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...