Federal protection sought for mustangs in West


Mustang advocates say the wild horse is on the verge of going extinct in North America for the second time in 13,000 years and deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act. (Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon/AP)
June 28

— Despite overall mustang numbers in the tens of thousands, advocates for the wild horse say it is on the verge of going extinct in North America for the second time in 13,000 years and deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act alongside grizzly bears, the desert tortoise and humpback whales.

Attempts in Congress and the courts to halt mustang roundups have been unsuccessful during the past decade, but two groups in a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are focusing on genetics and research that they say prove the horses are a native species.

They say growing threats from development, livestock grazing and government roundups are jeopardizing the genetic viability of individual herds in 10 states from California to Montana.

“Nothing else is working. This is a different avenue,” said Michael Harris, a lawyer for Friends of Animals, a nonprofit animal rights group that filed the petition with the Cloud Foundation, a Colorado-based horse group.

The petition states mustang habitat has shrunk 40 percent since President Richard M. Nixon signed the Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act into law in 1971. It advances an argument that the Bureau of Land Management long has rejected — that the wild horse is a native species that only temporarily went extinct on the continent 11,000 to 13,000 years ago before Spanish conquistadors reintroduced it to North America in the 1500s.

The call for protection comes as the BLM insists the public rangeland — much of it in the throes of drought — is being degraded by an overpopulation of nearly 50,000 horses and burros, about half of them in Nevada.

The petition accuses the agency of undermining U.S. law protecting mustangs by abusing its authority to order roundups based on a determination that the herds are in “excess” to further the agency’s interest in minimizing competition with wildlife, cattle and sheep.

Although the BLM estimates that nearly 50,000 horses and burros are on the range, the petition says none of the isolated herds number anywhere near the 2,500 that most biologists consider necessary to keep a distinct species viable. About three-fourths have fewer than 150 horses, it said.

The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association and the Public Lands Council are among those arguing the petition is invalid because the horses are not native to North America. They say protection afforded mustangs under the Wild Horse and Burro Act is undercut by the BLM’s failure to keep herd sizes in check.

“The federal government is buckling to pressures from the misguided special interest groups that don’t want to see ‘wild’ horses brought off the range,” said Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which is affiliated with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “Listing wild horses under the ESA — which is meant for wildlife, not domesticated, non-native animals — would only serve as another demonstration of just how damaging that statute is.”

BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said Friday that the agency has not changed its long-standing position that today’s American wild horses are not “native.”

— Associated Press

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