The American Mustang is as much a symbol of America's frontiers as the bald eagle. These powerful, graceful animals have been roaming the plains since the 1800s. They are America's wild horses – depending on who you ask. There is ongoing controversy within wildlife communities as to whether mustang horses are wild or feral. The difference between the two words may seem slim at first glance, but the two terms could not be more different, and the future of the mustang rests on the outcome of this debate.
Mustangs are casually referred to as "wild horses", but that may not be entirely accurate. A true wild horse, such as the Mongolian tahki, is an animal that has never been domesticated by humans. A domestic horse is descended from wild horses, but is not strictly in the same category, as years of breeding and natural evolution has altered their genetic construction and natural disposition. The question then becomes how to tell if the mustang is a true Equus ferus or if it is a domestic horse which has been reintroduced and acclimatized to the wild.
The situation as it currently stands is this: in 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which decrees that wild horses like the mustang are symbols of the "historic and pioneer spirit of the West" and are an "honorary" native animal, protected by law just like the buffalo and bald eagle. A few amendments were made in 1976 and 1978 when the population skyrocketed, and implementations like the Adopt-a-Horse program were put in place to help curb the population. If mustangs are wild horses – that is, animals native to the region – then the law stands unopposed. However, if mustangs are feral horses which were once domesticated and have been abandoned to live freely in the wild, then they are subject to a level of control not unlike that used to regulate feral cat and dog populations.
Supporters of the "wild" argument have made the case that mustang horses are victims of commercialization. According to the 1971 Act, the mustang is entitled to protection on public land in honor of the mustang's role in the development of early America. In spite of this law, mustangs are frequently scared into holding pens or away from grazing grounds by helicopters, which can be stressful for the animals, and criticisms have been made that the majority of taxpayer money designated for the protection of wild horses has been spent on roundups rather than fertility control. If mustang horses truly are wild, then any commercial regulation of them is strictly illegal, and mustangs would be entitled to more protection.
On the other side of the fence, there are those who argue that mustang horses are feral animals, imported from Spain before the 1800s and freed over time. If the mustang is not native to North America, then it should not be classified and protected like other species native to the area, as it would be an "invasive" species. Indeed, many ranchers and cattlemen struggle with the presence of the mustang, as the animals will often take up land and grazing areas that could be used for cattle or other agricultural development. If mustangs were relabeled as feral horses, then the US Government might very well continue to protect small groups, but invasive herds could be scared away or removed without repercussions to the rancher.
Wild horses did exist in North America…over 12,000 years ago, alongside saber-toothed cats. When the first early humans arrived on the continent, many native species – the wild horse included – died out. If we were to take a snapshot of North America around 1000 A.D., wild horses would not be part of the picture. The mustang's appeal lies mainly in the fact that American history is interwoven with that of the mustang, for both native tribes and European settlers. The crux of the argument, then, rests on how one chooses to define "native". Because wild horses did freely roam North America at one point in history, it may be argued that the mustang is simply a native species that has been reintroduced to the area. Those who are stricter about their definition of "native" will argue that the mustang as a species is the product of a long line of human-guided domestication, which would make free-roaming mustangs little more, biologically speaking, than free-roaming feral horses.
As is the case with most complicated questions, there is no overtly clear answer as to whether mustangs are wild or feral. Those who wish to see the mustang better protected will continue to hold it up as a beacon and symbol of the American west, and those who believe that the mustang is an invasive species will continue to point to the animal's origin in Europe. One point that both sides may agree on, however, is that the mustang is one with a unique level of cultural significance for North America. It is safe to say that the mustang will always be protected in some form – the extent of that protection, however, has yet to be settled upon.
For more information on the American mustang and the controversy surrounding the animal, please feel free to peruse the links below.