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Are wild horses native to the U.S.? A federal court seeks the answer

June 5, 2011 |  4:24 pm

Horse liz margerum AP
Animal rights groups are pressing a case in federal court maintaining that wild horses roamed the West about 1.5 million years ago and didn't disappear until as recently as 7,600 years ago. More important, they say, a growing stockpile of DNA evidence shows conclusively that today's horses are genetically linked to those ancient ancestors.

The new way of thinking, if accepted, could affect hundreds millions of acres in the West where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management divides livestock grazing allotments based partly on the belief that the horses are no more native to those lands than are the cattle brought to North America centuries ago.

American history textbooks teach that the wild horses roaming Western plains were first brought by European explorers and settlers. But that theory is being challenged at archaeological digs and university labs as horse protection advocates battle the U.S. government over roundups of thousands of mustangs they say have not only a legal right but a native claim to the rangeland.

Rachel Fazio, a lawyer for Defense of Animals and other plaintiffs, told a 9th Circuit appellate panel in San Francisco earlier this year that the horses are “an integral part of the environment," adding, "as much as the BLM would like to see them as not, they are actually a native species. They are tied to this land. There would not be a horse but for North America. Every single evolutionary iteration of the horse is found here and only here.”

The lawsuit cites researchers who say that the concept is widely accepted by most of the scientific community, although not by the BLM. “It's significant because BLM treats the wild horses like they are an invasive species that is not supposed to be out there,” Fazio said in a recent interview.

A reversal of that long-held belief could have the effect of moving the native horses to the front of the line when divvying up precious water and forage in the arid West.

BLM maintains that the horse advocates are perpetuating a myth. And many ranchers claim it's part of a ploy to push livestock off public lands. “There are plenty of horses out in the Nevada desert,” said Tom Collins, a Clark County commissioner who has a ranch outside Las Vegas. “Most of these folks, maybe their father slapped them or their mother didn't love them, so now they are in love with these wild horses that aren't really wild,” he said.

BLM devotes “Myth No. 11” on its website to the “false claim” that wild horses are native to the United States. “American wild horses are descended from domestic horses, some of which were brought over by European explorers in the late 15th and 16th centuries, plus others that were imported from Europe and were released or escaped captivity in modern times,” it says.

“The disappearance of the horse from the Western Hemisphere for 10,000 years supports the position that today's wild horses cannot be considered 'native' in any meaningful historical sense,” BLM explains. It acknowledges that the horses have adapted successfully to the Western range, but says that biologically they did not evolve on the North American continent.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management manages more than 245 million acres of federal land in 12 western states with about 30 million acres currently designated as horse management areas in 10 of those states. Of the roughly 33,000 horses that currently roam BLM land, roughly half are in Nevada, with the remainder in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

The BLM maintains that's about 12,000 more than the rangeland can sustain and plans to roundup most of those. The agency removed 9,715 horse and 540 burros from the range in the 2010 fiscal year. In addition to animals on the range, the BLM currently has 41,700 wild horses and burros in short-term corrals in the West (about 13,100) and long-term pastures in the Midwest (about 28,600).

ALSO:

A new requirement for California bear hunters

Endangered tortoises delay Mojave desert solar plant

Feds halt roundup of wild mustangs in Nevada

-- Scott Sonner /AP

Photo: A Nevada Department of Agriculture helicopter rounds up wild horses on the Virginia Range east of Reno, Nev., in 2002. Credit: Liz Margerum /for AP Photo

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