for National Geographic Today
In 1971 Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act,
designed to preserve a living symbol of America's frontier past. Thirty
years later, there are fewer wild horses than ever.
One hundred years ago an estimated two million mustangs roamed the Western range. But today there are fewer than 50,000, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). And the government has plans to reduce the herds even furtherto just 27,000 by 2005.
Despite the statistics, America's wild horses are survivors. They've grown tough, living in harsh climates and unforgiving landscapes. With a high birth rate and few natural predators (hunting has thinned the ranks of mountain lions and bears) their numbers can climb fast. Too fast for the land to support them, says the BLM.
The BLM controls millions of acres of wilderness where most of America's wild horses are found. The agency, however, is responsible for maintaining the health of the land and it must strike a balance between the needs of ranching, recreation, and wildlife. In order to keep the mustang population in check, they hold periodic "gathers," rounding up "surplus" animals (the number of horses that exceed a pre-determined total for a particular area) for adoption.
Since 1971 nearly 159,000 horses have been gathered by the BLM. But a quarter of them never find homes. While the government has recently opened sanctuaries in Kansas and Oklahoma that can each take in 2,000 of the older "unadoptable" horseshorses that remain unclaimed after at least five auctionsthere are, on average, 5,000 animals in BLM holding facilities at any given time.
"What to do with the animals that are removed from the range will always be a critical issue. It's unlikely even with aggressive advertising and promotion that we'll be able to find sufficient homes," said Linda Coates-Markle, who managed a BLM herd in the Pryor Mountains along the Wyoming and Montana border.
"Once the herds are down to what's known as appropriate management levels then the number of animals removed from the herd areas will balance the needs of the adoption program," she explained. "In order for that to work, the number of removals on an annual basis probably should not exceed 3,000 to 5,000. Right now we're removing closer to 8,000 to 10,000."
To meet that goal, herds have been radically reduced. But that in itself can present a problem. A herd needs at least 150 animals to maintain long-term genetic viability, according to Gus Cothran, an equine genetics specialist at the University of Kentucky. Yet 75 percent of the 209 herd areas managed by the BLM in the West have fewer than 150 horses.
One quick fix, suggested by Cothran, is to introduce a few carefully selected outsiders to the herd every decade or so. But Coates-Markle, working with the small herd in the Pryors, is researching other methods.
The Pryor Mustangs
The Pryor horses, descendents of Spanish horses brought to the New World by the conquistadors in the 16th century, are among the most intensely studied in the world. They found their way into North America from Mexico. And for the past 200 years, they have thrived in splendid isolation, surrounded on three sides by mountains and canyons.
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