By The Cloud Foundation
COLORADO SPRINGS, Co. (Sept. 16, 2013) - For over thirty years, the genetics of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Herd have been tracked by foremost equine geneticist, E. Gus Cothran. His first revelations linking the herd to the horses of the Spanish Conquistadors and Old World Iberian Horses were cause for celebration among local supporters of the herd who long believed that the primitive physical appearance of some Pryor horses were indicators of their Spanish ancestry. Cothran also indicated in earlier reports that the genetic diversity of the herd was good.
But Cothran’s newest report issued on August 22, 2013 reveals a herd at risk of losing genetic variability. Cothran states that “compared to past sampling of this herd, variability levels for all measures has been in decline.” He further states that the expression of the Spanish heritage is “stronger than seen recently,” but we could be seeing “the very beginning of evidence of inbreeding.”
Ginger Kathrens, Executive Director of The Cloud Foundation (TCF) whose documentaries about the Pryor stallion, Cloud, brought world-wide attention to the herd, feared this was coming since 2009 when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced plans to reduce the herd to population levels not seen in many years At that time Kathrens warned, "The genetic viability of this herd - their very survival - is at risk.”
In response to the perceived threat to the herd, TCF filed a lawsuit against the BLM in 2009, challenging the dangerously low Appropriate Management Level (AML), asserting that this low population would damage the genetic diversity of the herd and put them at risk of inbreeding and eventual die-off. During the 2009 roundup, the BLM removed an entire sub-population of animals in the Custer National Forest lands, horses that had unique genetics unrepresented in the main Pryor herd which Kathrens believes impacted the results of Cothran’s report.
The TCF lawsuit was expanded to include the Forest Service in 2010, when they announced plans to build a two mile long, buck and pole fence on the border between BLM and FS lands atop East Pryor Mountain. The fence was completed in 2011 and it denies wild horses access to thousands of acres of high quality, late summer and fall meadows. Evidence from BLM and others indicates that the Pryor horses used an area that included most of the Custer National Forest lands to the west of the designated range since before the Forest Service existed. The litigation is still pending in Federal Court and it is believed that a verdict will be rendered before the end of the year.
"We're at the point where it is imperative that the Bureau of Land Management work closely with both the Park Service and the Custer National Forest to increase the range for the Pryor Mountains," stated Kathrens. "Unless the range can be expanded it will be difficult to allow for a significantly larger population.”
Cothran concluded his Pryor report, writing “The best way to maintain the current levels (of genetic variability) would be to increase population size if range conditions allow.”
The problem of declining variability is not unique to the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Herd. Over 70% of all western wild horse herds are managed at levels under 200 horses and so face the same fate. However, most herds occupy much larger acreages, but compete with privately-owned livestock. On these ranges, the wild horses receive less than 18% of the forage. Privately owned livestock receive 82% of forage. A call for fairness was made at the September 9-11, 2013 Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board Meeting in Washington DC. Board member, Tim Harvey, asked that wild horses receive a fairer share of forage. In her public comment at the meeting, Kathrens called for increased forage for small, at risk herds.
“If BLM continues their business as usual approach to wild horse management we will begin to see significant inbreeding,” Kathrens explained. “I have been talking about the need for larger herds in order to maintain genetic viability for 15 years. Maybe now, with this very clear report on Cloud’s Pryor Mountain herd, mustangs will actually be given a fair share of forage on their legal ranges.”
Wild horse herds are managed on 31.6 million acres of the 650 million acres managed by BLM and Forest Service, while privately owned livestock occupy over 238 million acres. Livestock permittees on federal lands pay only $1.35 per cow/calf pair or for 5 sheep, a rate that compares with $16-20 per cow/calf pair on private land. Administration of the federal lands grazing program costs taxpayers $123 million yearly. Independent economists estimate the costs of public land grazing by livestock at over $500 million annually.