WILD HORSES – Symbol of the American West or an Invasive Species?

Ancient Horse from Lascaux. Replica in the Brno museum Anthropos.
Image is in the public domain.

[Edited and updated August 10, 2014]

Before we talk about wild horses, let’s look at another species often depicted, at least by Hollywood, as a symbol of the American West.

The iconic tumbleweed is considered a complex and highly advanced plant.  The most common tumbleweeds are the Russian Thistles (Salsola tragus, S. australis, S. iberica, S. kali, S. pestifer, and S. ruthenica.)   The seed bearing parts form clusters that detach from the root and “tumble” along in the wind dispersing seed over great distances.   Tumbleweeds have indeed become synonymous with the American west, but according to botanical experts most tumbleweeds, including Russian Thistle, are not “native” to North America.[1]

There are those who would demonize such weeds as an “invasive species” and advocate for a tax payer funded program to exterminate (if that were even possible) such “introduced” plants  from our western range lands.  Other forage plants do offer more nutrition per acre for grazing animals than the tumbleweeds.  What we need to keep in mind is that the radical environmentalists, as well as our Federal land management agencies, have adopted a strategy of pitting “native species” vs. “non-native species” against each other in order to impose their own extreme agenda on the rest of us.  They shroud their arguments in pseudo-scientific terms and complex sounding theories to confuse ignorant folks who think it best to let these so-called “experts” direct public policy.  The public is never informed that the “invasive” Russian Thistle can be an important nutrient source for grazing animals and is sometimes even harvested for hay or silage.  Not only is Russian Thistle a highly drought resistant plant, but it is “credited with saving the beef cattle industry in Canada and the United States during the Dust Bowl era, when conventional hay crops failed and no other feed was available for starving animals.”[2]

So what is a “native” species anyway? And why should we allow every so-called  “invasive” species to  be demonized?  All plants and animals impact the environment.  To say that some are “good” or “bad” depends on one’s perspective and values.   Some species prove to be economically detrimental or hazardous to other species.  Some prove beneficial.  Humans have long demonstrated the ability to cultivate favorable species and suppress those that may be harmful or less desirable. The precise origin of a particular species, if it could even be determined, is pretty much irrelevant.

File:Salsola tragus tumbleweed.jpg
Common tumbleweed – Salsola targus
“Russian Thistle”

So what about wild horses?  In 1976, the Wilderness Society published an article highly critical of the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse Adoption Program.   The environmental lobby advocated for a hands off approach when it came to feral horses which they called a “symbol of the American west”.  Having just returned from a field study documenting the impacts that feral horses and burros were having on “native” desert bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope populations, I was furious with the Wilderness Society and wrote them a letter that was published in the October 1976  edition of their magazine.[3]   I provided facts and statistics about the negative impact feral horses were having on the “native” sheep and antelope populations, specifically regarding competition for limited water sources.  I advocated for the BLM’s sane and humanitarian method of managing the “non-native” horse populations so that they would not jeopardize the survival of “native” desert bighorn sheep.

As a result of my letter defending a “native” species against a “non-native” species, the Wilderness Society reversed its position.  It wasn’t long before every environmental organization on the planet saw the benefits of adopting the strategy of promoting “native” species over “invasive” species in order to push their radical agenda for controlling human activity and REWILDING the planet.

There was only one problem with such a strategy.  Environmentalists staked everything on being able to control the definition and public perception of what constituted a “native” species.  In order to dictate policy, they had to convince the public that “native” was always good, and “non-native” was always bad.  They had to convince the politicians and voting public that they alone knew what was best for the rest of us. They had to convince the majority that nature left untouched was superior and preferable to human managed landscapes.  Their ultimate goal became restricting human activity and erasing all traces of human impacts on the land.  “Native” species preservation and restoration became the hammer they needed to drive their agenda forward.

We need to look at the definition of a “native” species a bit more closely.  The truth is, the wild mustang has indeed become a symbol of America, just as much as the bald eagle, the bison or the wild turkey.  In fact, although our modern horses are indeed descended from European stock brought to the New World by the Spanish in the 1500’s, the fossil record proves that a variety of horses were present on this continent in large numbers thousands of years earlier.  European explorers simply helped the horse re-colonize a significant portion of their historic habitat.  In other words, the horse is either a “native” species or a “non-native” species depending on how one chooses to define the terms.

