Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Montana's Last Wild Mustangs

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range in SE Montana (c) John Ashley
Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range in SE Montana
For more than 200 years, generations of Montana’s last band of wild horses have lived and died along a dry, rocky range in southeastern Montana. Unbeknownst to them, centuries of hard-scrabble living hasn’t always been enough to qualify these horses as “wild” animals or protect them as “native” wildlife. How did our horses get corralled into this modern management and political nether-land?

It’s a long story, a story that -- in many ways -- is interwoven with the fates of 80 million native people already living in the Americas when Europeans arrived.

Horses evolved in North America (NA) about 55 million years ago, and eventually expanded into Europe by crossing the Bering land bridge. About 10,000 years ago, Paleo-Indians crossed the same land bridge and spread east and south into NA and, within 2,000 years, horses were extinct here on their native continent. (The charred bones of native NA horses, camels and mastodons would later turn up in cooking pits excavated by modern paleontologists.)

Horses were missing from NA for 8,000 years, while some bands in Europe were caught and domesticated. Starting with Columbus’ second voyage in 1493, Spanish explorers brought horses back to NA. As these domesticated ponies escaped or were stolen and traded by the Native Americans, bands of free-ranging horses quickly re-established across much of western NA. Back on their native soil, horses would soon find themselves targeted for extinction once again, this time by the corporate ranching industry, which wanted (and still wants) control over all public grass and public lands to fatten up their bred-down cattle.

That’s the short version. Longer versions fill volume after volume, and the story is still being written, as the battle to protect wild horses is still being fought.

The oldest known ancestor of the modern horse was a 4-toed, 80-pound animal named “eohippus.” At that time, the lands we now call NA and Europe were part of one single supercontinent called “Laurasia.” When Laurasia broke up and continents began drifting apart, 4-toed eohippus grazed in NA and in England simultaneously for a while before the primitive horse ancestor went extinct in Europe.

3-toed horse leg bone fossil from SE Arizona (c) John Ashley
3-toed horse leg bone fossil from SE Arizona
Primitive horses survived in NA, evolving for speed and gradually changing to 3 toes, then 2, and finally to the single hoof of the modern horse (Equus caballus), about 3 million years ago. Fossil remains from each step of horse evolution are found only in the southwestern United States (US).

In the mountains and deserts of (what would become) Mexico and southwestern US, Spanish explorers needed lots of durable horses to search for their mythical cities of gold – not to mention horses that could survive the seven-month sea crossing while hung in slings. So they set up horse breeding rancheros, first in the West Indies and then in Mexico.

While horses gave Conquistadors and missionaries the ability to penetrate inland, the Spanish inadvertently brought horse culture to Native Americans. And horses in turn gave Indians the ability to drive the Spanish out of their homelands for more than a century.

The Spanish issued decrees forbidding natives to own or ride horses. But in 1621, a governor gave permission for Pueblo Indians to work on horseback for the Spaniards. Soon, Apaches and Navajos (whom the Spanish targeted for slavery) were stealing horses from the Pueblo and then from the Spaniards themselves.

During the Rebellion of 1680, the Pueblo tribes drove the Spaniards out of “New Spain” and back into (what would become) Mexico and Texas. The fleeing Spanish left behind thousands of hardy horses – horse stock that would eventually be traded north, tribe-by-tribe, into California, the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. Over the years, some of the little Spanish ponies broke for freedom and established large bands of free-ranging horses across much of NA.

The native Indians had to learn horsemanship. But in less than a century, most NA tribes had assimilated horses into their cultures. The span of years between 1640 and 1880 is now referred to as the “Period of Indian Horse Culture.” Nomadic tribes gained power over farming tribes, and the military balance between many tribes was turned upside-down.

Indians generally left the wild horse bands alone, preferring instead to steal trained horses from the rancheros. Comanche Indians were fond of saying that they only allowed the Spaniards to remain in Mexico to provide them with fresh horses.

