Free-roaming mustangs (feral horses), Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range, Montana, USA

July 27, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Free-roaming mustangs (feral horses, sometimes called wild horses), Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range, Montana, USA. The horses in the Pryor Mountains are descendents from the horses the Spanish brought to the Americas; "The Colonial Spanish Horses". These horses later formed an important part of the culture of Native Americans. The horses are thought to have arrived in this region about 300 years ago. Domesticated horses escaped in various areas across North America at different times, but the herd in the Pryor Mountains may be the only remaining free-roaming horses whose appearance and genetics bear a close resemblance to the horses the Spanish brought with them when they came to the Americas.

 

There has been debate in society for at least 100 years about free-roaming horses in the USA. Here are some of the arguments:

 

1. Free-roaming horses in the USA, including those in the Pryor Mountains, are "feral", they compete with native wildlife species for food and water, and there are sometimes issues with erosion (overgrazing, trampling). Therefore the free-roaming horses should disappear, either through culling or adoption programs.

Considerations: As the free-roaming horses in the USA are descendents from domesticated horses, they are indeed not a "wild" horse species or subspecies. There is only one "true" wild horse species or subspecies remaining on the planet today; the Przewalski horse. So, the free-roaming horses in the USA - including the ones in the Pryor Mountains - can indeed be considered "feral", similar to other domesticated species that escaped and now have free-roaming populations in different parts of the USA (e.g. pigs, goats etc.). Feral species are often associated with damage to ecosystems. Examples of damage include erosion, competition with native species and the spread of disease.

 

2. Horses originally evolved in North America; they belong here.

Considerations: Horses indeed originally evolved in North America and spread to Eurasia later. The last true wild horse species in North America probably disappeared about 11,000-13,000 years ago. This is about the same time period when Native Americans may have settled most of what is now the lower 48 states of the USA. This begs the question whether the extinction of the last true wild American horse species was (mostly) related to climate change or perhaps also related to over-hunting by humans. Regardless, there were wild horse species in North America, and they did not disappear very long ago. In this context the "feral" horses can indeed be considered a "surrogate" for the now extinct true wild horse species in North America... This argument becomes stronger if humans indeed substantially contributed to the disappearance of wild horse species from North America as humans spread across the continent. If humans had little or nothing to do with the disappearance of horses at the end of the Pleistocene then the argument that feral horses have a legitimate place in today's ecosystems in North America is not very strong. Note that this argument is based on all horse species and subspecies being "similar" (see the 4th argument for contrast).

 

3. Free-roaming horses in the "west" are part of our cultural heritage; they represent an iconic image of the "west" and therefore we should keep free-roaming horse populations.

Considerations: This argument appears to relate to the time period when the western USA was settled by white people, specifically by ranchers and cowboys. At the time there were already free-roaming horses (in addition to the captive horses used by many Native Americans) that were descendents from the horses that the Spanish brought to the Americas. White people also brought new breeds of horses as they colonized the west. These horses included draft and warm blood breeds. Some of these "new" horse breeds also escaped and formed new free-roaming populations. So, if free-roaming horses in the west are considered "iconic" then this relates to both the old (Spanish horses from the "South") as well as the new breeds (breeds that northern and western Europeans brought along starting from the east coast). In this context it would be consistent to also assign similar status to other escaped domesticated species that now have free-roaming populations. This would include pigs and goats but also Norway rats, house mice and house sparrows as they are also an indicator of new people (white people) colonizing North America. Yet these species are generally regarded as a problem, a nuisance, or a "pest". Therefore the argument of free-roaming horses being an icon of the west is at least partially subjective.

 

4. The free-roaming Spanish horses (specifically those in the Pryor Mountains) are part of our history and cultural heritage (i.e. to humans in general, not just the Spanish or Native Americans) as they were essential to the Spanish when they colonized the Americas (i.e. South America, central America, Mexico and what is now the southwest in the USA) and "conquering" Native American people.

Considerations: It is indeed true that the Spanish horses were essential to the success of the Spanish when they colonized the Americas. Regardless of how one views the actions of the Spanish, it is undeniable that the horses are an important part of this history. "Spanish horses" and "Spanish breeds" have become less common in Spain and in the world at large in the last few hundred years and they can be considered a "threatened breed". While the horses in the Pryor Mountains are unlikely to be "pure" descendents of the Spanish colonial horse, they are similar in appearance and genetics. In this context the free-roaming horses in the Pryor Mountains can be considered a threatened part of our cultural heritage (of all people) that requires conservation action (i.e. historical and cultural conservation). This argument specifically applies to the Spanish horses - as they are now relatively rare - as opposed to other breeds that northern and western Europeans brought to the Americas and that also have free-roaming populations. One could argue that it is important to somehow preserve the horses that now live in the Pryor Mountains. However, from this historical perspective, one can make the case that these horses belong in Spain or with historical societies (in Spain or in the Americas) rather than in a free-roaming herd in North America. Note that this argument does not relate to free-roaming horse populations in general, but only those that are descendents of the Spanish Colonial Horses. Also note that this argument is based on the free-roaming horses in the Pryor Mountains being highly unique and different from other horse species and subspecies (see the 2nd argument for contrast).

 

5. The free-roaming Spanish horses (specifically those in the Pryor Mountains) are part of our history and cultural heritage (i.e. to humans in general, not just the Spanish or Native Americans) as they were an integral part of the culture and life style of Native Americans.

