Call for Euthanizing Wild Horses Stirs Controversy

Activists are outraged over an advisory board's recommendation to sell or kill animals to prevent overgrazing.

Photo: Wild mustangs graze on federal land in Wyoming. Credit: SteppinStars via Wikimedia Commons Animal welfare activists are angry about federal advisory board's recommendation last week that the Bureau of Land Management euthanize or sell for slaughter thousands of wild horses and burros who've been rounded up because of concerns about overgrazing on federal lands.

As the Arizona Republic reported yesterday, the National Wild Horse Burro Advisory Board, an independent group of veterinarians, animal researchers and others, recommended that those wild horses and burros who've been rounded up by federal authorities for range management and judged to be unadoptable should be "destroyed in the most humane manner possible" or else sold. The board reportedly made its recommendation after touring land in Nevada that had been trampled and stripped of vegetation by overgrazing.

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Although some media outlets have reported incorrectly that the federal government already has decided to kill the animals, the board lacks any authority over the animals' fate. A BLM spokesperson said there are no plans to kill any of the wild horses that are in federal care.

"The BLM is committed to having healthy horses on healthy rangelands," the bureau said in an official statement sent by email. "We will continue to care for and seek good homes for animals that have been removed from the range. Currently, there are more than 67,000 wild horses and burros on public rangelands, and the BLM is caring for nearly 50,000 animals in off-range corrals and pastures."

Nevertheless, the board's advice, which has not yet been released in full to the public, has aroused a storm of criticism from groups such as the Humane Society of the United States. In a blog post, HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle denounced the recommendation as "unhinged," and "a prescription for mass slaughter on an almost unimaginable scale."

"Our nation's wild horses deserve better than this sort of mismanagement and abuse, and an attitude that they are throwaway objects," Pacelle wrote.

Pacelle instead advocated managing the size of wild horse and burro populations by controlling their fertility. One such method would be giving mares the contraceptive, PZP-22, which requires rounding them up to administer injections by hand. BLM recently dropped a research effort to surgically sterilize wild horses, which was opposed by some animal rights activists.

BLM's wild horse and burro program spends most of its limited funds -- $49 million of its $77 million total appropriation -- for care and feeding of animals in captivity, according to the Arizona Republic.

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Advisory Board member Ben Masters, in a Facebook post, said that the board made its recommendation reluctantly. "Right now we are witnessing an ecological disaster on tens of millions of acres of our beloved Western Landscapes," he wrote. "It is affecting reptiles, mammals, birds, invertebrates, migrating species, amphibians, threatened and endangered species, plant communities, soil health, and even water availability."

Masters, who personally has adopted seven wild horses, said that any actual move to klll horses would have to be approved by Congress. He hoped that the prospect of having to take such a controversial vote would compel legislators instead to allocate more funds for managing wild horses and burros.

"The publicity and outrage our recommendation will could FINALLY make congress realize what a tremendous disaster the WH&B program is and get some funding and attention to address this massive problem," he wrote.

Photos: The World's Last Wild Horses

style="text-align: left;">Descendants of the world's last known wild horses are remarkably different from domesticated horses, with a new genetic study showing that the two groups went their separate evolutionary ways 45,000 years ago. The existent horses with true wild ancestry, Przewalski's (pronounced shuh-VAL-skee's) horses, even have a different number of chromosomes, according to the study that is published in Current Biology. The research found that genes involved in metabolism, cardiac disorders, muscle contraction, reproduction, behavior and signaling pathways differ between Przewalski's horses and domesticated horses. All of these differences would tend to support that Przewalski's horses represent an entirely unique species, but because these mammals can produce fertile offspring after mating with domesticated horses, they are considered as a different population, but not as a different species. Animal experts have debated the issue for years.

style="text-align: left;"> "The debate comes from the fact that first, Przewalski's horses do not look like domestic horses," senior author Ludovic Orlando of the University of Copenhagen's Natural History Museum of Denmark told Discovery News. He continued, "They have a dun coat color (no fancy colors, for instance), they are quite stockily built, their face looks more robust, and they are rather aggressive. They have never been successfully domesticated, perhaps in relation with their strong temper."

