Potential spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species by feral horses in western Colorado.
The invasive grass cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.) presents major challenges for land management and habitat conservation in the western United States. Feral horses (Equus ferus caballus) have become overabundant in some areas of the West and can impact fragile semiarid ecosystems. Amid ongoing efforts to control cheatgrass in the Great Basin, we conducted a study to determine if feral horses contribute to the spread of cheatgrass through distribution via their feces. We collected feral horse fecal samples from Little Book Cliffs Herd Management Area in western Colorado in 2014. Fecal samples were dried, and 20 from each of 3 collection sessions were cultivated to examine germination success. Six species germinated from 18 samples (30%; mostly one plant per sample where germination occurred), including cheatgrass from 8% of samples. In a separate study we examined the diet of this same horse population using fecal plant DNA barcoding. Plant species that germinated were rare in the diet and germinated from fewer samples than expected relative to their detection in the diet. Our results suggest that feral horses could be contributing to cheatgrass propagation. Native ungulates and domestic cattle also have this potential. Although management of all large ungulates is necessary to mitigate cheatgrass spread, control of feral horse numbers is particularly necessary.