Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Horses as a Native Species, Now

This morning, I have been mulling over the social pressure to designate free-roaming horses as a native species.  Many people appear to want the horses classified this way.  Their arguments are that wild horses were here over 10,000 years ago.  They evolved in North America.  Their life began here, and now they have come home.  I worry, however, about what might happen if horses, an animal domesticated for thousands of years, is given native status.

Since horses have been in the care of humans, they have essentially become livestock.  Husbandry changed them.  And then when they were brought back to North America by explorers, dispersed throughout the West by ranchers, miners, farmers, and Indians, they became wild once again.  But, something had changed to the ecosystem they once called home.  It was dry.  Forage was not as lush as it had been when they left.  Those that once preyed upon their flesh were all gone.  Life was good, if you were a horse.  Few deaths, high birth rates, and their population was ever increasing at a geometric rate. 

Their numbers were held in check, however. Although their numbers were once estimated in the millions and once  may have competed with the bison, they have always had a predator.  At the time when their numbers peaked, there were a few factors that allowed it.  The west was still wide open.  The cities and settlements of today had not taken root.  Also, horses were in demand.  These wild creatures running the ranges were used by the Indians, the ranchers, and the farmers. 

And then, when they became numerous and competed with livestock, horrible things were done to trim the herds.  They were run off cliffs.  They were shot.  They were corralled and left to die slowly.  Until recent history, their population was always controlled in some way.  Even now, frequent gathers prevent them from overpopulating.

Horses are an introduced species to this modern day North American ecosystem.  If the landscape was more lush, and the climate allowed it, the horses would be returning to familiar territory.  But things have changed in the 10,000 or so years they have been gone.  It was why they died.  It was why they migrated across the Bering Land Bridge into Eurasia.  This land could no longer sustain them.

The only way they can live in these arid ecosystems across the Great Basin is because of management.  If a species has to be extensively managed via gathers every four years, can the be qualified as native?  Native wildlife have predators.  They also have humans who hunt them.  Why is it important that these free-roaming horses be given the status of native?  They have been livestock for so many generations.  Even now, with management policies that control the population, we are still applying the concept of husbandry to their populations.  Without that control, however, the population will increase until there is nothing left for them to eat, and then it will crash.  The rangelands will be destroyed.  Sustainable populations of horses may not be able to come back.

I'm not sure under what terms a re-introduced species becomes a native one.  I think I want to do more research on this subject.  Perhaps, when I have the time, I will look at the Prezwalski horse – arguably the only true wild horse left on this planet.  Then I can make a comparison.  Initially, I can say the one difference is that one species lives on grasslands and has never been domesticated in its history, and the other has been domesticated in its past, and lives on arid rangelands...

I think my goal will be to look at this topic over winter break.  It might be beneficial to me in my research to look at a truly native wild horse...


  1. Prezwalski horses were down to 9 animals, 5 aged stallions and 4 aged mares or something like that in zoo's only. They started an intensive breeding program to rebuild. I think they had to out breed to make this happen. Interesting reading.

  2. It's a coincidence that you are talking about horse history and phylogeny. It turned out Tuesday that one of the semester group projects presented by students in one of my classes was about the wild horse problem. They talked a lot about history and phylogeny, and of course closed the presentation with an animal-rights message. History and phylogeny are very important and at this point, I'm not sure what impact such information would have on courses of action, but to me it seems that arguing over whether or not horses are a native species is a distraction that can be misused by both sides of the fight. To me, horses are effectively wildlife on the range and we have to just manage them as such. I mean, they're there now, so what do we intend to do about it?? Thanks for your blog!

  3. I think you might be right, Beth. I don't think it would impact courses of action much. It won't solve the problem of how best to manage free-roaming horses. They already have so many protections! Some sources I've read argue they have more protections than those on the endangered species list. Their management is quite unique, and giving them the status of native wildlife won't change anything...but it is still interesting. I look forward to having some time over winter break to reading a little about the Przewalski horse...