RENO, NEV.: Despite overall numbers in the tens of thousands, 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 alongside grizzly bears, the desert tortoise and humpback whales.
Efforts to halt mustang roundups in Congress and the courts have been unsuccessful over the past decade, but two groups in a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service are focusing on genetics and research they say proves the horses are a native species. They say growing threats from development, livestock grazing and government gathers 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 Colorado-based horse group, The Cloud Foundation.
The petition states mustang habitat has shrunk 40 percent since President Richard 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 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.
While BLM estimates 49,208 horses and burros are on the range, the petition says none of the isolated herds number anywhere near the 2,500 most biologists consider necessary to keep a distinct species viable. About three-fourths have fewer than 150 horses, it said.
Harris, legal director of the wildlife program at Friends of Animals, admits it may be tough to sell the public on the idea the mustangs are endangered.