12 PM
Yes, they did co evolve. That is just the ting. They did. Cows have devastated the West and do not belong in an arid place to forage in the first place. You apparently refuse to research and read, Ted Chu.
pocahontas  day
pocahontas day
Apr 12, 2013 05:47 AM
when i read an article such as this- i have to wonder how much the cattle industry was involved or how involved you are with the cattle industry?

"feral" huh? it is a travesty that your "publication" is based on propaganda and chooses to perpetuate this throughout your reading community. and it is propaganda, as your editorial really misses the mark and quite honestly i think you are writing so you can advocate charging the american tax payer more by removing our horses and replacing them with cattle, and that your publication feels that the american tax payer should pay for this welfare ranching industry on OUR public lands. why do you never write an article exposing the truth and facts of this - surely you are not unaware. these cattle are ruining our land and ruining the american budget- WE pay a hefty price for them to have that land at SEVERELY reduced rates. your article is slanted as you would like to paint a picture that our horses are not indigenous- you could not be more wrong. i never quite understand the outward, almost hatred the ranching community has for our horses that you have launched an all-out smear campaign against them...oh that's right - MONEY. these ranchers want this land and they have abused our horses and the american tax payer in doing so. people are starting to wake up and realize what is actually going on and just how much we are being taken advantage of. these rancher's are the same ones that want horse slaughter to resume on our soil even though they have seen the massive economic destruction from the horse meat scandal in the EU and the TONS of beef that have been recalled for horse meat contamination.

not to mention that the land these ranchers are allowed to have - OUR public land that OUR NATIVE SPECIES horses hold be on - is used for cattle and the beef is EXPORTED, doesn't stay here - doesn't benefit the american people. this meat is exported and then we turn right around and IMPORT beef - wow, what a deal of us.

in closing, please do not continue to manipulate the truth. the scientific statement presented to Congress by BY JAY F. KIRKPATRICK, PH.D. AND PATRICIA M. FAZIO, PH.D. - clearly shows and blatantly states that our horses are in fact a native species and are not "feral" as you choose to say. and yes, people comment on "these mustang" articles b.c we are tired of the assault on our horses and the misinformation the likes of your publication and the cattle industry continue to spread.

please print correct information for your readers, as the truth does matter, and the american tax payer deserves the truth at the very minimum.

"feral" huh? it is a travesty that your "publication" is based on propaganda and chooses to perpetuate this throughout your reading community. and it is propaganda, as your editorial really misses the mark and quite honestly i think you are writing so you can advocate charging the american tax payer more by removing our horses and replacing them with cattle, and that your publication feels that the american tax payer should pay for this welfare ranching industry on OUR public lands. why do you never write an article exposing the truth and facts of this - surely you are not unaware. these cattle are ruining our land and ruining the american budget- WE pay a hefty price for them to have that land at SEVERELY reduced rates. your article is slanted as you would like to paint a picture that our horses are not indigenous- you could not be more wrong. i never quite understand the outward, almost hatred the ranching community has for our horses that you have launched an all-out smear campaign against them...oh that's right - MONEY. these ranchers want this land and they have abused our horses and the american tax payer in doing so. people are starting to wake up and realize what is actually going on and just how much we are being taken advantage of. these rancher's are the same ones that want horse slaughter to resume on our soil even though they have seen the massive economic destruction from the horse meat scandal in the EU and the TONS of beef that have been recalled for horse meat contamination.

not to mention that the land these ranchers are allowed to have - OUR public land that OUR NATIVE SPECIES horses hold be on - is used for cattle and the beef is EXPORTED, doesn't stay here - doesn't benefit the american people. this meat is exported and then we turn right around and IMPORT beef - wow, what a deal of us.

in closing, please do not continue to manipulate the truth. the scientific statement presented to Congress by BY JAY F. KIRKPATRICK, PH.D. AND PATRICIA M. FAZIO, PH.D. - clearly shows and blatantly states that our horses are in fact a native species and are not "feral" as you choose to say. and yes, people comment on "these mustang" articles b.c we are tired of the assault on our horses and the misinformation the likes of your publication and the cattle industry continue to spread.

please print correct information for your readers, as the truth does matter, and the american tax payer deserves the truth at the very minimum.