Considerations: It is indeed true that horses, specifically those that descended from the horses the Spanish brought to the Americas, were an important part of the culture and lifestyle of Native Americans, at least for a few hundred years. From this historical and cultural perspective the horses belong in North America. However, I think it would be more appropriate to keep the horses as an integral component of Native American lifestyle and Native American cultural programs rather than in a free-roaming herd in the Pryor Mountains. On the other hand, many Native American tribes may have had large herds of "Spanish horses" and not all may have been under substantial and constant control of humans. Therefore one could argue that free-roaming Spanish horses are part of the horse culture of Native Americans, but the horses that were most intensively used in their culture had a higher degree of captivity and control by humans. Therefore this particular history and cultural heritage argument suggests keeping the horses in captivity before also considering free-roaming herds. Note that this argument does not relate to free-roaming horse populations in general, but only those that are descendents of the Spanish Colonial Horses and that were used by Native Americans. On the other hand one could argue that other horse breeds can be considered a "surrogate" for the horses used by Native Americans as it may be more important to preserve horses in general as a component of Native American lifestyle and culture rather than worry about the exact breed of horses that would be most appropriate.

 

6. "Wild horses" can be important to a local or regional economy.

Considerations: Perhaps this argument is relatively unique to the area around Lovell (Wyoming). Lovell is the gateway town to the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range. The potential for the free-roaming horses to be a tourist attraction and the economic opportunities associated with that for the town and wider region were part of the discussions over the establishment of the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range. From my own experience in talking with other visitors to the area it appears that a good percentage of the visitors is there primarily to see the free-roaming horses. However, I do not know how much these visitors contribute to the local or regional economy.

 

7. Free-roaming horses speak to the imagination and we care about horses continuing to be "wild and free".

Considerations: I think this relates more to a "feeling" than to a rational argument, but this does not mean I think it is irrelevant or not important.  It seems to be specifically applied to species we "feel" an affinity with (perhaps especially with horses); I do not think it is consistently applied to all species. Personally I find the word "wild" in this context very confusing because it leads to confusion with the concept of a "true wild species". Nonetheless, in the discussion about free-roaming horses the word "wild" seems to be used often and it seems to have different meanings to different people at different times (e.g. "not or not fully controlled of humans", "free-roaming", "ancient breed", "similar (sometimes considered equal) to a true wild species"). Regardless it appears to me that the word "wild" is typically not well defined in the context of discussions about free-roaming horses. The word "free" is more clear I think. I think "free" basically means "not under the (full) control of humans" and the ability for the animals to roam unhindered over long distances. When I think of the images I hope to make of the free-roaming horses in the Pryor Mountains, I think of images of running horses speeding across the open landscape. I think in this context freedom essentially means "no fences" and "wide open spaces". However, I also think there is an additional aspect of "freedom". The sense of freedom is perhaps especially strong if there is a contrast with captive individuals of the same species that are controlled by people in relatively small fenced areas. This can relate to domesticated species (e.g. on farms) as well as wild species (e.g. in zoos). Perhaps our "feelings" with regard to "freedom" are especially strong with species we "feel" a strong affinity with, species with whom we share a long history of domestication, and species that are or were essential to our lifestyles (transportation, war, agriculture). Horses fit this profile better than any other species I think. Because of all the service horses have provided to humans throughout history it may lead to a desire to give horses back the freedom we took from them.

 

The arguments and considerations above illustrate that there are many possible perspectives on free-roaming horses in the USA. However, some of the arguments are more valid and more objective than others. Most of the arguments - when brought to their logical conclusion - suggest that it is more appropriate to bring feral horses, including the ones in the Pryor Mountains, under greater control of humans. This means taking the horses back into captivity rather than allowing them to continue to be free-roaming. One argument that pleas for continuing to have free-roaming horses in the USA requires big steps in how we think about conservation and the conservation tools we deem acceptable. For example, when is it acceptable or not acceptable to bring back a species into an ecosystem? What are the pros and cons - including ethics - of using "surrogate species" vs. bringing back species that are now extinct based on "old" DNA that was preserved in ice in the tundras or in museums? Are we developing guidelines and are we consistently applying them for all species? The other argument for keeping free-roaming horses relates to the lifestyle and culture of native Americans, but this argument is most credible if there are also captive populations that are an integral part of Native American lifestyle or Native American cultural programs rather than only free-roaming herds. 

 

Note that the management of the free-roaming horses in the Pryor Mountains includes an anti-fertility program and an adoption program, effectively keeping their numbers at around 150 individuals or so.

For more information about the horses in the Pryor Mountains:

1. Bureau of Land Management

2. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

3. Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center

4. Wikipedia Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range and Pryor Mountain Mustangs

 

Free-roaming mustang (feral horse, sometimes called wild horse), Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range, Montana, USAFree-roaming mustang (feral horse, sometimes called wild horse), Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range, Montana, USAFree-roaming mustang (feral horse, sometimes called wild horse), Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range, Montana, USA. These horses are descendents from the horses the Spanish brought to the Americas. These horses later formed an important part of the culture of Native Americans. The horses are thought to have arrived in this region about 300 years ago. Some horses escaped in various areas, but the herd in the Pryor Mountains may be the only remaining herd whose genetics bear a close resemblance to the horses the Spanish brought with them when they came to the Americas.

Free-roaming mustang (feral horse, sometimes called wild horse), Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range, Montana, USAFree-roaming mustang (feral horse, sometimes called wild horse), Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range, Montana, USAFree-roaming mustang (feral horse, sometimes called wild horse), Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range, Montana, USA. These horses are descendents from the horses the Spanish brought to the Americas. These horses later formed an important part of the culture of Native Americans. The horses are thought to have arrived in this region about 300 years ago. Some horses escaped in various areas, but the herd in the Pryor Mountains may be the only remaining herd whose genetics bear a close resemblance to the horses the Spanish brought with them when they came to the Americas.

 

Click here for other images of the horses in the Pryor Mountains.

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