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Wildlife Ecologist Craig Downer Visits Wishing Well Sanctuary


craig downer banner copyA group of horse and other animal lovers were fortunate to meet Craig Downer and have the option to purchase his book The Wild Horse Conspiracy at Wishing Well Sanctuary in Bradford, Ontario a few months ago.  Craig has been engaged in the wild horse issue since the earliest days of the movement.  During his presentation, we learned that Craig knew Wild Horse Annie, which of course was long before the creation of the legislation enacted to supposedly protect wild horses.

THE conspiracy he refers to is of course, the alternative agenda by the various government agencies responsible for overseeing the wild horses. It’s very clear that those who are charged with the management and legal enforcement of the 1971 law, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, have a much less enlightened and progressive understanding of their charges. Of course Craig is a wildlife ecologist, and is steeped in the science associated with key elements of this issue. He has a great spiritual connection to horses and burros as well.  He has made numerous valid arguments for wild equids to remain in the western range ecosystems, and provided what is, to me, the most interesting validation for them to remain in the western landscape – fossil and DNA evidence that the evolutionary precursors of Equus caballus originated in the North American continent.

Craig DownerWe Begin Here…..

In the 19th century western expansion saw ranchers/farmers purchase parcels of land that they felt were of value. Areas where water sources, higher elevations, etc made the land less desirable they left the land to public domain. Ranchers would use lands in the public domain for grazing as well, but felt they were not valuable enough for purchase. In states like Nevada that amounted to 85% of the land base.

The late 19th century saw a shift from the ideas of expansion to one of protecting the resources on the land for the American public at large. From this came the beginnings of a National Park system (Yellowstone as a National Park in 1872) and laws created to manage the resources of the land for the general good.

In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act was created with the intention of setting up grazing districts to be managed by the federal government. The law initially permitted 80,000,000 acres of previously unreserved public lands of the United States to be placed into grazing districts to be administered by the Department of the Interior. This created the Grazing Service. In 1946 the Grazing Service was merged with the General Land Office and the Bureau of Land Management was born.  In 1971 President Nixon signed into law the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act. Not until the 1976 enactment of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) did the BLM have a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate.

Along with the National Environmental Protection act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act helped form a wave of unprecedented, ecologically and species respectful laws that came into being during the 60s and 70s.

Basic Elements of Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 (WFHBA) and Other Related Acts

  1. WFHBA passed unanimously on December 15, 1971, and requires the “protection, management and control of wild free-roaming horses and burro on public lands.”
  2. Responsibility for implementing the act was delegated to this Bureau of land Management through the Secretary of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service through the Secretary of Agriculture.
  3. In its preamble,  WFHBA declares that (a) wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West: (b) they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the nation and enrich the lives of the American people: (c) wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment or death: and (d) they are to be considered in the area where presently found as an integral part of the natural system of public lands.
  4. WFHBA stipulates criminal penalties of up to $2,000 and/or a year in jail for violating the law.  Penalties increased under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, and fines can now be as high as $100,000 and/or ten years in prison for violating WFHBA.
  5. BLM and USFS must manage wild horses and burros so as “to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands” and “at the minimum feasible level.”
  6. WFHBA defines a wild horse/burro range, or legal area, as “the amount of land necessary to sustain an existing herd or herds of wild free-roaming horses and burros…and which is devoted principally but not necessarily exclusively to their welfare in keeping with the multiple use management concepts for the public lands.”
  7. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) amended WFHBA to allow for helicopter roundups.  Earlier in 1959, the Wild Horse Annie Bill (Public Law 86-234) had prohibited the use of motor vehicles in rounding up or “hunting” wild horses and burros as well as the “pollution” or poisoning of their watering holes.  FLPMA requires the development of land use plans that incorporate sustained yield and multiple use principles.
  8. The Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978 (PRIA) also amended the WFHBA.  It required a current inventory of wild horses and burros to determine appropriate management levels, or AMLs, meaning the number of wild horses/burros sustainable by the resources of the range.  Under this law, AMLs are supposed to be adjusted according to resource availability.  The law also involved the definition of “excess” wild horses or burros for any given legal area.
  9. In 2004,  the Burns Amendment to the WFHBA facilitated disposal of wild horses and burros to slaughter buyers for horses or burros who are either over ten years of age or who have been offered unsuccessfully for adoption three times.
  10. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) also governs how the wild horses and burros are treated, as this act requires environmental assessments/environmental impact statements of any action that might have a major impact on any and all aspects of our life and world, including wild horses and burros.
  11. Code of Federal Regulations 4710.5 and 4710.6 specifically provide for the curtailment or cancellation of livestock grazing privileges on public lands in order to ensure thriving healthy herds of wild horses and burros in their legal areas.
  12. Section 6 of WFHBA authorizes cooperative agreements with landowners and state and local governments to better accomplish the goals of the act.  This allows for providing complete and unimpeded habitats for long-term viable wild horse/burro populations.
  13. Section 2(b) of WFHBA defines “wild free –roaming horses and burros” as “all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands across the United States,” meaning BLM and USFS lands and possibly other agency lands as well.
  14. Section 3 (a) of WFHBA authorizes the designation of specific ranges on public lands as sanctuaries for the protection and preservation of wild horses and burros upon consultation with state wildlife agencies.
  15. Section 3 (d) prohibits selling any deceased wild horse or burro or part thereof, i.e., no commercialization.
  16. Section 7 authorizes creation of the wild horse and burro advisory board.
  17. Section 8 allows power of arrest by a federal employee of anyone violating WFHBA in his/her presence.
  18. Section 10 mandates a report to Congress on the wild horse and burro program every two years and also authorizes studies of wild horses and burros.
  19. Section 4 allows public officials to remove wild horses and burros that stray onto private property, but also allows private landowners to maintain wild free-roaming horses or burros on their private lands or on lands leased from the Government provided that they do so in a manner that protects them from harassment and that the animals were not wilfully removed or enticed from the public lands.  The latter must keep the federal government informed of the number of wild horses and burros so maintained.  This is an outstanding opportunity for the public t help in preserving and protecting the wild horse and burro herds at healthy population levels, i.e. to complement federal herd areas and territories.