pocahontas  day
pocahontas day
Apr 12, 2013 05:50 AM
* i cannot correct my comment as for see reason it is posted 2x...sorry about that, have tried to correct but cannot!
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Apr 12, 2013 09:56 AM
Nicely balanced essay Ms. Gokey. I think some folks are always going to have difficulty with the labels applied in contentious issues like this one because of the subtext of management, as is evident from the comments above. The basic truth is there is no panacea when it comes to free-ranging horse populations on public lands and a vocal portion approach the issue with fervent belief system that cannot accept a science-based consensus. Personally, I'm awaiting the National Research Council report that should be due out this summer as current state-of-the-science, as long as the federal sequestration doesn't delay it.
Marilyn Wargo
Marilyn Wargo Subscriber
Apr 12, 2013 12:07 PM
Tim Baker, My background is in biology and equine science and I tend to lean towards the science that not only BLM has always been very short on (and the advocacy also has been also) because with out science based decisions we cannot be effective or successful in the future. But I laugh at the idea that a federal backed report is going to be the end all and be all of the science needed to make informed management decisions on the wild horses and burros. Read the 1971 Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act and see how far 'policies' have gone off the core of the act. Our wild horses are not over populated or feral and they are a native species, returned or not. The lands they are on are being snapped up by the extractive industries' projects and they are squeezed out by the dominant corporate welfare cattle, slowly but surely. Decisions do not favor the wild ones. We want this turned about and I can guarantee you the lands of the wild horses and burros could be a great resource to our people and other resident wildlife if we detach the Program from the BLM. This needs to be done before more tragedy and betrayal occur.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Apr 12, 2013 05:52 PM
Ms. Wargo, Before you laugh at the NRC study, perhaps you should actually look at who is conducting it. I certainly don't know what their conclusions are going to be, but I'd bet good money they know more about the current state of knowledge about the science of the issue than either you or I. Just because you might not like their answers doesn't mean they won't be correct.

http://dels.nas.edu/[…]/DELS-BANR-10-05

As to the social benefit of horses, I suggest that Ms. Gokey had it right, they have a cultural value, despite their origins, and some limited protection and management for that value is warranted. They are however, descendants of domesticated horses and as a result are feral animals, no matter how many generations removed or how much horse advocates wish they weren't. Perhaps a less value-laden term like free-ranging horses is one we can all agree upon and move on from this argument over labels.
Adam Neff
Adam Neff Subscriber
Apr 12, 2013 10:07 PM
Feral horse sounds like something I'd order on a menu... seriously, tasty and good for the environment.
Marilyn Wargo
Marilyn Wargo Subscriber
Apr 13, 2013 12:34 PM
UNfortunately this is an information war and you still seem to miss the point; the lands the wild horses were given are valuable and getting them off for the exploitation of these public lands is why all this is happening. Independent study is needed for a reason. And if you think we should just accept the word of a biased agency or any government entity for doing a study then you are naive. I already know what has been found out for decades about overgrazing by cattle on public lands. I have fought this since the 80s. I see the results all around me. It is not wild horsesas they have in the past occupied less than 10% of public lands. Today it is smaller and they are allowed to use maybe 10 % of their own lands! We now have so few in the wild yet BLM still claims the same numbers year after year; 37,000??? HAHA! If you have not been out there and seen what is happening and you depend upon the government for information you are being hood winked. Since when does an intelligent American ever just accept something the government has said? That has not ever been our way. But with the weakening of the national press and the loss of investigative reporter we are left with little reliable information. Wild horse advocates who have proven their legitimacy and stood their ground have some darn good information to offer. So don't act like we have no resources because we do. It 'ain't' easy fighting City Hall or BLM....
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Apr 17, 2013 03:32 PM
Aiyiyi! Get a grip, please! Those horses documented by the Spanish might have made the trip with earlier explorers reaching western shores from further east. China and Japan both had domesticated horses and bigger boats. And they arrived before the Columbus planted the Spanish flag.

The issue might be simplified if the fossil record could provide evidence of modern horses in the western hemisphere, after their presumed extinction 12,000 years ago and before their presumed reintroduction from Asia or Europe.
Ted Chu
Ted Chu Subscriber
Apr 22, 2013 06:01 PM
Margo, it is you who fails to do research and read and you are in full denial about the origins of these animals. You can claim over and over again that these are native animals but they are all descendants of domestic stock and are therefore feral. I totally agree with you that domestic or feral cows, sheep and goats (what's your position on them?) also don't belong on our western ranges, especially our public lands, but your two wrongs makes a right position makes no sense. And if you are truly concerned about the health of the land, why would you want to keep feral horses out there when it allows the ranchers to blame them, instead of their livestock, for degraded ranges? I have no problem with a few feral horses on the land and the animals on the National Wild Horse perserve on the Montana Wyoming border and I grew up with horses, owned horses for many years and saw and admired my first feral horse on the Utah West Desert in 1960. I also understand this is an emotional issue for you and I applaud your fervor, but I respectfully disagree totally with your conclusions.
Ted Chu
Ted Chu Subscriber
Apr 22, 2013 06:05 PM
Pocahontas - I agree totally with you - both the cows and the horses do not belong and they need to come off to make room for native wildlife and plants.
Marybeth Devlin
Marybeth Devlin
Apr 24, 2013 03:33 PM
The Feral Epithet -- The term "feral" has hostile connotations and real political consequences. Below is the link to an article from several years ago that discusses the term "feral" as applied to America's native wild horses. The article is, unfortunately, just as true today as it was then.

