Feral is as Good as Wild: “No Garden of Eden”

The wild, free-roaming horses and burros of America are under attack again; this time by federal employee Ben Noyes of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Ely, Nevada office, who is quoted by undergraduate blogger for the New York Times Max Bearak in his post (Wild Horses and Hard Choices, October 11, 2001) on the BLM claim that the horses and burros are invasive” and destructive to the environment of the Western range.

It is unfortunate that the young Mr. Bearak lacked the journalistic savvy to call out Mr. Noyes on this irresponsible name-calling. The mere designation of an animal (plant, insect or fish) as “invasive” has no real scientific significance, and the allegation that the horses and burros are particularly or uniquely destructive to the range has never been scientifically proven.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines invasive animals as “introduced multicellular organisms of the kingdom Animalia, such as mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects.”  Wikipedia defines a feral organism is one that has changed from being domesticated to being wild or untamed.  The issue for scientists and conservationists (and the appropriate question for the BLM) is not whether any animal in a given geographic area is “feral” or “invasive,” but whether it is beneficial or destructive to that ecosystem.  As Wikipedia puts it

The introduction of feral animals or plants to their non-native regions, like any introduced species, may disrupt ecosystems and has, in some cases, contributed to extinction of indigenous species. However, returning lost species to their environment can have the opposite effect, bringing damaged ecosystems back into balance. By the same token, feral species may eliminate other “problem” species such as rodents, harmful insects, or aggressive plants.

The degree of variation of life forms within (and thus a measure of the health of) an ecosystem, biome, or planet is called biodiversity.  We now know that less than 1% of the species that have ever existed on Earth are extant.  The other 99% are extinct.  A group of related organisms are called a “taxon,” which a taxonomist adjudges to be a unit.  Taxonomists sometimes make a distinction between “good” (or natural) taxa and others that are “not good” (or artificial).

Equidae (sometimes known as the horse family) is the taxonomic family of horses and related animals, including the extant horses, donkeys and zebras, and many other extinct species. All extant species are in the genus Equus.  The term equid refers to any member of this family, including any equine.  Geneticists now generally agree that domestic horses contain nearly all the remaining genomes of the species equus caballus.  Survival of the equine is essential for the biodiversity of North and South America; and the domestic horse (feral, wild and free-roaming or otherwise) is the only source of this genetic material.

As the late geneticist Dr. A. T. Bowling wrote in the Preface to her book Horse Genetics, “our knowledge of horse genes lags well beyond that for human or mouse, or even for genes of other domestic animals such as cow, pig, sheep and chicken.”  Dr. Bowling did not offer a theory on why that is, as far as I know, but it may be due to the unique role that horses have played in human society.  The significance of equus as a key contributor to biodiversity and the health of the planet has not been well studied or understood until recently.

Dr. Bowling was at work (with co-editor A. Ruvinsky) on her 2000 monograph, The Genetics of the Horse when she died.  She wrote

Like the [equidae] family as a whole, the genus equus evolved in North America, and spread from there to the Old World.

In Chapter 14, Genetic Resources and their Conservation, D. P. Sponenberg of  the Department of Medical Sciences and Pathobiology, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, 24061, USA, writes

Horses are a component of global biodiversity.  Along with most other taxa, they currently face significant erosion of genetic variation.  The conservation situation for horses is complicated by the near extinction of the wild species during the last few centuries.  The identity of the wild ancestor of the horse has been controversial in the past, but is currently generally held to be the now extinct tarpan rather than the takh (Przewalski’s horse) (Bokonyi, 1987; see Chapter 2).  Due to the fate of these two (wild tarpan extinct, takh endangered), the vast majority of the species’ genome currently resides in domesticated horses.

Sponenberg argues that domestic horse populations, including feral populations, should be conserved for several reasons, including “Genetic Insurance”:

The fact that the wild progenitor of the domestic horse is extinct has implications if conservation is viewed as genetic insurance.  The domestic form is now the only extant representation of horse biodiversity.  This makes conservation of the domestic horse genetic diversity more compelling than if the wild ancestor were still extant.

Saving the entire genetic variation of the horse, albeit in domesticated form, is saving genetic diversity that ecosystems may one day need should it be possible to return ecosystems to wild or nearly wild status.

Indeed, there is mounting evidence that inbreeding may lead to the extinction of the last “wild” horse on the planet–Przewalski, according to a journal article in Biology of Reproduction, September 7, 2011 (Abnormal Reproductive Patterns in Przewalski’s Mares are Associated with a Loss in Gene Diversity, DOI:10.1095/biolreprod.111.092676 ).  In the case of Przewalski’s horse, its sequestration by humans to its “pristine” status as “the last wild horse” may be its doom.

As essayist Emma Marris writes on September 18, 2011 in High Country News on what she calls The Mirage of Pristine Wilderness, these distinctions between what has been touched by humans and what is truly “wild” may not be relevant.

For the last several years, I’ve been writing about ecologists and conservationists coming to terms with the fact that “pristine wilderness” is a mirage. Climate change, pollution, species movements, land-use changes — we’ve transformed the whole globe for good, every inch of it. And even if we could undo all that we’ve done, what would we go back to? Prehistoric humans changed landscapes much more than we once believed. And paleoecologists are teaching us to see familiar ecosystems not as eternal, unchanging, harmonious wholes so much as accidental, ephemeral aggregations — ships passing in the night in geological time. There never was a one right time, the ecologists say — no Garden of Eden.

The continued juggernaut of helicopter hazing and removal of wild horses and burros from the Western range in the name of “eliminating the problem” of wild horses and burros will lead to disastrous consequences for the Western ecosystem.  These animals are a “problem” but are instead an essential part of the solution.

There must be an immediate moratorium on the continued disruption of free-roaming horse bands and herds by the BLM so that we have a hope and prayer of one day returning the horse to its valuable place in the ecosystem.  Not only do the lives of individual horses, bands and herds depend on it,  but so does the balance, variety and health of life in our Western ecosystem.

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