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Mustang Future Survival

Experts say the drastic reduction in the wild horse population could jeopardize their future survival.

To guarantee a herd's existence, 150 breeding individuals are necessary, said Ernest Gus Cothran, an equine-genetics specialist at the University of Kentucky.

"In almost all cases herd sizes have just become very small in the past 50 years," he said. "A lot of the populations, even at the current levels, are borderline viable long-term."

Cothran said exchanging one animal between herds every five years could maintain the kind of genetic diversity needed. Based on his recommendation, several herd management areas have already begun such a program, he said.

Still, Nelson, of the Wild Horse Sanctuary, fears a day may come when the population is brought to the brink of extinction. She has prepared by keeping a diverse gene pool of 200 animals on the sanctuary's property. There, the animals are largely left alone so that they remain wild.

For that very same reason, Nater, of Wild Horses Wyoming, said he plans on keeping healthy, viable herds with good genetic crossbreeding.

"Hopefully one day the people of this country will demand it's time for these horses to be returned to the range, where they belong," he said.