Native Trespassers: Wild Horses in Mesa Verde – Jeff Martin

– the second in a series of guest-posts by students of Animal Geography at UC – Berkeley

A few of Mesa Verde’s equine residents. Photograph courtesy of Jasmine Mayberry, © 2011

A few of Mesa Verde’s equine residents.
Photograph courtesy of Jasmine Mayberry, © 2011

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 [1], 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 [1]. While horses are protected under the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, animals on Park Service land are not.

Genetic re-evaluation

Many see wild horses not as wildlife but as non-native livestock [2], 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 [3].

Wild horses in Mesa Verde are referred to as “trespass horses.”  Photograph courtesy of Freyja Knapp, © 2013.

Wild horses in Mesa Verde are referred to as “trespass horses.” Photograph courtesy of Freyja Knapp, © 2013. Click to enlarge.

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 [3].

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 [4]. 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” [5].

Mesa Verde National Park is known for its cliff palaces. Photograph courtesy of Massimo Catarinella, © 2008.

Mesa Verde National Park is known for its cliff palaces. Photograph courtesy of Massimo Catarinella, © 2008.

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 [5], challenging Park Service arguments and assumptions [2]. 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.

JVM profile photo

About the Author – Jeff Martin is a second-year PhD student in the Geography Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He works at the intersection of environmental issues and political economy, and is currently developing a dissertation project on gray wolf conflicts and land use change in Western Europe and the Western U.S.


1. Spencer, C. (2013) [Solicitation for Comment], Mesa Verde National Park, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.

2. King, P.T. (2013) “My Turn: Mesa Verde’s Wild Horses Provide Opportunity for Change,” The Taos News.

3. Kirkpatrick, J.F. and Fazio, P.M. (2010) “Wild Horses as Native North American Wildlife,” Animal Welfare Institute.

4. Robbins, P. (2004) “Comparing Invasive Networks: Cultural and Political Biographies of Invasive Species,” The Geographical Review. 94(2): pp.139-156.

5. Robbins, P. and Moore, S.A. (2012) “Ecological Anxiety Disorder: Diagnosing the Politics of the Anthropocene,” Cultural Geographies. 20(1): pp.3-19.

6. Slothower, C. (2013) “Mesa Verde Struggles with Wild Horses,” Farmington Daily Times.

7. American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (2013) “Tell Feds to Protect Wild Horses in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado,”

  1. If the horses were checked for Iberian genetic markers and the distinctive conformation of the Spanish Colonial horse:
    there would be evidence that the horses are descendants of the horses brought over by the Spanish and integrated into the indigenous cultures of the Southwest. That would make them part of our national heritage and support the argument that not only are horses part of the American ecosystem, these individuals are living history and must be managed that way.

    • Absolutely. I gave very little attention here to the cultural valuation of these animals, but it is very much part of the discourse by which horse proponents defend their continued presence
      – Jeff

  2. In my opinion an important point, even when E. caballus is genetic equivalent, is how much have the ecosystem vegetation changed during and after the pleistocene extinction?? If the hypothesis of vegetation/climatic change have a role the modern herbivory of horses could be a “new” pressure/disturb for the holocene grassland ecosystem that evolved during 10.000 years without equids.
    Of course, almost without predators, another problems is the density (and so they effect) that feral horse population reach now, probably different from past pleistocene densities, and the impossibility of regional migration.


    • That is definitely the big question left out of this – how much have the environments to which horses have returned changed? And, as you note, this is as much a question of flora and fauna as it is of the property regimes on the landscape. Both very interesting areas for future research!


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