(Downer, The Wild Horse Conspiracy: XI-XIII)

Why do the practices of the past continue when they have been proven to create damage to the ranges and destroy the resources required to sustain other users, including wild horses and burros?

Horse advocates know that a huge effort is being made to slaughter horses, both domestic and wild, by those that support public land ranching. They claim that it is impractical to continue paying for the wild horse and burro program. Few people would disagree with that, because the program has been mismanaged for decades – the mindset being that wild horses should be moved into holding areas instead of allowing the horses to remain where they were found.  The Interior Department has taken nearly 50,000 wild horses off their western rangelands and paid private ranchers to put them in corrals and pastures, largely in Kansas and Oklahoma. More of America’s wild horses are now in holding facilities than roaming the wild. If cattle and sheep and other species of animal must be grazed on public lands, then there is definitely an argument for managing all species appropriately on the range.

When you look at the land base and allocation of forage in comparison you see just how small the wild horse issue really is. Over 250 million acres of public land are managed for livestock grazing, while the BLM has 26.9 million acres managed for wild horses and burros in comparison.  You therefore have wild horses on about 11% of BLM land. But even with equids being allocated approximately 11% of the land, the BLM still allocates most of the forage resources to privately owned livestock; management areas may consist of the equivalent of 1,000 cows and 100 horses, and when the horse population reaches 125, the BLM says the horses are overpopulating.  The horses are seen as competitors for a resource that has been overgrazed for more than a century by cattle. Obviously, what we really have is an overpopulation of cattle and sheep on our public lands, not horses.

Not only cattle and sheep, but replacing wild equids are big game such as elk.  Also entering into the equation are oil and gas drilling, pipelines, mining, subdivision developments, dams, off-road vehicles, golf courses, among other ecologically destructive and extractive activities – those that take from the land but do not give back.  The Ruby pipeline path recently constructed across northern Nevada is now overrun with exotic cheat grass and the wild horses have nearly all been rounded up.  Previously,  the wild horses consumed these grasses, thus helping to remove one risk of fires during droughts.

In addition, permittees only pay a small percentage of fair market value, at present amounting to about 9-12%, in order to graze their livestock on the public lands.  (Downer, The Wild Horse Conspiracy: 118) This is below “market value,”  and the GAO reported that the government lost at least $123 million in order to prop up public lands livestock grazing, while real costs have been estimated as at least one-half billion dollars per year.

