US wild horse emergency/conservation grazing

Through the website contact message a discussion was started whether the horses in Northern America are feral or wild. Below you may find an interesting discussion. Please let us know your thoughts.

Dear Hans,

I got your contact details from Peter Smith at the Wildwood Trust, in England. He suggested you may be able to throw some light on the use of horses in conservation grazing schemes in the US, if there are any, or any studies you are aware of to further this direction.

I am a wild horse advocate in the US, and not sure if you are aware of the horses' plight, but they are the subject of an apparent eradication program by the government. We have 45,000 horses in government holding pens facing an uncertain future, whilst a program of massive and brutal round ups and removals continues.

Crunching the BLM (Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible) numbers reveals that there will be only around 5,700 horses scattered over the whole of the US by Sep next year, below genetic viability. The only ones left from the millions that used to roam the ranges. They are being replaced mostly by cattle, and are being seen as vermin to be eradicated. A desperate hunt is on to find ways to save them before it is too late, and we are looking at how to give them value while still retaining their wild lives, so they can be seen in a different light.

Being English, and living near Dover, has made me aware of the conservation grazing scheme using Exmoor ponies put in place to restore the fragile chalkland ecology of the White Cliffs. And further, of how important horses are in restoring and balancing ecologies, and their widespread use for this purpose in Europe and beyond. It seems crazy to me that while the rest of the world is putting horses back on the land, at great expense, the US is taking them off, at great expense!

Would you have any thoughts on this for me? Particularly if you know of any scientists who are engaged with conservation grazing in the US who could help me put together a good argument for using horses as mixed grazing perhaps with cattle? And anything you could point me to that could increase awareness of their value as conservation grazers. They are being blamed for range damage, a charge we feel is unfounded.

The horses need help, and sure the land misses them as much as they miss their wild places, so any information you could provide would be so very welcome.

Thank you for all your great work,

Very best,

Jane Bravery Schwartz, Wild Horse and Burro Advocate, Los Angeles

Dear Jane,

Hans Kampf send me your request, see below. If I understood correctly you are looking for more information about wild horses in the US and arguments for conserving them. I have to say I'm a European ecologist and not fully aware of the American insides but will try to shine my light on your topic.

If I'm correct this is the story of the wild horses of the US. As in most continents North America used to have a rich diversity of megafauna before the start of the Holocene. In North America these included 2 species of bison, camels, wild ass, mastodons, deer wolves and so on. Also wild horses were part of this megafauna. After Early Americans arrived around 14.000 to 12.000 years ago most species, which were not used to this new human predator, soon got eradicated. This included the original wild horses. Strange as it may be seen, but most of todays Northern American megafauna is Eurasian in origin and arrived over the same land bridge as the first Americans did. These animals co-evolved with humans and so learned to deal with them. One good example is the American elk or Wapiti, which although it looks very much different is technically the same species as the European Red Deer (Cervus elaphus).

When the first Europeans arrived into the US they brought with them their livestock. They let their horses run wild to breed and without much effort start a stock from which they could harvest animals for their use. Also native people learned the use horses, but these were new for them. Before Europeans settled native Americans were not used to ride horses. Hereby a new population of "wild" horses was soon build in the US. Unknown is if the Eurasian horses are of the same species as the original Americans ones. DNA analyses on fossil bones can shed a light on that. Fact is that most plant species co-evolved with horse grazing at least until 12.000 years ago. I'm not sure if these plants species still survive till today.

What does this mean for today's wild horses. Well it depends on what kind of nature you want to conserve or restore. If you want to restore as much as possible of the nature before the first humans arrived than horses are part of the ecosystem. Weather these are the same horses as today's ones or it was a separate species has to be seen. But it is arguable that today's horses are at least a good alternative of the pre human horses. If it is the nature of say 1000 A.C. than horses are not part of the ecosystem. If it is the nature of say 1800 A.C. than horses are again part of the picture, but this time as a human cultural heritage. If it is the nature of say 2100 A.C., well that depends on today's choices. All views have pros and cons and there is no one thing such as the truth. And as such it is wise to make different choices at different areas.

About the argument of horses being seen as a vermin. This suggests that horses cause damage to the ecosystem. Than it is useless to replace them by cattle which were also shipped in by the Europeans and as such also an exotic species. It would make fare more sense to replace them with bison, pronghorn and elk. Unless some other economic and non-natural argument is in place.

This is the broad overview I've got of the US wild horses. Hope this information is useful to you. sincerely,

Roeland Vermeulen, FREE Nature and Wolven in Nederland

Roeland Vermeulen is one of the LHNet experts.

Thank you Roeland!

It is indeed one of the questions whether horses are indigenous to the US as a reintroduced species from the past, or an introduced species that doesn't belong in the ecosystem, and here you shed much light, thank you.

For your interest, many of the US wild horses have the zebra striping on their legs, and dorsal stripes which is interesting. See pictures below of Pryor Mountain wild horses, in Montana.

The next question is, do you know of any modern mixed grazing schemes that include horses? I hear that Konik horses are used to restore ecosystems in Europe, and Przewalski's horse used to restore African savannah grasslands ( a bit like the dry grasslands of the US). So I wondered if horses could be used as mixed grazers with cattle, to benefit the long term health of the land. If you have any scientific research to show the benefit of horses grazed with cattle, that would be great!

My thinking is to make the horses useful, instead of useless, and so save them to roam free in peace.

Thank you so much, and greetings from Los Angeles!


