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Mother Nature 'delisted' mustangs

Jul 30, 2014 - By Walter Cook

Evolution doesn't simply take a break for 12,000 years.

According to scientists, indigenous modern horses died out in the so-called New World at the end of the epoch, about 12,000 years ago.

Reasons given for their extinction abound, ranging from climate change to hunting by humans in North America. It wasn't until the Spanish brought the horse back to the Americas in the 1500s that horses once again roamed the Great Plains.

This time around, though, they were prized for their use as transportation rather than a source of food.

Even if supporters of placing America's wild horses -- or mustangs -- on the federal Endangered Species List disregard the role artificial selection by humans played in transforming the animals into beasts of burden prior to their arrival in the New World, given the supporters' purported ecological conscientiousness, I imagine it's harder for them to ignore the fact that for 12,000 years an assortment of flora and fauna likely evolved in the Western U.S. and thrived in the absence of horses.

It seems likely that such plants stand to be negatively impacted, both in terms of quality and quantity, by an abundance of wild horses, similar to the way grazing by non-native cattle can impact the environment.

Evolution doesn't simply take a break for 12,000 years. In undeveloped areas, today's arid plains are better suited for grazing by lightweight animals, such as pronghorn and deer, as opposed to heavy animals like horses and bison.

A recent NPR story regarding wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park shows just how fast evolution can occur. In the roughly 20 years since wolves were reintroduced there, scientists have noted that the ecosystems around certain rivers have changed dramatically due to the wolves killing grazing animals such as deer and elk.

This has resulted in forests growing closer to the banks of some rivers, beavers building more dams, the narrowing of rivers due to more plants growing on the banks, and the formation of more pools. Animals including muskrats, ducks, fish, and reptiles now thrive in such areas as a result.

If all that can happen in just 20 years, imagine what can take place over 12,000 years.

It seems supporters of placing wild horses on the Endangered Species List are being guided by romance instead of science. In North America, Mother Nature left wild horses behind a long time ago.

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Editor's note: Former Ranger staff writer Walter Cook is a business writer in Los Angeles.

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