By Craig C. Downer,
The living world of Nature has always called to me, and perhaps never in purer tones than when a child. My family lived in the country surrounded by wilderness, and with this fascinating, fuller world I came to identify. The tall and well-built, chestnut stallion Poco was my faithful friend and intelligent companion. With Poco I shared many adventures in/around the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He had a special wisdom concerning what is most essential; and although he has now returned to Heaven, I sense his presence still. From time to time, he comes to me in dreams, usually with a special message.
Due to my parents’ (Robert and Alice) as well as Poco’s caring companionship and guidance, there awakened in me a burning quest for Life’s greater & higher meaning. So it is not surprising that I chose Biology as a major and ended up graduating from the progressive University of California at Berkeley with a specialization in ecology and later went on to earn my Master’s of Science degree at the University of Nevada in Reno, my birthplace.
As a bona fide wildlife biologist, my first major work was in Colombia, South America. Here I immersed headlong with many expeditions into the spectacular Andes or lower down to the serene valleys and coastal rainforests. These places teamed with life & possessed an amazing variety of plants and animals – all marvelously interrelated & interdependent! Several years after my 2 ½ years of Peace Corps, I became the first person to capture and radio-collar the endangered Mountain/Andean Tapir. I tracked and observed this living fossil over a decade in Ecuador’s Sangay National Park – a World Heritage Site. Tapirs belong to the same mammalian Order as the horses: Perissodactyla. So my familiarity with horses gave a distinct advantage in perceiving their anciently derived character and holistically adaptive lifestyle. I went on to write as well as execute the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s species description and “Action Plan” for saving this venerable but precariously endangered species.
Although fascinated by this tapir & its biodiverse Andean home, something always drew me back home to Nevada & the West. Here I felt a special calling from its magnificent wild horses as from all of its horses in general, slave or free. As a result, for the past 15 years, I have dedicated major effort to dispel the cloud of doom that has descended over these animals & their close kin the wild burros. An insidious conspiracy has jarringly sought to contravene the core intent of the unanimously passed Wild Free-Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFHBA). This was one of the first to enact a positive regard for two non-human species and to make a promise to protect their free lifestyle, natural habitat & long-term viable populations living therein. How thoughtful, indeed to allow these magnificent species to fulfill their place upon our shared home, Planet Earth! Yet partial pesticide-induced or total surgical sterilization of both sexes is now being promoted by government agencies upon populations that are too low to be even genetically viable, much less fill their ecological niches!
While a university student in the 1970s, I had the distinct privilege of working with Wild Horse Annie and seeing to this noble act’s implementation. I am certain that Annie would have been horrified by what is happening today! As well as doing a graduate field study of the Pine Nut Mountain’s mustangs, I undertook field observations and compliance investigations. I also did public talks and media interviews for her organizations, the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB) & Wild Horse Organized Assistance (WHOA). Today I continue to collaborate with ISPMB’s president Karen Sussman, who has rescued several herds from various parts of the West and works to maintain them as long-term viable and reproducing social units at her sanctuary near Lantry, South Dakota. Her scientific observations of these mature social bands and herds has proven that they self-stabilize and do not explode in numbers, as their detractors like to claim.
HORSES AND BURROS AS RETURNED NORTH AMERICAN NATIVES
Evolution: Both the horse (Equus caballus) and the burro (Equus asinus) are deeply rooted species in North America (MacPhee 2013; MacFadden 1992; Quammen 2014). The fossil records of their lineages date back many millions of years, to the base of the Cenozoic Era, ca. 58-million years, when they emerged from the Condylarths, forerunners of herbivores and carnivores. Indeed, the entire horse family Equidae is rooted in North America. This means zebras, onagers, burros, or donkeys, as well as caballine horses all originated here (Klingel 1979). For many millions of years, they browsed rather than grazed and had four toes with spade-like hooves on the front legs and three on the rear (MacFadden 1992). Composed of hundreds of different species and dozens of genera, the “horses” transitioned to fill a variety of related ecological niches, spreading over the Earth to include Europe and Asia as well as South America. Their evolution links many times and many places and is one of the most well-documented in the fossil record. Their fascinating study affords the curious among us remarkable insights that relate to many other species, both animal and plant, and including our own.