Salt River Foal

Photo by Kelly Blevins

Either by deliberate malfeasance or outright incompetence, the BLM also claims there are more horses than there actually are, and independent researchers such as Cindy McDonald of Las Vegas have put the numbers at less than 20,000.  Researchers such as McDonald have identified various fudge factors, especially the rate of population increase that BLM employs to overly magnify population as well as ignoring the significant mortality factors including illegal killings, fencing off of public water, over-fencing within legal herd areas, and non-Wild Horse Annie cattle guards that cause gruesome deaths in panicked horses.  Also entering into the picture here are over allocations of forage to livestock as well as double counting during census-taking.  (Downer, The Wild Horse Conspiracy: 211)

Ultimately, the BLM asked the National Academy of Sciences to complete an objective and independent review of its wild horse/burro program. The study was completed and has heavily influenced the debate. Among the Konik Wild Horsesissues covered are population control methods and the controversial question of how the BLM decides how many horses a piece of land can sustain. The sum appropriated from Congress for this was $1.5 million – enough to take down many illegal fences, secure many water sources, buy out many key grazing leases, and seriously begin a reserve design implementation for viable and naturally self-stabilizing herds.  The 436-page report found that the Bureau of Land Management has used some haphazard science in estimating herd sizes and in predicting how removal of animals would affect herd size and range conditions. The report found that the Agency also has not done well at incorporating public opinion into its decision-making.

How can it be reasonable that horses,  already living on the range,  be considered “vermin?”

One could say that many ranchers feel that they have an entitlement to use the land at a discount, an entitlement that resulted in the use of the pejorative term “welfare rancher.”  What business would not want to compete by utilizing a service at lower cost than its competitors? I suspect that the majority of ranchers feel that their domesticated animals have prima facie rights over all other species on the range.  If a rancher faces restrictions he can go to his Congressional Representative or State Legislator to represent his interest. In many states the state representative IS a rancher. In many western states the Congressional representative either is, or his family is, a rancher. In practice an agency staff person who makes a decision to restrict or terminate overuse by livestock grazing would be subject to pressure from ranchers and in many cases even from their own families. Many BLM employees live in the same communities with those they need to “manage.”  Many federal employees were born in the west with ranching or mining in their family history. So clearly, the political system supports the status quo and exerts pressure on those who challenge that status quo.

Prior to the implementation of Craig autographs copies of his book.the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and other related legislation,  the wild horses were used just as the land was, as if it were private property and not belonging to the American people. The wild horses were “harvested” and some used on the ranch. The vast majority were sold for fertilizer and dog food creating an opportunity for more personal profit from a public resource. Most people in the west know someone that profited from “mustanging” and many ranchers that hold permits today were mustangers. Since the passage of the Act inhibited profit from mustanging the animals are viewed simply as vermin by most.

In order to reap as much profit off of public land as possible all competition must be removed. As a result, the wild horse and burro herds have either been reduced to non-viable population levels or totally eliminated in most of their legal herd areas, in what constitutes nothing less than a smear campaign.  Many ranchers still resent any interference with public land grazing from the federal government.

The wild horse fulfills an ecological niche

When the horse is removed as through helicopter roundups, or killed off by man, it leaves a big gap that upsets the equilibrated life-support system.  Downer writes that “in recent times, the high rate of disappearance of large mammals from the earth’s various biomes has become alarming.  A comparison of historical (AD 1500) range maps of large mammals with their current distribution reveals that less than 21% of the terrestrial globe still contains all of the large mammals (greater than 2 kg in weight) it supported several centuries ago. “

As a major climax species, or member of the more stable,  long term, and biodiverse life community that establishes itself over time,  the horse  has helped to characterize and to assist so many of the earth’s ecosystems including by its:

1)      Grazing of grass, extensive pruning of vegetation (including forbs, shrubs, and even trees) and consequent bolstering of annual plant productivity. Wild equids eliminate dry flammable vegetation and their consequent prevention of damaging fires

2)      Successful intact seed dispersal of hundreds,  even thousands of plant species through its feces,  that also greatly build the moisture-retaining and nutrient releasing humus content of the soils

3)      Major role as a prey or scavenged species for lions, puma, wolves, bears, foxes, raptors, vultures, and smaller animals.

4)      A role as a trail breaker through dense vegetation and as a breaker of frozen snow and ice, and also as an opener of tiny seeps to create ponds thus made accessible for other smaller species during dry seasons and by its creation of natural water catchments  through its wallowing habit, particularly important in desert areas and especially during the dry seasons when cloudbursts occur (Downer, The Wild Horse Conspiracy: 109)

While factors such as drought, fire, invasion by non-native plants, and sprawl are important, livestock grazing is identified by BLM experts as the primary cause (nearly 80%) of BLM lands not meeting health standards.  Cattle grazing has a profoundly negative effect on other fauna such as desert tortoises.

