Commentary by fellow Equine Author, Joe Camp
Joe Camp was astonished when he learned that America’s wild horses are at risk. “How could that be?” he asked over and over again. “The wild horses of the western U.S. are not only a living laboratory, as a group they are a legendary icon of the American west; sentient beings that are part of our national soul.” Camp is the author of the recent best seller The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd and creator of the canine superstar Benji. The following is his journal of discovery while researching his next book.
There’s a modern day range war raging across the high deserts of the American west with the demise of the wild mustang as the ultimate goal. It all has to do with control of public lands across the western states. The Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service administer 55 million acres that has been designated by law to be devoted principally to the welfare of wild horses and burros. According to Craig Downer, Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology, these two government agencies have disregarded the law and reduced that 55 million acres by approximately 36% and then leased more than 95% of that to cattle and sheep ranchers.
The ranchers are able to lease the grazing rights on these lands for well under the market value of comparable privately held property. The wild horses compete for grazing with their livestock so the ranchers want them off the land entirely. Many of these ranchers are actively campaigning to get the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act repealed by trying to convince the government, the media, and the lay public that the horses don’t belong on these lands because they are not native. Not indigenous. The federal government is only obligated to protect native wildlife. The rancher claim is that the mustang is merely feral. Domesticated horses that escaped from the Spanish, the Indians, and the cavalry. Feral like the cats who leave home to live in the back alleys of New York.
Their claim simply ignores the historic and scientific truth in pursuit of financial gain.
The wild horse is as native and indigenous to North America as the Bengal tiger is to India or the lion is to Africa. The wild horse was born here in the region that was to be-come Idaho, Utah and Wyoming and fully evolved over a period of 52 million years. Approximately 10,000 years ago an unknown cataclysm wiped out the horse in North America along with numerous other species apparently including the saber-toothed tiger. But not before the horse had migrated across the Bering Strait Land Bridge and spread to the rest of the world. Then in the early sixteenth century the horse was re-introduced to his homeland by the Spanish Conquistadores.
He became what is termed reintroduced native wildlife.
The horse, therefore, by definition, is indigenous. And native.
The cattle and sheep ranchers have convinced the government to allow them to hunt and eliminate the cougar and the wolf because these two predators are killing and eating their cattle and sheep. The cougar and the wolf, like the wild horse, are historically indigenous species that are supposed to be living under the protection of the government on federal lands. The cougar and the wolf are also the natural predators of the wild horse, so without these predators in place, the herds multiply much faster than they would otherwise. Multiply much faster into a world where their forage and water is being consumed by cattle and sheep that effectively outnumber them by more than 150 to one. On land that by law is to be devoted principally to the welfare of wild horses and burros.
So rather than removing the cattle and sheep which would allow the horse to once again be the principle presence on the land and allow the cougar and wolf to flourish and allow natural balance to return, the BLM has stated to the media that the land will not support the number of wild horses and burros living on it so their numbers must be reduced. At this writing more than 33,000 mustangs have been captured and put in holding pens around the country. Not because the land will not support 60,000 horses but because it will not support that many horses plus at least a million for-profit cattle and sheep.
I was astounded at these discoveries and at first was certain I was missing something. If all this were true wouldn’t people know about it? Wouldn’t they act on the knowledge? Was I crazy? Stark raving nuts?
No I wasn’t. At least not in the clinical sense.
Remains of the earliest animal anywhere in the world to bear recognizably horse-like anatomy were found in the Idaho/Utah/Wyoming area dating 52 million years ago.
Three-and-a-half million years ago the now famous fossils found near Hageman, Idaho represent the oldest remains of the fully evolved genus Equus, roughly the size and weight of today’s Arabian horse. At this time the horse had not yet migrated across the Bering Strait Bridge.
Bones found in South America from horses that had migrated from North America dated one million years ago appear indistinguishable from Equus caballus (the modern day domestic horse).
DNA sequences taken from long bone remains of horses found preserved in the Alaskan permafrost deposits dated 12,000 to 28,000 years ago differ by as little as 1.2% from modern counterparts.
When the Spanish brought the horse to America they were bringing him home. Back to his native land. Wearing the same genetics, the same DNA sequencing he was wearing when he left and when those left behind were wiped out.
Some wildlife groups consider the bighorn sheep and the American bison “native” to North America. However, both species actually evolved in Asia and came into North America via the Bering Strait Land Bridge. The horse, Equus caballus, conversely, evolved exclusively in North America and crossed the Bering Strait bridge into Siberia, traveling in the other direction. Equus caballus was fully evolved on the North American continent and was migrating west well before the cataclysm of 10,000 years ago.
So conversation that leads anyone to believe that the wild horse is anything other than reintroduced native wildlife is folly. Or worse yet malevolent.
As I write this the 33,000 wild mustangs residing in government holding pens and facilities around the country amount to more than half of all the remaining wild mustangs in existence.
And those remaining in the wild are living below viable levels. Which simply put means below the number that must be available for breeding to keep the horse from not being forced into incest for the species to attempt to survive.
All because of those cattle and sheep. Illegal cattle and sheep. To allow all this to happen someone has to knowingly be breaking the 1971 law.
I remain astounded. And embarrassed that I didn’t know any of this before.
Made sadder when I learned that just a few months ago the Government Accountability Office recommended death for the 33,000 wild mustangs in government custody because it was costing too much to feed and care for them.
Our research for the next book not only proves beyond any doubt that the wild horse is absolutely native to this land, it also proves that the so called “domestic” horse of today is genetically the same as the wild horse and retains the genetic ability to revert to living in the wild successfully. At one point I looked up The Oxford English Dictionary definition of domestication. It is: To tame or bring under control; to civilize.
That brought a smile. If ever there was a subjective definition of a word “to civilize” would have to be it. What pray tell is not civilized about horses living in the wild? Do they kill living beings? Do they destroy things? Are they mean? Are they to be feared? The answer, of course, is no to all of the above. And every day someone new is proving that the mustang who has lived his entire life in the wild will say yes to a relationship with humans when given the opportunity and treated with patience, respect, and compassion.
Yet our federal Government Accountability Office recommends that 33,000 mustangs should be killed.
OED’s definition to civilize of course assumes that humans would be doing the civilizing.
Perhaps humans are the ones needing it.