http://www.wildhorsespirit.[…]al_native_species_issue.htm

Don't Pet the Horses -- The reason BLM advises visitors to the Pryors not to approach the horses is for the same reason that Park Rangers tell tourists not to feed the bears: It's dangerous. You could get hurt. Many ignorant persons even offer wild horses treats, which creates an association between humans and food. Subsequently, upon spotting humans approaching, the horses expect treats. If food is not forthcoming, they deem it a breach of the social contract, and they can become aggressive. Here are links to articles regarding the Assateague and Shackleford Banks herds, and the perils of getting too close.

http://www.npr.org/[…]/assateagues-wild-horses-get-too-close-to-company

http://www.jdnews.com/news/[…]e-from-wild-horses-1.129577

Approachability v. Domestication -- The blog conflates certain terms that are not identical, such as "feral" with "non-native" and "approachability" with "domestication." A number of wild animal species exhibit approachability to humans. Rather than being a "non-reversible remnant of domestication," it's just their nature. Think dolphins. People capture them from the ocean and before you know it, they're performing somersaults at SeaWorld. Think cheetahs and hyenas. Apparently ferocious predators, they are easily tamed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheetah#Taming

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Striped_hyena#Tameability

Per Zeder (2012), to be a candidate for domestication, a wild species needs to possess certain "pre-adaptive" attributes, and "the degree to which a species is pre-adapted to domestication is positively correlated with the degree to which its behavior in its natural environment resembles its behavior in its captive environment." Specific behavioral traits are favorable, and one of those is "response to humans." It includes the following characteristics, which certainly apply to wild horses:

Short flight distance away from humans
Low reactivity to humans or sudden changes in environment
May solicit attention
Readily habituated.

Zeder finds it " ... interesting to note that none of the traditional markers used to track domestication in animals that followed the commensal or prey pathways is useful in documenting horse domestication. There are no apparent morphological markers that can be used to discriminate domestic horses from wild horses (E. ferus) ...." See pages 4-5 and 20 at the link below.

http://alexandriaarchive.org/[…]/zedergptsetal2012_96265cead7.pdf

Native Species -- There is, in fact, scientific consensus: the horse originated in North America. Therefore, it is a native species. Below are the links to academic discussions regarding the origin of the horse.

https://docs.google.com/[…]/edit?pli=1

http://www.awionline.org/[…]/wild-horses-native-north-american-wildlife

Reintroduced Native Species -- When a native species goes extinct in a particular habitat, efforts are often made to reestablish it. Horses may or may not have gone extinct in North America. But if they did, they were reintroduced in their ancestral homeland, for which they are perfectly suited, about five hundred years ago. The descendants of those horses have since become rewilded. However, it must be noted that Native American oral tradition maintains that horses were always here, that they never left. That tradition also recounts how the horses were then exterminated, when, why, and by whom.

http://www.saveourwildhorse.com/[…]/AboriginalNorthAmericanHorse.pdf

Introduced, Non-native Domesticated Species -- In this regard, one must cite livestock, mention of which was conspicuously absent from the blog-post. On public lands, non-native domesticated livestock outnumber native wild horses by nearly 30 to 1. BLM allots approximately 8,600,000 monthly grazing units to livestock in the ten Western states that have wild-horse herds. Even in herd management areas, which are legally designated primarily though not necessarily exclusively for wild horses, cattle typically get apportioned 90 percent of the grazing slots. And, because the cattle are turned out for less than a year, at least double the number of livestock are placed on the public range than would be the case, were they instead to graze year-round. Their impact is enormous because BLM does not require permit-holders to practice Holistic Management.

Non-native Species that Migrated to America -- Although the blogger characterized American bison as "native," the ancestral species originated in Eurasia, where it went through a lot of cross-breeding. Interestingly, the American bison is related to the yak, which is a domesticated species. The bison's forebears migrated over the Beringian Land Bridge to North America. As is commonly known, America's bison were hunted into near-extinction in the 19th century but, fortunately, through reintroduction and conservation, they were saved.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_bison#Evolution

Bighorn sheep are another non-native. The species evolved in Siberia and, just like the bison, crossed over the Beringian Land Bridge to North America. Bighorn too were on the verge of extinction by around 1900. It was only through reintroduction and conservation efforts (famously, by the Arizona Boy Scouts) that the species was restored.