The wild horse in Canada is an iconic and charismatic animal that has co-existed harmoniously with other wildlife species.  The wild horse is an animal that has enriched the First Nations people, laboured with early pioneers on the frontier, and carried Canadian soldiers through war.  They are a symbol of freedom, and no other animal is more deserving of being designated and protected as a heritage animal in Canada.

Recently in Canada, a “Feral Horse Advisory Committee” was formed with representation from several stakeholder groups, such as oil and gas, forestry, cattle ranchers, capture permit holders and hunters, that support a cull of the wild horses. The existing pockets of Equine infectious anema in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia comprise one of the arguments put forth by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for decimating the wild horses.  But if any horses are diseased, it’s more likely to be our domestic and imported horses – most horse disease surveillance in Canada is paid for by private owners, so it follows that most reportable diseases are found in privately owned and not wild horses.  Equine venereal disease was brought to North America from Europe. At one time Glanders almost exterminated imported horses, but didn’t affect Alberta’s native horses at all.  It’s also falsely claimed by this Committee that horses compete with wildlife and cattle for forage.  The government’s own study by R.E. Salter, who has a master’s degree in zoology – did not document forage or behavioural competition with either wildlife or domestic cattle.  Studies in British Columbia showed that overgrazing and erosion were caused by too many cattle and not horses. Livestock manure in and near surface water and sedimentation of the water from livestock disturbing the bed and banks of the watercourse can adversely affect water quality, simply because they exist in far greater numbers than do wild horses.

Wild horses encourage tourism in Alberta as well.  Guides and outfitters are kept in business in part by wild horses and other species of animal.  But trust the Canadian government to come up with a plan to shoot the horses. – at a FHAC meeting in early October 2013 it was suggested that possibly up to 300 permits would be issued for the 2013-14 season, which would obliterate 30% of the entire wild horse population. You have to wonder how such a small number of animals can be so deserving of being obliterated and blamed for causing so much damage and disease.

Why evidence points to wild horses being here a very long time

Carlsbad horse skeleton_tonemappedThe genus “Equus” comprises modern horses, zebras and donkeys, all of which progressed about 4 million years ago (during the Pliocene era).  Only modern horses, wild asses, zebras, and donkeys survive today, but many other lineages in the horse family have become extinct over the last 50,000 years.  The Przewalski’s wild horse has never been domesticated and remains a truly wild animal today.  It is a subspecies of Equus ferus, and possesses 66 chromosomes, compared to 64 in all other horse species,  so it is morphologically a distinct animal. DNA analysis shows that the species diverted from the modern horse lineage over 100,000 years ago, and thus remains the closest living “ancient” relative to the modern horse.

As Craig Downer has pointed out, it’s largely irrelevant whether horses are indigenous to North America, or an introduced species, since they satisfy an ecological niche.  But there are basically two positions that can be considered when it comes to deciding whether horses are indigenous to North America:

1)      That a continuous lineage of horses survived in small groups in North America up until the reintroduction of European horses, or…..

2)      That horses disappeared from North America during the late Pleistocene (“Ice Age”) era – 10,000-7,000 years before present but were brought back by other cultures in pre-Columbian times.

Horses share their ancestry with rhinoceroses and tapirs.  Over 50 million years ago, horses had several odd-numbered hoofed toes and looked more like tiny rhinos or small deer than anything resembling the majestically regal horses as we know them. These small mammals gradually developed into “intermediate” horses, which were a somewhat heavier version weighing several hundred pounds.  By about 20 million years ago (during the Miocene era), these intermediate horses had adapted well to the changing environs of the open plains, and gradually developed prominent middle toes and long legs, better enabling them to follow their compulsion to graze and to quickly run from predators that could easily spot them once they ventured from the forests into the open plains.  Larger, more athletic horse-like animals made their appearance, including one called “Parahippus,” or “almost horse.” They were evolving to reach weights of around 1,000 pounds, nearing the size of modern horses. “Hippidion” then appeared, considered the most successfully evolved horse, as evidenced by its migration from North America to Africa and Eurasia.

