- Hide menu
Galloping across the high desert foothills with manes and tails flying and hooves kicking up dust, there is nothing more iconic in the American West than a wild horse making tracks through wild habitat. The mustang is a part of the picture in the minds eye of many as they picture the west.
Mustangs, an invasive species? To make a long story short, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages mustangs for the benefit of the public land ranching grazing interests and wildlife. They don’t consider mustangs natural wildlife; hence, they continually reduce the mustangs on public land by rounding them up then disposing of them. Ranchers with grazing leases don’t like them because they compete for forage on cattle and sheep grazing leases. Game and Fish don’t like them because they compete for forage against endemic wildlife. The mustangs of the Greater Yellowstone are not wild in the sense of being native to the area, to the consternation of those mentioned above; they are not endemic to North America. Or are they?
Although the horse originated in North America and migrated westward across the Bering land bridge to Siberia, then throughout Asia, they became extinct here in North America. The genus Equus Lambei, commonly known as the Yukon Horse died out at the end of the last ice age around 10-12 thousand years ago.
The relatively new field of molecular biology has recently revealed that the modern horse (Equus Caballus) is genetically equivalent to Equus Lambei, hmmm! Not only is Equus Caballus genetically equivalent to Equus Lambei: there is no evidence Equus Caballus evolved anywhere except North America.
The Yukon horse was much smaller than today’s horses and stood about 4.5 feet high at the withers, today’s average horse is 5-feet high, 6 inches taller. Among living horses, perhaps the Yukon horse most closely resembles Przewalskii’s horse (Equus Caballus Przewalskii) the last truly wild horse (never domesticated). The Przewalskii’s were thought once to be extinct, but a few were found and are nurtured in a few protected areas in Mongolia.
It is believed a changing climate, or the impact of newly arrived human hunters where the demise of America’s horses. Archeologists have found Clovis spearheads with Equus DNA attached providing definitive proof that early humans in North America hunted horses for their meat. The first conclusive evidence comes from spearheads tainted with the residue of horse protein along with other animal remains on the river plain of St. Mary’s Reservoir in southern Alberta, Canada. Some historians believe some Yukon horses survived by migrating into Asia across the Bering land bridge connecting Alaska with Siberia. It was a two-way land bridge one thousand miles wide from the north end to the south.
On Columbus’s second voyage in 1493, he brought breeding stock horses to Cuba and set up a breeding operation, most Spanish colonizers thereafter followed suit. The first Mustangs descended from stock the Spanish conquistadors brought to Mexico and Florida. Some of these horses escaped, were sold, or were captured by Native Americans, and rapidly spread by Native American trade routes throughout the new world. Over time, other breeds were introduced into the mustang linage both by accident and on purpose, including quarter horses, draft horses, and others. Mustangs like we the people of America are a melting pot assembled from all over the world. There are specific kinds of mustangs, and they have their own unique breeds. The word mustang comes from the Spanish word, mustengo, which means “ownerless beast.”
Yes the domesticated horse returned to North America was different looking than Equus Lambei of 10,000 years ago. It is believed that modern horses were domesticated in Central Asia 4,000 years ago at which time selective breeding began, but the foundational genus is the same.
Mustang advocates argue that mustangs are part of the natural heritage of the American West. Man killed off wolves of the American west as were prehistoric horses, then wolves were reintroduced to the west. Horses should also be classified as reintroduced and endemic. The semi-arid grasslands of the American west co-evolved with horses, and there’s widespread evidence that large herbivores play important roles in their habitats, both past and present. This history of habitation predates modern land use practices; mustangs have an inherent right of habitation because of their prehistorical presence.
Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking of wild horses as invasive pests, and started celebrating them as a successful reintroduction. When Europeans brought horses back to the Americas they were reintroducing a long-time indigenous species that very likely was wiped out by man. It could be construed; the conquistadors: albeit accidently, launched the first reintroduction of an endangered species in the Americas.
The powerful ranching interests remain vehemently opposed to their presence of “feral” horse, arguing that the animals degrade rangeland and compete with livestock and wild species for forage putting pressures on western governors as well and the BLM to greatly reduce the numbers of mustangs on the western ranges. It is a good thing this icon of the west has many friends advocating for them, or they would be gone once again. The answer here would be to raise money to buy out livestock leases; condemnation and confiscation would be immoral, as these ranching families have depended on this land since the settling of the west. I was chagrined to find the Audubon Society was advocating for their removal?
The afore mentioned flying manes and tails make for a sympathetic one dimensional image; however, there is more to consider than their rangeland! These herds have population growth rates that range from as low as 25 percent to as high as 58 percent each year. BLM roundups, and disposal combined with birth control to limit reproduction. Herd management will continue to be factor even if endemic classification is ever achieved. Fertility rates are high, and predators are absent; Clovis Man and a changing climate also wiped out the saber-toothed tiger. We love mustangs, but we love the range in which they roam also.
Had the Clovis people domesticated then nurtured the horse instead of eaten it, Columbus may have found a much different America upon his arrival. It is interesting to speculate as to how different history would have been if the horse had stayed in North America