Environmental influences on movements and distribution of a wild horse (Equus caballus) population in western Nevada, USA: a 25-year study
Wild horse populations in the American West have been heavily managed to regulate horse numbers since the inception of the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. The Montgomery Pass Wild Horse Territory (MPWHT) on the California/Nevada border is unique in the absence of human intervention there across the past 30 years. This has provided the opportunity to observe long-term patterns in the natural relationship between wild horses and their environment and to examine environmental impacts on the horse population and its activities, movements and distribution on the range. In this study multiple variables in the physical environment and in horse behaviour were monitored seasonally across 25 years beginning in 1987. Distinct summer (higher elevations) and winter (lower elevations) range use was characteristic for more than 60% of the population during the first 7 study years, with subsequent gradual but marked reduction in use of summer range. While approximately 20% of the population continued to annually use the historical summer range, the majority divided into two geographically and functionally separate subpopulations that resided year round in the historical winter range and adjacent areas on opposite sides of the MPWHT. Mountain lion predation on foals was restricted to the summer range, and exodus of horses from the summer range resulted in increased foal survival where horse subpopulations eventually resided. The long-term consequences of increased horse numbers in the MPWHT remain under continued study. The present study has shown that wild horses are highly adaptive and individually varied in response to environmental pressures. It has also demonstrated the value of long-term monitoring of wild horse populations to reveal underlying dynamics and their potential management implications.