At the end of the Pleistocene epoch, the geological period roughly spanning 12,000 to 2.5 million years ago, many of the world’s large animals, such as giant sloths, epochssaber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and mammoths, vanished from the geological record. Extinctions often seem dramatic and sudden in fossil records, but an extinction event may mean that an imperiled species survives in smaller and smaller numbers until eventually disappearing completely. Evidence suggests that some large species such as the horse became extinct in North America but persisted in small populations here and elsewhere, having crossed a land bridge into Asia.

Recent discoveries have the potential to re-write the fossil and taxonomic records, and also confirm that horses were here all along, and are a re-introduced species, rather than a new species brought to North America.

Recent revelations in the horse fossil record include:

1)      The discovery of a horse that lived 700,000 years ago in Canada’s Yukon Territory.  The DNA discovered from this ancient horse is 10 times as old as any DNA retrieved to date, and is considered to be the world’s oldest genome of any species.  An international team of researchers deciphered the genome of the horse from the Middle Pleistocene (the “Ice Ages”), along with those of a 43,000-year-old horse, a modern donkey and five contemporary domestic horse breeds. Using those data, the researchers pushed back the emergence of the ancestor of horses, zebras, asses and donkeys to about 4 million to 4.5 million years ago.

2)      Also of note was the discovery by scientists excavating an Ice Age mammoth skeleton from the Tule Springs area north of Las Vegas, Nevada, uncovered the remains of a second animal that was perhaps more Alberta Wildiesinteresting than the original find: a skull and lower jaw of an extinct horse species. Horses are not uncommon in the Tule Springs fossil record, but this one differs from all those discovered there before, according to the San Bernardino County Museum scientists. The new fossils belong to the extinct species Equus scotti, a large horse common in much of western North America during the Pleistocene Epoch. The species has never before been reported from Tule Springs or Nevada.  The site was dated to approximately 12,000 years in age, making the fossils among the youngest records of Equus scotti anywhere in North America.  And the new discovery is forcing scientists to revise their understanding of horse evolution and extinction at the end of the Ice Ages.

3)      Researchers who removed ancient DNA of horses and mammoths from permanently frozen soil in central Alaskan permafrost dated the material at between 7,600 and 10,500 years old. The findings suggest populations of these now-extinct mammals endured longer in the continental interior of North America, challenging the conventional view that these species (mammoths and horses) disappeared from the continent about between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago.

4)      Archaeologists also uncovered another nearly intact skeleton of a horse and donkey thought to have been buried ritualistically, that may have lived and died 50 years before the Spanish began their conquest of

photo by Kelly Blevins

photo by Kelly Blevins

California. The finds are significant because native North American horses were thought to have been extinct much earlier, and the remains are older than the recorded conquests by the Spanish. Radiocarbon dating of 340 years, plus or minus 40 years, puts the death of the horse sometime between 1625 and 1705. Therefore, the horses died at least 50 years before San Diego Mission de Alcala, the first of the California missions, was founded in 1769. The bones of the horses and the donkey showed no signs of having been shod, an indicator that the horses were not brought by the Spanish, who fitted their horses with iron shoes. The possibility exists that the buried equids were brought by the Spanish in an expedition that was subsequently lost to history, or the burial is evidence for domestication of the species that had not completely died out at the end of the last ice age.

5)      Scientists examined 35 equid fossils from South America, Europe, Asia, and South Africa – analysis that ultimately filled in many evolutionary gaps about equid evolution and the nature of extinct species.  A new species of wild ass was also detected on the Russian Plains and appears to be related to European fossils dating back more than 1.5 million years. Carbon dates on the bones reveal that this species was alive as recently as 50,000 years ago.  The significant of this finding is obvious – it casts doubt on the theory that horses exist in North American only by the introduction of Europeans during their colonizing expeditions of the 15th and 16th centuries.  The genetic results suggest that megafaunal extinctions at the end of the last ice age may not have been as extensive as previously believed.