Dear Jane,

In Europe we have many grazing projects including Horses and wild cattle. In many of which the FREE Nature foundation is involved. Horses and cattle have their own grazing methods by which they supplement each other. Cattle need longer grasses around which they can curl their tongue and pull it inwards. Horses can chip shorter grass with their teeth. As such cattle can prepare lawns for horses. As a ruminant feeder cattle are better equipped to digests green grasses while horses need more fresh grasses or older yellow owns. In winter cattle usually turn to twigs and shrubs as alternative food while horses eat a lot of tree bark, especially of the softer wood species.

In this it is very important to realise that both horses and cattle are indigenous species in Europe. Tarpans, the wild ancestor of our domesticated horses, used to run wild all over Europe. Same accounts for aurochs the wild ancestor of our domesticated cattle. Both tarpans and aurochs have gone extinct in the wild, but we are now working the Konik horses and a mix of several cattle breeds to de-domesticated or rewild them so they can reclaim the wild ancestors heritage. Both horses and cattle as such are not a management tool or practice but an integral part of our ecosystems and their evolution. All other species co-evolved with tarpans and aurochs and so many relationships exists between them. Aurochs or cattle are, for as far I know, not indigenous in the US. When they are used in nature management here they are always used as an management tool. This is fundamentally different from our work.

Przewalski horses are closely related to Tarpans and run the steps of Mongolia and northern Asia. They are not in Africa!

Hope I have been of help.


Roeland Vermeulen

Great to hear from you Hans! And hello Kerry.

Yes for sure, please publicize far and wide the imminent demise of the iconic American mustang. Some say the demise of the range also, as they live light on the land, whereas the cattle that mostly replace them are quite destructive in large numbers.

Here is a link to the humane observer blog with reports from the scene of the current round ups, you might want to link to this.

Further minute to minute information on the current dire situation and all that is being done to save the horses, can be linked to at the wild horse preservation website or the Cloud Foundation website .

I did wonder about the zebra markings evident in some herds, could it be that some remnant of the original wild horses remained in the remote wilderness areas of the US? Could the returning horses have bred with them perhaps? Would DNA testing be able to determine this? In any case, if horses are deemed native to the US, then maybe we can get a UN conservation order served on the remaining herds as world heritage herds. Certainly the fame of the wild free roaming horse herds is a part of our world consciousness, and worth saving.

There is plenty of evidence of horses being native to the US from 50 million years ago, and also the information below, which documents a museum in North Dakota displaying such a skeleton, it also reveals a find of a later more 'modern' type horse skeleton from the last ice age. Please see this pdf-article: Skeleton wild horse from Oligocene.

In any case, these horses are magnificent and, having been there for centuries, now have unique adaptations to their local habitats. I am sure they would be extremely valuable as conservation or mixed grazers, not to mention remaining as aesthetically beautiful parts of the landscape, so any scientific back up you can provide would be hugely valuable in saving them from extinction, and keeping them free on their historic ranges.

If anybody has any ideas on how we could start a research program into their benefits when used as mixed grazers, please let me know. Perhaps a joint project with US researchers?

Here is a list of some of them concerned with sustainable rangeland:

But I can't emphasize enough the urgency needed. Research takes time, and by next year the horses and their unique gene pools will be mostly gone.

Thanks, Jane

Dear Jane,

I do agree with you that the wild horses of the US are worth saving. As stated before from an ecological point of view it would be foolish to replace them with cattle. If they needed to be replaced, than at least consider some species which has been proven to be indigenous, like bison, elk or pronghorn.

Whether or not some remnant populations might have survived and later mixed with new European horses is hard to prove, although DNA analyses might help. But I think of this as very unlikely. If this were to be, than it would also be possible for remnant populations of dyer wolf, American wild ass, camels, mastodons or American lion to have survived. For as far I know, for none is proved that they might did. All vanished about 12,000 years ago when early humans arrived. And as none of these species knew how to deal with this new hunter, or even be afraid, they soon fell prey.

So what about the zebra markings. This is not uncommon to show up within populations of wild or feral horses. As evolutions and survival of the fittest again kicks in we see this treat showing up in several populations. So it would be logical that this might also be in some of the US populations.

Last be not least. You could also consider conserving the wild mustangs as part of your cultural heritage. Reason for protecting is different, result might be the same.

Best wishes,

Roeland Vermeulen

Dear all,

short comment, since I am in a hurry.

No wild horses survived the pleistocene/early holocene in America. However, looking at the archaeozoological and eco-historical facts, horses were not introduced but re-introduced into the America's after Columbus landed.

Zebra markings are interesting, but not part of every wild horse breed, since they only pop up in steppe-like environments. Most predators cannot see colours and zebra-stripings confuse them (am I looking at grass or not). In a more forested environment, they are of no use. In other words; do not focus on those markings too much in terms of determining how old/original Mustangs are. Kiger Mustangs do develop them, but Banker horses not. Depends on the environment/vegetation.

The most homogenous and oldest populations seems to the Kiger mustang and also some island populations like the afore mentioned Banker horse.

Other fact is that the oldest Mustang populations seem to be on their way to pony-dom. This is a natural process, also because of lack of big predators. We see the same in Europe.

Most mustang populations are of Iberian heritage. This means that certain 'Iberian' traits could be overly present in the Mustang populations. But, with an evolution towards a more pony-like animal, their colours will evolve and stabilize as well. Most Mustang populations received influx of domesticated horses until fairly recently, so give it some time before certain fixed ecotypes emerge. And don't stare yourself blind at zebra stripes or no zebra stripes... give the diverse populations time to develop would be my advice

Just my two cents.

Best wishes,

Henri Kerkdijk

Henri Kerkdijk is one of the LHNet experts.


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