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Feral horse space use and genetic characteristics from fecal DNA

February 26, 2021

Feral horses (Equus ferus caballus) in the western United States are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and United States Forest Service in designated areas on public lands with a goal of maintaining populations in balance with multiple uses of the landscape. Small, isolated populations can be at risk of extirpation from stochastic events and deleterious genetic effects resulting from inbreeding and reduced heterozygosity. The genetic diversity of feral horse herds is periodically monitored using blood or hair samples collected during management gathers (i.e., occasions when the herd is rounded up). We conducted a study to examine genetic characteristics of the feral horse population at the BLM Little Book Cliffs Herd Management Area (HMA) in Colorado, USA, using non-invasively collected fecal samples. Additionally, we explored whether genotypes could be used to document space use and potential sub-population development. We used a random sampling scheme, walking transects in sampling areas covering most of the HMA to find and collect fecal samples of all ages, except those that were deteriorating. We collected >1,800 fecal samples from across the study area in May, August, and October 2014. We then identified unique individuals using a suite of microsatellite loci. Our estimates of genetic diversity from fecal samples were higher than those reported from blood and hair samples taken during recent horse gathers, likely because our sample size and spatial distribution was larger. Genotypes revealed that some individuals were found only in certain parts of the study area and at a higher proportion than random; thus, they could be considered residents in those sampling areas. Using discriminant function analyses, we detected 5 genetic groups in the sample population, but these did not correspond to individuals in specific parts of the study area. Our results support the use of fecal DNA to augment direct observations of horse presence and could be used to detect habitat use and areas of high density. Non-invasive techniques such as fecal DNA sampling can help managers decide whether new individuals need to be translocated to a closed population to maintain genetic diversity without the human safety and animal welfare concerns associated with gathers and invasive techniques.

Publication Year 2021
Title Feral horse space use and genetic characteristics from fecal DNA
DOI 10.1002/jwmg.21974
Authors Sarah R. B. King, Kathryn A. Schoenecker, Jennifer A. Fike, Sara J. Oyler-McCance
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Wildlife Management
Index ID 70228938
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center