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CASPER, Wyo. — The wild horse has long been ingrained in the culture of the western United States, but the animals have always been defined as a non-native species brought to the continent by Spanish explorers.

The Cloud Foundation and Friends of Animals, two national animal rights groups, are seeking to change that non-native definition with a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The groups submitted their petition in early June. It cites the loss of mustang populations in six states and what the groups say is a failure to protect the horses.

“Misclassification of wild horses as a non-native species is politically, not scientifically, driven,” said Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Cloud Foundation. “Wild horses are severely endangered, but without recognition of current scientific evidence of their native status, they could become extinct.”

The groups are seeking the change to native status to allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the horses as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is an unusual request for protection of a non-native species.

“We’re asking an agency to undertake a novel look at an ESA petition, but I also think it’s something that scientists do every day, to take another look at the historical roots of a species,” said Michael Harris, director of the Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program.

Native species are generally referred to as a species occurring in the geographic area in which they evolved. Sometimes animals introduced by humans to a specific area that have naturalized over hundreds of years are classified as native, said U.S Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist Claire Cassel.

“In most cases, species that are introduced into habitats or environments that are not in the area in which they evolved are considered non-native or introduced species,” Cassel said.

For the horses to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service would need to determine that the horses that have been reintroduced into the West are the same as those that once lived in North America, determine the eligibility of the species for listing and determine the threats that warrant listing under the act, according to Cassel.

Such a listing would create wholesale changes in the system that protects and manages the nation’s more than 35,000 wild horses.

In Wyoming, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees more than 5,000 horses. The BLM operates the 300-horse Deerwood Wildhorse Ecosanctuary west of Laramie, and a 250-horse sanctuary near Lander is in the evaluation process.

The agency is still required to manage populations of wild horses in the state through birth control medications and roundups. The groups’ petition seeks to end the roundups and have the wild horse treated like a native species.

“The way we’re managing them right now is an absolute disaster,” Harris said. “I think the main opposition to wild horses being listed is driven from the cattle industry. Ask any cattleman if he could keep the genetically viable herd at the numbers they’re asking to keep wild horses at.”

The groups fear the horses’ extinction as populations and habitat decrease. Genetically diverse populations require larger herd sizes and are essential to the species’ long-term survival, Harris said.

One Wyoming wild horse group isn’t taking action on the petition. Friends of a Legacy, a Cody-based wild-horse advocacy group, is focused on improving the system already functioning in the state.

“We haven’t addressed the issue at all, trying to save them through that particular means,” said FOAL President Warren Murphy. “Our goal is to reduce the roundups and provide good territory and terrain for the horses we have and to keep the status quo but have it done well.”

Murphy said that the petition is not on the group’s agenda but that FOAL will continue to work with local agencies to better the horses’ habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service said it is considering the petition but has not acted to advance it for consideration.