Tens of thousands of wild horses are slaughtered en masse after mustangs breed too quickly on the great plains
- Iconic horse of the American West threatens natural ecosystems
- Around 37,000 Mustangs roam the US mountain ranges in ten states
- Another 50,000 are kept on makeshift pastures
- Officials say the population has reached “critical mass.”
They’re an icon of the American West and a symbol of the country’s frontier history, but now hundreds of Mustang horses face slaughter due to overpopulation.
Under existing laws, the government pays ranchers to take in thousands of these “feral” horses each year to keep population numbers down. Mustangs are not a native species to the Americas and are known to have an adverse effect on natural ecosystems.
The current system for dealing with these threats has been in place since 1971, but now rising feed costs have resulted in growing numbers of American ranchers refusing to keep mustangs.
Mustangs are considered a symbol of the frontier history of the American West
The government uses helicopters to capture mustangs and sparse populations
Activists say helicopter herding is cruel and doesn’t differentiate the fit horses from the old and young population
According to activists, pregnant mares and young foals are sometimes trampled over miles of rough terrain
Officials have warned that the government-owned pastures and short-term enclosures are themselves reaching capacity.
The result could mean thousands of this prized breed will be slaughtered to curb overpopulation.
An estimated 37,000 wild horses and wild donkeys roam the mountain ranges in ten western states.
Officials say that’s 11,000 more than the manageable population, and the number is expected to double every four years.
Around 50,000 wild horses and donkeys are currently kept on temporary pastures, three times as many as ten years ago.
Despite the overpopulation crisis and the known impacts of wild hose on the natural habitats of other native animals, activists continue to squabble with the government over management of mustangs in particular.
To thin out the populations of feral herds, helicopters are used to hunt mustangs in traps. Some activists think this is cruel and harmful to a species they believe America should protect.
Suzanne Roy of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign said pregnant mares and foals are chased by helicopters over miles of rough terrain.
“Helicopters aren’t demanding,” she said. “They attack the very old and the very young with the seizures.”
Authorities have been accused of driving mustangs to extinction. However, only 99 of the 11,000 people collected from the plains last year died. That’s less than 1%.
Officials are now beginning to realize that slaughter may be the only solution to contain the population.
Government legislation has been criticized for favoring ranchers, who prefer to clear land of wild horses to make way for cattle
Officials estimate that nearly 50,000 wild horses are kept on temporary pasture
A controversy remains as to whether the mustang can be considered a native animal in North America
Ms. Roy denies this, questioning the wisdom associated with believing that America’s country cannot support mustang populations.
She claims the legislation is heavily weighted in favor of ranchers who need the land cleared for cattle.
The problem might be better addressed through contraceptive measures using fertility drugs.
Tom Gorey of the Bureau of Land Management disputed that this would be a reasonable alternative.
He said: “Logistically [contraception] is very hard. It has not been proven to be a magic solution.’
The US Congress has recognized the Mustang as “a living symbol of the historic and pioneering spirit of the West.”
The first mustangs were descended from Iberian horses brought to Mexico and Florida from Spain during the colonization of North America.
Most of these horses were of Andalusian, Arabian and Barberian descent and were domesticated animals tamed for human use.
This has led to a dispute over whether it is entirely correct to call the mustang ‘wild’ given that it is the descendant of a native breed not native to the natural habitat.
Native Americans quickly adopted the horse as their primary mode of transportation. They were also used in battle, trade, and hunting, particularly bison hunting.
Some environmentalists claim that the mustang should be classified as native because there is evidence that horses roamed North America in prehistoric times.
More than half of all mustangs in North America are found in Nevada, with other significant populations in Montana, Wyoming, and Oregon.
The government says the total manageable population in the wild should be 26,000, a figure well below reality.
“We’re reaching critical mass,” added Tom Gorey. “And we don’t see an immediate solution.”