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Mustangs are free-ranging horses. They're not really wild; these horses reverted to a wild state after domestication and subsequent escape or abandonment -- so they're really feral horses. The mustang melting pot includes horses introduced to the New World by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, those freed after cattle drives, those ridden westward in the U.S. cavalry, those domesticated by Native Americans, and draft horses and riding stock brought West by pioneers. Horses that escaped captivity thrived in open grassy ranges. Today, mustangs are recognized by Congress as living symbols of the spirit of the West.
The Bureau of Land Management controls more than 38,000 mustangs on public lands, including arid Western states such as Nevada and Arizona. These habitats are rough, with rocky terrain, sparse food and droughts that can dry up watering holes. Many BLM-managed herds in Nevada exist in remote Great Basin areas where habitats are mostly shrubs, forcing the horses to forage feed at higher elevations. If herds grow too large, mustangs threaten desert ecosystems. Thus, BLM periodically gathers mustangs for the National Wild Horse adoption program.
The rugged Pryor Mountain range, spanning Wyoming and Montana, was the first public range ever set aside for wild horses. The habitat ranges from arid foothills to sub-alpine mountains, and vegetation is diverse, depending on rainfall amounts. Typically, the higher mountains receive greater amounts of rain. The herd in this area is directly descended from the early Spanish horses; they exhibit unusual coloring such as dun, grullo and blue roan. The Bureau of Land Management gathers Pryor Mountain mustangs for adoption every two to three years.
While most herds of mustangs live in the the open ranges of the West, one unique wild habitat on the East Coast exists. Just off the coast of North Carolina on an uninhabited Outer Bank island roams a herd of mustangs with genetic links to Spanish horses. The habitat consists of dunes, marshes and tidal flats. Because of the unique environment, these horses are terrific swimmers, having survived on these sand banks for centuries. Mustangs thrive in difficult habitats as long as they have access to fresh water and grazing vegetation.
Before Congress passed Public Law 92-195 to protect mustangs, the horses were vulnerable to shifts in their habitats, such as drought. Many sanctuaries exist to spare wild horses that are unadoptable. The 5,000-acre Wild Horse Sanctuary near Shingletown, California, demonstrates that wild horses can coexist in ecological balance with other forms of wildlife. The habitat is rocky with lush mountain meadows and forests, and the climate is mild. Most sanctuaries are simply ranches where the horses can roam within fenced areas.
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