Modern Mustang: A Mosaic

[This photograph by Paula Krugerud appears with her generous permission.]

March 2010 “Smithsonian Magazine” publishes “The Mustang Mystique,” in which the author attributes mustangs roaming the west today as “feral decendents of 16th century steeds the conquistadors brought to North America.”  The author and the publication garner scoldings from some readers deeming the history incomplete. Mustang heritage is a controversial issue, pivotal to determining whether the mustang is native or non-native to the United States.  Many people, some scientists among them, feel that if mustangs are native wildlife, they have a right to roam federal lands and if not, they don’t;

 New Zealand equestrian site more directly confronts the native/non-native mustang issue with a piece which cites evidence beyond the scope of the “Smithsonian” article:

Critics of the idea that the North American wild horse is a native animal, using only paleontological data, assert that the species, E. caballus (or the caballoid horse), which was introduced in 1519, was a different species from that which disappeared 13,000 to 11,000 years before. Herein lies the crux of the debate. However, the relatively new (27-year-old) field of molecular biology, using mitochondrial-DNA analysis, has recently found that the modern or caballine horse, E. caballus, is genetically equivalent to E. lambei, a horse, according to fossil records, that represented the most recent Equus species in North America prior to extinction. Not only is E. caballus genetically equivalent to E. lambei, but no evidence exists for the origin of E. caballus anywhere except North America.

  1. “National Geographic in “Mustangs: Spirit of the Shrinking West” expounds on the controversy in an historical overview of competition for western land and its resources.  The article notes the mustang’s contribution to the ranching industry as transportation, and its competition with cattle and sheep as forger.  It acknowledges that in the hard-earned utilitarian ranching culture, some ranchers hold mustangs in contempt, and some go as far as converting that contempt to violence:

    In February 2006 the Sportsman’s Warehouse in Reno, Nevada, sponsored a competition in which the varmint hunter who brought in the most proof—such as the jaws of coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions—would win a boat. Around the same time several wild horses were also shot, even though mustangs have been federally protected since 1971—under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act—from capture, branding, harassment, or killing.  (It was largely the efforts of a Nevadan, Velma Bronn Johnston, better known as Wild Horse Annie, to bring the plight of mustangs to public attention that led to passage of the act.)

    You can outlaw cruelty, but you can’t outlaw the culture that spawned that cruelty. Wild horses around the Rock Springs area…have been killed in greater numbers than anywhere else in the country.  It’s impossible to know if the deaths are the deliberate work of ranchers fed up with the pressures on their grazing or of careless young men with too much time on their hands.  In the spring of 2005 two Wyoming men and two men from Utah roped a wild stallion and castrated the animal with a knife.  The mustang bled to death, and its body was dragged to a remote draw and left to rot.

In partial response to local cattle and sheep ranchers’ interests and under mandate to equitably manage the wildlife, resources and uses of federal lands, the BLM under the Department of the Interior, in 2009/10 invokes its power to remove nearly 2,000 mustangs from the five-herd 500,000-acre Calico complex in the northern Nevada Desert, on the basis of inadequate forage.  During one of the aerial round ups, the carcasses of five mustangs are spotted; later two Lovelock residents are charged with the “malicious” shooting deaths of the horses–both men plead “not guilty” to the charges.  Upon completion of the BLM round ups an estimated 600 mustangs remain in the Calico Mountains complex;

The Cloud Foundation and other major wild horse advocates repeatedly challenge the need for the round ups, and charge the BLM with inhumane treatment of the mustangs during the round ups near Gertlach, Nevada and, subsequently, in captivity in a private holding facility in Fallon.  (More than 80 horses have died.)  Fundamental among the latter charges is a lack of tranparency by the BLM regarding the health and welfare of the Calicos in captivity.  A nonprofit organization, In Defense of Animals, files a lawsuit on behalf of two wild horse activists, against the U.S. government demanding the return to the range of 1800 captive mustangs in Fallon: “Lawsuit Seeks Mustangs’ Return to Range.”

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