So how many of us grew up believing that lighter skinned Euro-Americans are an “invasive species”?  How many people give credence to the notion that darker skinned “Native Americans” rightfully own the entire continent of North America?  Does the fact that human beings lived on the continent of North America long before Columbus and his motley crew of invaders set foot in the New World mean that everyone else is “non-native”?

How many people know that the Hopi tribe claim to have been the first people to arrive in the New World?  How many know that ALL THE OTHER TRIBAL groups likely came here much later, invading from the North across the Bering Sea land bridge?  Does being the first to travel to some remote location make one a “native”?   If that were so, it would mean the Hopi are the only true “native” Americans in the Western Hemisphere.  The fact that humans are all of the same species never seems to enter the equation.

Consider the fact that all people groups have been in nearly constant conflict over territory and food resources throughout recorded history.  Global political and territorial boundaries are in a constant state of flux.  Consider the fact that  many “New World” tribal groups were exterminated by their more aggressive neighbors well before the white man showed up with his muskets, horses, and small pox laced blankets.  Consider the fact that the Russians, Spaniards, Pacific Islanders, and the Norse, were colonizers of vast regions of the world well before the Aztecs built their pyramid to the Sun in ancient Mexico.

“Anyone born in the western hemisphere is a native American.” – Russell Means – Lakota – A.I.M activist

The REWILDING proponents claim that the law of the jungle is supreme and the earth should be left untouched by man. They would like to build fences around diminishing human settlements.  According to the REWILDERS, all human impacts outside those fences should be removed and the earth should be allowed to return to a “pristine” primeval condition where man is forbidden from managing nature, extracting resources, and most importantly, he is prohibited from displacing “wild” things.

From a Biblical perspective, mankind is fallen, and the whole of creation with him. (See Genesis 3).  This is why man must work.  Mankind has no choice but to till the soil and pull up weeds if he wants to survive.  Instead of asking whether or not man has a right to determine the number and boundaries of species, we should be asking the more important question-  what will happen if we don’t?

[1] Flora of North America

[3] The Living Wilderness, a pub. of the Wilderness Society, October 1976 edition – Letters

9 thoughts on “WILD HORSES – Symbol of the American West or an Invasive Species?

  1. “The Bureau of Land Management announced today that as of March 1, 2016, more than 67,000 wild horses and burros are roaming Western public rangelands – a 15 percent increase over the estimated 2015 population.”

    “The updated numbers show more than twice the number of horses on the range than is recommended under BLM land use plans. It is also two and a half times the number of horses and burros that were estimated to be in existence when the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed in 1971. To help address the problem, BLM is seeking legislative authority for additional initiatives.”

    “Over the past seven years we have doubled the amount of funding used for managing our nation’s wild horses and burros,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze. “Despite this, major shifts in the adoption market and the absence of a long-term fertility control drug have driven population levels higher. A number of program reforms are underway, but assistance is needed from our local, state, and federal partners.”


  2. Willie Nelson

    I live on a horse ranch with 12 horses. Every year the fields next to the ranch get plowed and all of the Dead tumbleweeds find their way into this property and piled up in the horse Arena. I’m standing here watching two horses Motown the dead tumbleweeds like they were candy. When the brand new baby tumbleweeds appear in the spring they disappear as quickly as they appear around the horses. So here’s my question. Why has not the horse feed industry caught on yet to the reality that tumbleweeds are a yummy treat green or dead? And actually gone into mass production to grow commercial grade tumbleweeds for livestock feed. Simply grind the shit up and make it in pellet form. Shit man if I was in the livestock feed industry I would cash in on this almost free source of livestock feed. No livestock feed suppliers stock this kind of product. What is wrong with this picture? Would love to hear your comments.

  3. Willie, I assume the nutritional value is much lower than other feed, so I’m not sure anyone would actually want to try and commercially raise it as a crop, collect it by the truckload, or try to market it. Probably requires too much work for too little profit. But as long as it’s available on the range, or in your case, in the arena, grazers obviously can/do eat it without ill affects.

  4. Anonymous

    The numbers of feral horses across the west are far beyond what was originally considered back in the 1970’s when all the protections were placed on them. Additionally, there are “new” populations that have popped up on our public lands in areas that are disconnected from the original ranges. Funny how some of these disconnected populations are close to cities like Phoenix. Guess they were previously hiding out so well in the mesquite that no one noticed them?

    In areas where there are horses, the native wildlife populations are very limited or nonexistent. The damage done by these feral horses in such delicately balanced ecosystems is atrocious. The system is broken and these destructive, nonnative species should be removed from these ecosystems.

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