Three Chiefs Piegan (Blackfeet) in Montana
by Edward S. Curtis (public domain photograph)
By the mid-1700’s, Montana’s Blackfeet, Flathead and Crow tribes had acquired horses. In 1805, when Lewis and Clark reached western Montana and could no longer travel by river, they purchased 30 Indian ponies to help them cross the mountains. Some of these horses bore Spanish brands. On the expedition’s return trip through Montana in 1806, Sergeant Pryor lost 50 horses (possibly to Indians) in the rocky region we now call the Pryor Mountains.

Not long after Lewis and Clark, waves of white settlers began flooding west, and their farming lifestyle conflicted with the nomadic hunting lifestyle of many native Indian cultures. To break and subjugate the native peoples, the US turned to the unofficial policy of decimating the buffalo. Their efforts forced most of the Indians onto reservations, but that wasn’t enough. The government decided to also destroy the Indians’ beloved ponies.

In Montana during the early 1920’s, the US government and some large ranchers shot an estimated 50,000 “Indian Ponies” on the Crow Reservation alone, plunging the Crow nation into poverty. Wagonloads of bleached horse bones were carted off to be ground into calcium.

In the mid-1800’s, there were an estimated 2-7 million free roaming horses the western US. Horses were not considered a “problem” until large numbers of sheep and cattle were introduced. By the turn of the century, the wild horse population had fallen to an estimated 1 million.

In 1963, a committee of distinguished scientists was set up to determine which species would be protected as “native” in US wildlife preserves. Their report recommended protection for those species that were present when the first European explorers arrived. Horses were left off the list, even though they were native to the US and had been reported by explorers in the Great Plains in the 1600’s and in the northwest in the 1800’s.

Wild horses were denied any sort of status or protection in the US because they had descended from domesticated Spanish ponies. They were considered “feral,” and they could be legally harassed or shot, or rounded up and hauled off dead or alive to rendering factories. Once again, wild horses were heading towards extinction on their native continent.

Down in the Pryor Mountains, locals learned of plans by the Bureau of Land management (BLM) to remove all wild horses from the range to make room for more cattle and mule deer. The battle came to a head in 1969, when Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall denied the BLM and designated the range as a wild horse refuge.

Straddling Montana and Wyoming, the “Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range” was born. Genetic testing of horses there proved that they were directly descended from the “Colonial Spanish Horse,” a type of horse that no longer exists in Spain.

In 1971, the BLM estimated that 17,000 wild horses remained. That was the year Congress finally passed the “Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act” to protect the remaining animals. Horse numbers began to recover, and in 1973 the BLM “Adopt-a-Horse” program began in the Pryor Mountains.

Buffalo Girl & Kitalpha (c) John Ashley
Buffalo Girl keeps a close watch over Kitalpha, her foal.
Both are wild and free-living Montana Mustangs.
The fight to protect wild horses continues, in Montana and elsewhere across the west. BLM officials, ranchers, and factory hunters have all been caught killing, removing or otherwise harming wild horses. Punishment has been sparse, if any. BLM management of wild horses is now under the constant and well-deserved scrutiny of horse enthusiasts.

Our wildlife management agencies are still under the thumb of corporate ranchers, and hook-and-bullet good ol’ boys. But the tide is slowly turning, and wild animals are starting to be valued for non-consumptive purposes, although a real “wildlife ethic” is still a ways off. For now, Montana’s last wild horses appear to be relatively safe -- just as long as horse advocates keep a close watch over them.

Wild horse advocates:

Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center, Lovell, WY
The Cloud Foundation, Colorado Springs, CO

Wild horse media:

Probably the best book to read on the subject is Hope Ryden’s, “America’s Last Wild Horses” (1977).

You can watch the Nature special (free online), “Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies,” which tells the story of a Pryor Mountain Stallion.

You can read a fascinating and thoroughly detailed history of “Indian Horse Culture," starting here.