Recently, genetic analyses have revealed fascinating new details and overviews concerning horses. A ca. 700,000 year-old Yukon horse has recently been genetically sequenced (Borenstein & Ritter 2013). Also, DNA from soils found at Camp Stevens in Alaska has revealed that the modern horse species as well as a mammoth were present ca. 7,000 years ago (Haile et al. 2009). In my updated book The Wild Horse Conspiracy (Downer 2014 a) and in my scientific article (Downer 2014 b), I have woven together pertinent evidence including that assembled by the eminent Finnish geneticist Dr. Ann Forsten (whose laboratory I visited in Finland in the Fall of 2010). Forsten proved that the modern horse (Equus caballus) was present in North America at least 1.7-million years ago (Forsten 1992). And it can be inferred that it evolved and branched off from its main line of ascent at considerably more early times than this.
The origin of species is a subtle matter – a very relative question. Through the experience of living, life evolves, which involves the struggle to survive in our world, to reproduce one’s kind, to adapt to changing environmental conditions, and to interrelate with one’s own and other species, etc. We should not oversimplify life’s story. Life presents much of the mysterious including much grandeur. And it is ongoing. Each individual unfolds from moment to moment – yet remarkably, we are all ever related and in this together! … We humans owe much respect to the horse, the burro, and their kin. These animals have done so much for us, yet their greater place is to be found in the vast & mysterious world of Nature – this greater realm we ignore or disrespect at our peril.
I have listed 13 finds supporting North American horse presence during the Post-Pleistocene and Pre-Columbian period from the close of the last Ice Age to the arrival of Columbus (Downer 2014 a, Fig. 3, p. 18; Illinois State Museum 2004). These date from several thousand years ago to less than two centuries before Columbus’s landing in America. Eleven of these finds were dated by scientific means, mainly the Carbon 14 technique, and two of them I discovered and age-estimated in consultation with paleontologists. I also present 19 horse fossil sites where similar horse remains have been found (Downer 2014 a, pp. 11-17). These substantiated finds seriously call into question the oft-stated assertion that horses completely died out, or disappeared, from North America. The chief concentration of these sites is in the West, with its more arid conditions that better preserve fossils, but there are finds from the Dakotas, Georgia, and even Massachusetts. Those sites with datings of 1,000 years or less should be extensively investigated, i.e. the Shield Trap, Wolf Spider, and Little Box Elder caves. These should be reexamined and further explored by paleontological professionals. Dr. Steven Jones, formerly of Brigham Young University, has amassed in impressive array of evidence for much more recent survival of Equus caballus in North America (Jones 2012).
As with the horse, the burro traces its recent ancestry to North America, as testifies an abundance of wild ass fossils. These stalwart presences also migrated over the Bering Land Bridge during prior ice ages that lowered sea levels world-wide, as did zebra progenitors. These horse kin evolved & branched out through the Hemphillian, Blancan & Pleistocene, & Holocene sub-epochs (MacFadden, Fig. 5.21, p. 112; KIingel 1979; Lindsay et al. 1980).
In her painstaking & scholarly work, Dr. Clutton-Brock (1981) maintains that North American horses from the distant past survived into historical times and were here when Europeans arrived in America. Although Sheets et al. (1984) claims there were no depictions of horses in pre-Columbian Native American art, a number of well-substantiated examples of just this exist, two of which I show in Chapter I of my book (Downer, 2014 a, Fig. 1, p. 4 & Fig. 2, p. 10). One is a petroglyph & the other a geoglyph, similar to the Nazca lines of Peru. The geoglyph was scientifically dated to 900 years ago (Joseph 1999). The hasty dismissal of remnant surviving horse herds seems more related to political agendas than to an honest search for greater truth (cf. Kuchinsky 2005). Besides, we should recognize the essence of what transpired and still transpires in horse evolution, rather than sink into petty diversions and trivialities!
Craig C. Downer, Wildlife Ecologist, Andean Tapir Fund/Wild Horse and Burro Fund
P.O. Box 456, Minden, NV 89423-0456 USA. T. 775-267-3484. Cell. 775-901-2094
firstname.lastname@example.org. Websites: www.thewildhorseconspiracy.org, www.andeantapirfund.com
Link to book The Wild Horse Conspiracy: www.amazon.com/dp/1461068983
Link to Reserve Design for Wild Horses project public support appeal: www.gofundme.com/mre6gyv7