Cowboys on horseback, wild mustangs, tribes hunting bison across the Great Plains—horses litter our cultural imagining of the American West. Indeed, it is hard to picture a landscape where Equus seems more appropriate. And yet, at the beginning of this year, the National Park Service began soliciting comments for a plan to remove wild horses from Mesa Verde National Park , tarring them as “feral,” “invasive,” and “trespassers.”
According to the Park Service, between 100 and 150 horses have moved into the park in southwestern Colorado, trampling archaeological sites, damaging park facilities, running off native deer and elk from water sources, and creating a danger for park employees and visitors . While horses are protected under the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, animals on Park Service land are not.
Many see wild horses not as wildlife but as non-native livestock , but genetic analyses have now challenged this assumption. Drs. Kirkpatrick and Fazio conclude that E. caballus, the modern horse, is genetically equivalent to E. lambei, the last horse species known in North America prior to its extinction between 13,000 and 7,500 years ago. The modern horse thus evolved in North America prior to its migration into Eurasia about 2-3 million years ago .
A species is defined as native based on where it originated and co-evolved with its habitat. Modern horses, though descended from Eurasian populations domesticated around 4,000 years ago, can still be considered native to North America as they vary little biologically from their ancestors that originated here .
Belonging because they are there
More radically, political ecologists challenge the native/non-native distinction as a basis for assessing species appropriateness at all. While (re)appearance of a species in a place is an empirical fact, identification as “exotic” or an “invader” is conditioned by culture and politics, and carries with it value-laden meaning . Given the history and scope of human impacts on the landscape, the assumption that a “pure” native condition can or should be restored to is flawed: these are “imaginary places to which there is no hope of return” .
Horses in Mesa Verde date back at least a century, if not more, and proponents might argue that they then belong because they are there , challenging Park Service arguments and assumptions . The question is what specific effects the population has on the ground, and how these might be managed. Other species, including elk, deer, bears, and humans (MVNP hosted over 500,000 visitors in 2011), also damage archaeological sites [2, 6].
The remedies recommended by horse proponents—proper fencing and barriers, education of staff and visitors, horse birth control measures through remote darting [2, 7]—all present feasible alternatives to removal. Such methods, however, are subject to funding limitations. In the context of government shutdown and a longer trend of budget cuts, horse proponents must be sympathetic to Park management challenges. But the Park Service would be better served by recognizing the legitimate evolutionary and historical claims of Mesa Verde’s equine residents to belong and remain in the park [2, 6].
Postscript: The deadline for public comment on this issue was February 28th, 2013. Current status is unclear at time of writing.