Photograph by Richard Horst
Photograph by Richard Horst
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Who decides the freedom of America's wild horses?

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

From the legendary ponies of Chincoteague Island to the iconic mustangs of Nevada’s rangelands, free-ranging horses (detail, above) are an instantly recognizable symbol of wild America. The majority of them—about 70,000—range across public lands in 10 western states, managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. And that management is, to say the least, controversial. America’s wild horses may be more accurately described as feral, as they’re descended from domestic horses brought by Europeans starting in the 16th century. They have no natural predators in North America, so their numbers can increase fast.

Too many horses can put fragile desert and grasslands ecosystems at risk. To that end, the BLM has rounded up tens of thousands of horses. It keeps them in holding areas, with a small number adopted or auctioned. But too many cattle and sheep also put fragile desert and grasslands ecosystems at risk, and more livestock graze on public lands than wild horses. This has horse advocates arguing for a reduction in livestock instead of the removal of horses.

That was the basis of a lawsuit brought in 2018 challenging BLM’s proposal to remove 1,700 horses over a decade from the Caliente Herd Area in southeast Nevada. Last week, a federal judge ruled against the wild horse defenders—and said the roundup can go ahead. And with the Acting Director of BLM William Perry Pendley calling wild horses "an existential threat" to public lands (while simultaneously supporting the expansion of drilling and other industrial activities), the controversy is sure to continue.

There’s no denying America’s grasslands need protection. From too many horses, too many farmed animals, oil rigs, and mines. And, of course, climate change. But the beauty of the horses, and their freedom, makes it hard to watch humans decide those that should remain free—and those that should be "rounded up."

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Your Instagram photo of the day

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Moving north: In the Brooks Range, species like the snowshoe hare are moving north as a result of climate change, expanding their range all the way to the Arctic Ocean, says photographer Katie Orlinsky. This is due to warming temperatures that allow shrubs to get bigger, providing food and shelter for the snowshoe hare, even in the snowy winter months. Above, scientist Claire Montgomerie holds one of the snowshoe hares being studied by wildlife biologists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Orlinsky says the bunny didn’t have a name, “but he did bite both of us.”

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Today in a minute

Deadly fungus: It’s name is chytrid. The fungus has wiped out 500 species of amphibians, including frogs and salamanders. Now we know how it has gone after tropical snakes, Nat Geo’s Douglas Main reports. The snakes in a Panama national park fed on frogs. With the frogs gone, at least a dozen snake species have disappeared from the area and perhaps many more, quantitative biologist Elise Zipkin says.

The ‘splatometer’: How to measure insect die-off? European researchers used car windshields. The Guardian reports that a Danish survey used data collected every summer from 1997 to 2017—and found an 80 percent decline over that time in the number of insects splattered. A second survey, from Britain’s Kent region, found 50 percent fewer impacts in 2019 than in 2004.

No pit bulls in Denver: Citing the risks to children, Denver’s mayor extended the city’s 30-year ban on pit bulls. Mayor Michael B. Hancock vetoed a measure passed last week by the City Council, The New York Times reported. “The reality is that irresponsible pet owners continue to be a problem,” he said, overruling those who maintain that breed-specific bans don’t prevent dog bites, including the ASPCA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Veterinary Medical Association. American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, and Staffordshire bull terriers are among breeds considered pit bulls.

The big takeaway

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The last glimpse

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A leap of love: When it’s time for googly-eyed mudskippers to breed, the male fish try to attract females by erecting their impressive fins. They also leap dramatically into the air (above) in hopes of catching the attention of potential mates from greater distances. Photographer Thomas P. Peschak captured this leaping mudskipper in Kuwait’s intertidal mudflats.

Subscriber exclusive: To understand how mudskippers reproduce, scientists have to get dirty

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Eslah Attar. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading!