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Natural History of the American Mustang:


BLM Conservation and Ecosystems of Rangelands
Taralyn Childress
April 7, 2017
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Modern day horses evolved over a period of 56 million years, and are believed to have
evolved from early Eocene horses. They are known by the taxonomic term Equus ferus caballus,
and are categorized under the same genus as donkeys, zebras, and Przewalski horses. As
members of the same species as domesticated horses, Mustangs are biologically no different, but
are considered feral. Mustangs are generally well protected, though the biggest issue they face is
competition for resources with ranchers on shared BLM land. Without the continued protection
of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, perhaps Mustangs would no longer be
allowed to roam free in North America. Horses have a rich history, from the first Eocene Equids
to contemporary horses of today, and the events that led to the Mustangs of North America.
The oldest known horse fossils were found in what is now known as North America,
Europe, and Asia. Contemporary horses were originally believed to have evolved from
Hyracotherium or Eohippus, but early Eocene horses can no longer be clumped together in one
genus as more fossils and new research become available. Evolution of the horse appears to be
more complicated than originally thought, and it is a growing realization that most early Eocene
horses belong to Protorohippus.
The first horses had four toes on their forelimbs and three toes on their hindlimbs,
eventually losing all their toes and evolving one digit per footknown as monodactyl. Early
horses were also considered to be browsers, eating things like leaves and berries. Over time, after
building the ability to digest roughage, horses evolved to be grazers; they now eat grasses,
flowers, and weeds.
Equids have proven extremely beneficial to the study of evolution, in that the family has
left behind a wealth of fossils, and horses have been so well documented. The genus Equus was
thought to have emerged 2 million years ago, but a more recent study finds they may have
emerged 4-4.5 million years ago. That is almost twice what prior findings suggested. The study
published by Nature evaluated a horse bone that was found in permafrost from 560-780 thousand
years ago. The findings compared the genome of the newly found bone with a late Pleistocene
horse, and contemporary Equids. It also theorized to confirm Przewalski represent the last true
wild horses and separated from Equus caballus populations 38-72 thousand years ago, though
both are still considered horses.
Like many other species, horses have the ability to breed with other members of the
Equids. Mules are a perfect example of this. A mule is half horse and half donkey. This occurs
when a female horse pairs with a male donkey. A hinny is much the same, but the sexes of its
parents are opposite a female donkey pairs with a male horse. These mixes are also possible
between horses and zebras, horses and Przewalskis, and many other equid species. Most often,
the offspring are sterile. Representatives of these pairings will also have an odd number of
chromosomes. Where horses have 64 chromosomes, donkeys have 62, leaving their offspring
with 63.
Humans domesticated horses as feed animals (like cows and pigs) long before they
domesticated horses to be utilized as a means of advancing civilization. It was not until around
4,000 B.C. that horses were domesticated for the purpose of riding. Today, in developed
countries, horses are used less frequently for work and travel, and never in modern warfare.
Early settlers brought horses with them on ships. They also had horses shipped to the
Americas from the Caribbean. There were breeding farms located on the islands, and horses
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imported from Spain were used for breeding. Many early settlers in North America preferred the
island horses over their European counterparts due to their tolerance for harsher climates. The
horses coming from the islands were also quicker and easier to obtain. Over time, horses were
shipped from different parts of the world and were spread all throughout the Americas. Horses
started to appear throughout the wild in large numbers in both the Southeast and the West of
North America by the 1700s. This may have occurred for many different reasons. Horses could
have been released, and many could have wandered off.
Native peoples often obtained horses by capture in the wild, but also through
confrontations with settlers. In the 1850s, the U.S. Army attempted to eradicate all Native
Indians and their horses. Historically, Mustang populations have been controlled for many
different reasons. Today, the Bureau of Land Management manages wild herd populations by
doing annual roundups. BLM was given authority to manage wild horse and burro populations
through the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. After roundups, the horses
are moved to holding facilities where they are held until they can find persons to adopt them.
Today, BLM allows around 27 thousand horses to roam free in the United States, though the
exact population is difficult to estimate.
The Bureau of Land Management mandates many other uses for public land, which has
raised conflict between ranchers and feral horses. Many ranchers feel mustangs are nuisances
and trample the soil, making regrowth for native grasses difficult and allowing exotic weeds to
grow in their place. Wild horse advocates claim cattle ranching disturbs the ecological balance
due to the destruction of problem animals such as predators. The advocates also state horses are
only allowed to range 17 percent of public lands. Technically none of the land leased to cattle
ranchers is designated to wild horse herds, so the likelihood of ranchers coming in contact with
horses is slim.
A study published by BioMed Central evaluated the impacts of feral horses in desert
environments. Their findings found that feral horses tended to use the land heterogeneously. This
repetitive nature caused soil compaction along the horses trails, and led to increased plausibility
of erosion, and decreased vegetation cover. These impacts were only along trail lines, and
showed little to no effect elsewhere. In the future, this loss of covering may lead to erosion and
can also lead to the disturbance of local soil, plants, macroinvertebrates, and small mammal
habitats. Loss of cover can also lead to a decrease in number and diversity of lizards.
Another study posted by American Institute of Biological Sciences evaluated the
ecological effects of ranching. Their findings suggested that though cattle do not use land
heterogeneously like horses do, there are many other factors that disrupt the ecological balance.
In the past, predators were a major issue for ranchers; in response to the losses ranchers faced,
many predators were wiped out from western rangelands.
Today, cattle roam the same rangelands that bison used to roam. Bison were beneficial to
the ecosystem. When bison would die, predators and scavengers would feed off of the carcasses.
This was especially beneficial for the ecosystem because they were large mammals. Ranchers
have kept cattle mortality rates at a minimum. Not only at a minimum, but under strict
government regulations, ranchers are expected to clean up dead cattle immediately. When
carcasses are not allowed to decompose, it does not allow them to be recycled back into the
ecosystem. This leaves the soil, plants, and many other organisms wanting. Removal of natural
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predators and immediate cleanup of cattle carcasses has had negative impacts on the ecosystem.
It has allowed certain organisms to flourish and others to decline.
Both Mustangs and cattle have negative and positive effects on rangeland ecosystems in
the United States. Cattle can mimic bison in the ecosystem, but only when allowed to go through
natural life cycles that wild animals go through. Mustangs are much smaller in population
compared to the number of cattle roaming on rangelands. For every 10 cattle, there is
approximately 1 feral horse. As long as Mustang populations are kept in check by the BLM, the
effects of horses in the wild do not appear to overshadow those effects caused by cattle ranching.
The primary issue may be growth of Mustang populations, and BLMs ability to continue
feeding and housing them until people looking to adopt can come forward.
Mustangs face many challenges in North America. Without continued enforcement of the
Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, it is likely that Mustangs would be unprotected
in the wild. Though the feral horses of the United States did not originate in the U.S., their
resilience makes them unique among domesticated animals. Ecosystems are always changing as
new species arise, and species die out. Horses are no different, and have emerged and evolved
through all the ages.

Literature Cited
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Orlando, L., Ginolhac, A., Zhang, G., Froese, D., Albrechtsen, A., Stiller, M., & ...

Vinther, J. (2013).

Recalibrating Equus evolution using the genome sequence of an early Middle

Pleistocene horse. Nature, 499(7456), 74-78.

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Prothero, D. R., & Buell, C. D. (2007). Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It

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