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style="text-align: left;">For the study, lead author Clio Der Sarkissian, Orlando and their team sequenced the complete genomes of 11 Przewalski's horses, including all of the founding lineages and five historical, museum specimens dating back more than a century. They then compared the results to the genomes of 28 domesticated horses.

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style="text-align: left;">Przewalski's horses, like this one, only number 2000 now. Like wolves versus dogs, these horses remained wild while others were changed by domestication. "Przewalski's horses were not known outside of Mongolia prior to their discovery during the expeditions of Colonel Przhevalsky (a Russian explorer) in the 1870s and 1880s," Orlando said. "Following their discovery, Przewalski's horses became of considerable interest for zoos, and many expeditions were mounted to catch those animals." Unfortunately, many of the horses did not survive the arduous journeys, and some were killed in zoos that were bombed during subsequent wars. In Mongolia, hunting, habitat degradation and other problems eventually led to the horse's extinction there. A captive stock of just 12 to 15 founders has resulted in the population of 2000 now, which Orlando believes "is a true success story for conservation."

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style="text-align: left;">Horses have always fascinated humans, as shown by cave art such as this, found at Lascaux, France. It dates to about 17,300 years ago, long before evidence of the first domestication of horses starts to appear in the fossil record. "The earliest evidence of horse domestication gets back to 5,500 years ago, at Botai, Kazakhstan, where archaeologists such as Alan Outram have excavated evidence of early horse harnessing, milking and morphological changes," Orlando said. "This is most often taken as the earliest evidence of horse domestication." He added that at Botai, 99 percent of the animal remains found in bone assemblages come from horses. "Clearly, humans were eating them at the very least, so meat was an early motivation," he explained. "Then, of course, there is evidence for harnessing. Much later, horses will be used for pulling war chariots, (for the) cavalry, and in farming for pulling ploughs."

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style="text-align: left;">Przewalski's horses such as these were reintroduced to what are now reserves. While they are fenced off, the spaces are usually vast and there is very little interaction between horses and humans. Claudia Feh, who took this photo, said, "I've always been interested in free-living horses, and the Przewalski is the world's last truly wild horse." She reintroduced a small herd of the horses to Mongolia in 2004. The horses must fend for themselves, grazing on their own and dealing with rodents, snakes and other animals that exist in their habitat.

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style="text-align: left;">The common ancestor of Przewalski's horses, such as this one, and domesticated horses remains a mystery for now. Cave art suggests that there were other, more fanciful early horse species, such as muscular horses with multiple spots. These depictions and others strongly suggest that coat variation happened long before humans began selectively breeding horses for particular coat colors and patterns. Many of the early horses died out, however. For example, researchers working last year in Central Siberia found evidence for a population of wild horses that lived in the region from about 16,000 to 43,000 years ago. Those horses are now extinct.

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style="text-align: left;">Mustangs (shown here) are often referred to as wild horses, but since they are descended from once-domesticated horses, they are technically feral and not wild. Nevertheless, mustangs can roam free in certain parts of the United States. In 1971, the U.S. Congress recognized that mustangs and free-roaming burros "are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, which continue to contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people."

style="text-align: left;">All horses are extremely social and intelligent animals that may form lifelong bonds with others. In the wild, Orlando said, "They live in permanent family groups (called harems), dominated by one adult stallion, and including a number of mares and their offspring." "Bachelor stallions, and old stallions can form bachelor groups," he added. "The dominant stallion in a group herds and defends his group. They are, compared to domestic horses, more aggressive, as they have never been domesticated."

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style="text-align: left;">Foals are always a good sign that reserve populations are on the upswing, but even when breeding does happen, there can be long-lasting problems. Orlando said that it is almost impossible to avoid inbreeding, such that researchers work to prevent mating between horse parents and the older offspring of these animals. Conservationists are also trying to limit the influence of domestic ancestry that has already entered into the Przewalski horse population. The latest research offers hope, though. "Now that we have whole genomes," Orlando explained, "we can quantify which genes have accumulated deleterious mutations and can try to favor lineages devoid of such mutations."

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style="text-align: left;">Greger Larson, who is director of Oxford University's Paleogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network, told Discovery News that the study "shows what you can do when you harness the power of full genome sequences." Next, Orlando and his colleagues, along with other research teams, hope to conduct additional DNA studies to reconstruct the gene pool of horses and other animals just prior to their domestication.

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