RENO, Nev. – American history textbooks teach generation after generation that the wild horses roaming the Western plains originated as a result of the European explorers and settlers who first ventured across the ocean and into the frontier.
But that theory is being challenged at archaeological digs, university labs and federal courtrooms 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.
The group In Defense of Animals and others are pressing a case in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that maintains wild horses roamed the West about 1.5 million years ago and didn’t disappear until as recently as 7,600 years ago. More importantly, 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 could carry ramifications across hundreds millions of acres in the West where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management divides up livestock grazing allotments based partly on the belief the horses are no more native to those lands than are the cattle brought to North America centuries ago.
Rachel Fazio, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told a three-judge appellate panel in San Francisco earlier this year that the horses are “an integral part of the environment.”
“As much as the BLM would like to see them as not, they are actually a native species. They are tied to this land,” she said. “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 most recent science backs her up and that the concept is widely accepted by most of the scientific community, with the most notable exception being the BLM itself.
A reversal of the BLM’s long-held belief could have the effect of moving the native horses to the front of the line when divvying up water and forage in the arid West.
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 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.
Jay Kirkpatrick, a leader in horse reproduction research who directs ZooMontana’s Science and Conservation Center in Billings, is among those who say BLM’s view is outdated.
“On the face of the science, it is just absolutely incorrect,” said Kirkpatrick, who has studied reproductive physiology for decades since earning his degree at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University.
“It wasn’t the predominant horse on the continent, but it was here. It is native to North America,” he said.
BLM officials said they can’t comment on pending litigation, but pointed to their website descriptions and a leading scientist who says their version is closer to the truth.
“Horses did evolve in North America, but they went extinct 10,000 years ago,” said Michael Hutchins, executive director of the Wildlife Society, a nonprofit scientific and educational association in Bethesda, Md.
Today’s mustangs are “a domesticated, feral version that had gone through many, many generations of selective breeding to use as beasts of burden and were brought back to North America,” he said.
If they are native, then so too are camels, cheetahs and lions that roamed the continent before extinction about the same time, Hutchins said. But they are not, he said, partly because the same ecological conditions no longer exist, the climate changed and most big predators gone.
The case pending in the 9th Circuit could go a long way toward determining future management of the animals and has the potential to send BLM back to the scientific drawing board before it can resume seasonal roundups of thousands of mustangs it says are damaging the environment.
The case already has cleared an unprecedented legal hurdle in that the appellate court is entertaining arguments about the merits of the law at all.
In previous similar challenges, courts have denied requests for emergency injunctions to block pending roundups based on conclusions that plaintiffs failed to prove significant harm was imminent or that they were likely to ultimately succeed in proving the government broke the law.
Then in a sort of Catch-22, by the time a nonemergency hearing arrives, the BLM already has completed the roundup and persuades the judge the case is moot, any damage already done.
The 9th Circuit ruling is still pending. But the judge in Sacramento who denied the original bid in September to block a 1,700-horse roundup in the Twin Peaks area along the California-Nevada line refused in April BLM’s request to dismiss the case.
U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. ruled it could go forward because “effective relief can still be granted” if plaintiffs prove BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act or the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
“This court could conceivably provide relief in the form of an order returning all animals in … holding facilities to either Twin Peaks or the West until all requirements of NEPA are met,” he said.