Translocated and Farm-bred Non-natives -- Reportedly, all California bighorn translocated into the U.S. were imported from British Columbia. Surplus bighorn from Nevada have been moved to Texas. There are projects in which bighorn are raised on farms or ranches and then released into specific areas identified as suitable habitat. In many cases, the animals are radio-collared for monitoring of these restocking projects. Often, "soft releases" are necessary to ease the transition from captive to free living, and native predators, such as mountain lions, are culled to protect the non-native bighorn. Despite all this support, many captive-reared bighorn fail to survive in the wild.

The propagation of the bighorn is indeed quite involved. In California, one of the state universities developed guidelines for constructing and maintaining a captive-breeding facility for Sierra Nevada bighorn. Considerations included selection of founder breeding stock, animal husbandry, veterinary care, and a summary of diseases that can impact a captive herd. Start-up and first year costs were estimated to range from $600,000-$1,000,000. Moreover, it was recommended that such a facility would need to practice well-planned breeding, with pedigree and genetic analyses conducted per consultation with a geneticist experienced in ungulate captive breeding.

Are selectively-bred, hand-reared bighorn wild? If contact with the humans who cared for them during lambhood makes these bighorn more approachable after release, have they been tamed? Domesticated over succeeding generations? Would approachability be considered a desirable trait by hunters who want to bag a quick trophy? Are farmed bighorn really feral creatures?

Imported Non-native Wild Species -- Then there are the exotics, such as Chukar Partridge (from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) and Hungarian Partridge. These species were officially imported to the United States by game departments, sportsmen's clubs, and interested individuals. The birds were propagated on game-farms and then released in those ten Western states that are home to native wild horses. In Nevada alone, the current statewide population of Chukar is estimated at more than 500,000. The blog-post did not address imported non-native wildlife.

Brown Coat-Color -- The blogger declares that brown coat-color evidences that animals such as bison are "wild." In fact, the bison's brown coat hides "tainted" DNA within. Most bison carry genes from the domesticated cattle with whom their ancestors were cross-bred. Does that make them feral? At this time, only four bison herds in the United States appear to be free of hybridized domestic cattle-genes. Conservationists are endeavoring to breed-out the cattle DNA from the other bison herds. That humans -- rather than Nature -- are managing those projects to eliminate the cattle-DNA through selective breeding of captive bison, does such intervention constitute a form of domestication? Or is it human-driven rewilding?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_bison#Genetics
 
Reversion to Unique Ancestral Markings -- Many of America's wild horses exhibit primitive markings -- a dorsal stripe down their back, a transverse stripe across their withers, and horizontal "zebra" stripes on the back of their forelegs. The Pryor mustangs are among those displaying these retro markings. Might such throwbacks reflect rewilding?

Saber-toothed Tigers? -- The blogger cites the absence of long-extinct saber-toothed cats as the reason wild horses need to be contracepted. What about the extant mountain lions which, studies have shown, are well-able to serve as population-control agents for wild horses? The Pryor Mountains' mustang population used to be kept in check exclusively by mountain lions. But BLM wanted to experiment with PZP; so, the Agency had the lions exterminated. That is why the herd continues to be managed artificially with PZP. To restore the natural balance of the ecosystem, the native mountain lions should be reintroduced and conserved. Here are the links to two studies for reference:

https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/[…]/1745

http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/z92-132

Wild at Last -- The shallow imprint of domestication has faded from the descendants of the horses released into the American West five centuries ago. The mustangs' success -- surviving, thriving, reproducing, and dispersing independently of humans, both immediately and subsequently -- shows them to be fully functional, bona fide wild animals. Evidently, the domestication of their ancestors did not eliminate the wild DNA but merely suppressed it. The wildness genes lay dormant, ready to re-emerge as soon as given the opportunity.

The blemish of domestication has finally been erased. Feral is not forever. America's mustangs can and should now -- at long last -- be called wild.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Apr 27, 2013 07:32 PM
Ms. Devlin does an amazing job of attempting to deflect and misdirect the discussion about the use of the term 'feral' with respect to wild horses but without an apparent sense of irony. The only two articles she cites that are in the peer-reviewed literature have the very label, 'feral horses', that she decries in their titles. The rest of her citations are from horse advocate blogs, sites, or Wikipedia, which I would point out describes the free-roaming horses of the west as feral.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feral_horse

I still think if everyone just called them free-roaming horses instead of either wild (the political/advocate label) or feral (the scientific label), we could focus on the issue of appropriately managing populations that have the potential to double in size every 4-6 years in the absence of any controls.

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