Opinion: Science Escapes Wyoming Legislature on Horse Bill

By Patricia M. Fazio
Cody, Wyo.

Recently, I read a report that the gap between the public’s beliefs and scientific fact is rather large — and growing. The gap between the Wyoming Legislature and science might be described as a chasm. A recently passed resolution (HJ0003), describing the wild horse as “feral,” ignores a large body of science that clearly shows the North American wild horse is, in fact, a reintroduced native wildlife species. That’s not opinion. It’s scientific fact. Worse, the term “feral” is a human construct with no biological meaning. But legislatures can do pretty much what they want without dealing with facts.

Modern genetic studies, using mitochondrial DNA and ancient DNA analysis have shown that the horse that disappeared from North America 7,600 years ago is, in fact, the same species that the Spanish reintroduced into America in the 1500s. The modern horse would have gone extinct had it not crossed the Bering Land Bridge before its disappearance from our continent. But it did cross and thrived in Asia and Europe and North Africa until finally returning home to the land of its origin. This is not the opinion of some activist wild horse advocacy group but facts derived via up-to-date science. Does it matter that the American Museum of Natural History agrees with this definition of the horse as a reintroduced native species or that 5,000 years of domestication did not alter the fundamental evolutionary-driven genetics, physiology or social organization of the modern horse, which has been around somewhere between 250,000 and 2 million years – in North America? Apparently not, in the Wyoming Legislature. What’s happened here is that pure politics, attaching a negative term “feral” to a species that is truly wild has, once again, trumped science and fact.

It’s all a diversion from taking meaningful action. We must stop playing with words and find an effective, science-based approach to managing wild horses. In some areas, BLM and other agencies have done that using fertility control to gain restraint over horse populations, while preserving the species. Petty politics, from all sides, prevents true solutions and progress.

Originally published Feb. 28, 2015 in the Casper Star Tribune.

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