6)      The species known as Equus lambei, named for Canadian paleontologist H.M. Lambe,  otherwise known as the Yukon Horse, when radiocarbon dated,  turned out to be 26,000 years old.  Equus caballus is genetically equivalent to Equus lambei, a horse, according to fossil records, that represented the most recent Equus subspecies in North America.Wild trio

7)      The FaunMap, produced and published by the Illinois State Museum of Springfield,  revealed that a number of horse fossil datings within the post-Pleistocene and pre-Columbian period that occurred well after the time at which all members of the horse family are commonly believed to have disappeared from North America.  Some of these are quite close to Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492.  In his book, Craig Downer also provides a list of Horse fossil sites.  Fossils found from the Early Holocene/Middle Holocene epoch also serve to dispel the myth of the non-native horse:

Ventana Cave Arizona:  two horses from LHOL, one from MHOL, one from HIHO*

Awatovi, Arizona: one horse from HIHO

Fort Davy Crocket, Colorado: one horse from HIHO

Kin TI’iish Colorado: one horse from LHOL

Long House Colorado: one horse from LHOL

Merina Colorado:  one horse from LHOL

Cemochechobee Georgia:  one horse from LHOL

Calf Island Massachusetts: one horse from HIHO

Blacktail Cave Montana:  one horse from MHOL

Hoffer Montana: one horse from LHOL, two horses from HIHO

Amahami North Dakota:  one horse from LHOL, one horse from HIHO

Navajo Reservoir site LA 3430, New Mexico:  two horses from LHOL

Fort Randall Historic Site South Dakota:  one horse from LHOL

H.P. Thomas, South Dakota:  one horse from HIHO, one from LHOL

Lubbock Lake Texas:  one horse from EMHO, one from MHOL, one from LHOL

Site 45AS80, Washington:  one horse from LHOL

Chief Joseph Dam Site 450K2, Washington: one horse from HIHO, one from LHOL

Chief Joseph Dam Site 450K258, Washington: one horse from LHOL, two horses from HIHO

Site 48UT370, Wyoming: one horse from MHOL

(Downer, The Wild Horse Conspiracy: 16-17)

*HIHO – High Holocene – 0-450 Years Before Present

LHOL – Late Holocene – 450- 4500 Years Before Present

MHOL – Middle Holocene – 3500- 8500 Years Before Present

EMHO – Early Holocene/Middle Holocene – 3500-10,500 Years Before Present

Some people have claimed that the pinto and paint colorations in horses were a creation by man,  although biologists know the meaning of “disruptive colouration” that occurs in many wild animals – which serves to breakWild mare and foal their outline and cause them to be less easily recognized by a predator.  This colouration has been around for a lot longer than mankind itself on our planet. Wild horses come in rainbow colours – chestnut bays and sorrels along with the roans,  and some palominos and buckskins as well,  the latter bearing the dark dorsal as well as hock stripes and often referred to as grullas.  These stripes are considered primitive, but they would be more rightly labelled as adaptive to life in the wild as they visually disrupt a horse’s outline (think of zebras), providing protection from enemies through camouflage. (Downer, The Wild Horse Conspiracy: 158)


The morphological (fossil) evidence and the more recent DNA evidence points to the same conclusion: the species Equus caballus—the species encompassing all domestic horses and their wild progenitors—arose on this continent.  By contrast, there are no paleontological or genetic grounds for concluding that it is native to any other continent. A “native” species, in evolutionary terms, is defined as one that differentiated or diverged from its immediate ancestor species within a specific geographical locale. The contemporary wild horse in the United States is recently derived from lines domesticated in Europe and Asia. But those lines themselves go much further back in time, and converge on populations that lived in North America during the latter part of the Pleistocene (2.5M to 10k years ago).

All of this unequivocal science begs one big question: why do our government agencies still classify the wild horse as a destructive, non-native, exotic species? This mis-classification has nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics.  It needs to be more widely understood that the horse’s status as a native North American species is beyond serious question. From a scientific standpoint, it is completely irrelevant that native horses died out in White horses of CamargueNorth America 10,000 years ago, or that later populations were domesticated in central Asia a few thousand years ago.  Such considerations have no bearing on their status as having originated on this continent. Reintroduction of horses to North America is, biologically, a non-event: horses were merely returned to part of their former native range, where they have since prospered because ecologically they never left. Authorities should consider the ancient horse family taken as a whole in the world today.  Its origin dates back 58 million years, to the base of the Cenozoic era (right after the age of dinosaurs).

Life’s safety net is composed of interwoven biodiversity – a great number of harmoniously, mutually related life forms.  When people thoughtlessly wipe our vast numbers of individual plants, animals, and decomposers, whole populations and even entire species – as is occurring today – we jeopardize life’s long term survival.

  1. Downer, Craig C., The Wild Horse Conspiracy (Nevada, USA: Author, 2011)