Wild Horses and Hard ChoicesBy MAX BEARAK
My first wild horse sighting came when a coworker and I, navigating a barely visible dirt road in our big Forest Service truck this summer, had just reached the crest of a ridge on our way to survey a remote wilderness area in eastern Nevada.
As I slowed down to admire the view, three black stallions bolted from a grove of pines barely 50 feet from us. Seconds later the horses were gone, leaving us to ponder their lives on the run and, later, to recount the thrill we had experienced.
I was lucky enough to see many more on the ranges of the Great Basin during my summer stint with the Forest Service. Well adapted to the basin’s wide open spaces, they would outrun our trucks and look back at us from afar, as if playing a game of tag in their natural playground.
Indeed, these horses aren’t fenced in. They run more or less freely in 10 Western states. Since leaving Nevada to return to school, I’ve had a recurring dream of one stallion in particular. With wind blowing through his mane as he raced beneath a clear blue summer sky, I fleetingly felt his independence. It’s abundantly clear to me why wild horses have come to embody freedom in the American imagination.
Some estimates say that there used to be millions of wild horses in North America. Horses were brought to the Americas initially by Spanish settlers, and to the West later as part of wagon trains and cavalry units in the United States Army, but all were domesticated.
Over the years, many horses were turned loose, either as a result of wars with Indian peoples or Mexicans, or because their owners had become too poor to take care of them. After the mechanization of agriculture, even more horses were released into the wild because they were no longer needed to pull plows and the like.
Yet, as more and more people arrived to settle the American West, loss of habitat drastically reduced wild horse populations. Significant droughts made the struggle for survival even harder by diminishing grazing areas in an already-shrinking natural environment.
By the 1960s, the total population had dropped to around 17,000. In 1971, Congress responded to growing public pressure by passing the Wild Horse and Burro Act, which reaffirmed that the animals were “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”
The act granted ownership of all American wild horses to the federal government and established more than 300 herd management areas that are now administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The bureau has since been tasked with managing the wild horse populations and mitigating their effects on ecosystems.
Initially, with dangerously low numbers of horses, the bureau mainly sought to provide the horses with stable food and water supplies in the event of drought. Nowadays, the bureau vigorously pursues a policy of rounding up wild horses to keep their numbers at a level that prevents them from over-grazing and hogging water.
Since 1971, over 200,000 wild horses have been rounded up by the bureau. This year, they proposed to capture 6,000, a reduction from previous years. The bureau sets a target for roundups based on research on an area’s ecological carrying capacity.
For instance, in the herd management area nearest to Ely, Nev., where I worked this summer, they have determined that they should aim for a wild horse population between 810 and 1,695. At present, 3,700 horses roam the Ely district.
Ben Noyes, a wild horse and burro specialist working for the bureau in Ely, explained why ecosystems in the region can only handle so many horses. “Horses really do destroy the land sometimes,” he told me. “They muddy up spring water and contaminate it with waste, and when they eat grass they actually completely uproot it, leaving their ranges bare.”
Some would argue that wild horses are an invasive species in North America. While there were wild horses on the continent until the late Pleistocene era, about 10,000 years ago, they went extinct along with many other large mammals like the woolly mammoth. Then again, even the elk and mule deer, which are now abundant in the Great Basin region, were brought there by early white settlers for hunting and for aesthetic purposes.
In such an “unnatural” landscape, those who work with wild horses are split on how to interpret their place in the ecosystem.
What is certain is that because of the strain that wild horses put on those ecosystems and because their habitat is so limited, most are skinny and undernourished. Mr. Noyes says that seeing horses in that condition motivated him to get involved in their management.
“For me, it’s not just my job, it’s my life,” he said. “I love to see them healthy and in great shape, just as I like to see other animals in good shape in a healthy ecosystem. You don’t want to see them suffer, you don’t want to see them fight with each other.’
On the other hand, some animal welfare activists argue that the bureau’s roundups are not in the best interest of the horses or the ecosystem. Most of the activists contend that the bureau rounds up far too many horses and caters to vested interests in livestock grazing and to landowners who see the horses as pests.
The bureau has in turn struggled to assure activists that it now has the horses’ interests at heart.
Early on, in a memorandum written when the Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed in the early 70s, Jeff Sirmon, a deputy regional forester, encouraged bureau employees to “take a more positive attitude” toward wild horses. Region-wide, he acknowledged then, “practically all of our people freely express the idea that these animals are a problem and are unwanted. Everyone hopes they will die off from loco-weed poisoning, or the cougars will kill them off, or they will simply migrate somewhere else.”
Attitudes have certainly changed, and the bureau does not want wild horses to simply disappear or die off.
And what does a roundup look like?
Wild horses are located on the range by helicopter. Once they are found, the helicopter acts as a kind of sheep dog. It swoops low and chases the horses toward a predetermined location where a “trap site” has already been set up.
A trained horse known as a Judas horse runs into the trap site, leading the wild horses in with him. Often the wild horses will have run from the helicopter for miles and miles, in great heat, and some do die in the process from exhaustion or heat.
Most don’t, however, and the rest are loaded from the trap site into mobile corrals and taken to temporary holding sites. Very few horses escape the helicopter, but when they do, the activists who gather at the trap sites to protest the roundups give a hearty cheer.
At the temporary holding sites, the horses are sorted by age, sex and state of health after undergoing basic examinations. Then they are sent to short-term holding facilities where they get more vigorous health examinations and receive vaccinations. The studs (adult male horses) are castrated. This is all part of the process of making wild horses adoptable so that the public can take advantage of the roundups.
Not all horses are adoptable. Some are very sick, some are too old, and some seem completely untrainable. In those cases, the horses are transferred to specific pastures owned by the bureau for an easy retirement. The adoptable horses will typically end up at county and state fairgrounds or other auction events where the public can buy them from the bureau. A standard horse goes for $125.
The horses are cheap because they’re not well bred and are very hard to train. Debbie Collins, the coordinator of the information center for the bureau’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, says the process requires lots of patience. “They’re not used to someone coming out with a bucket of feed,” she said, “and they’ve never had a stall, or really any contact with humans.”
Ms. Collins says that some adopters prefer wild horses nonetheless because it’s like starting with a clean slate. The training takes creativity: apparently some adopters have their horses listen to the radio during the day to get them accustomed to human voices.
Most adopted wild horses will end up in Oklahoma, Kansas or other Central Plains states. Yet extreme drought in that region this year has sharply reduced the numbers adopted. And in some areas furthest to the east, there’s been lots of flooding.“On top of the economic slowdown, we’ve had a lot of mother nature issues this year,” Ms. Collins said.
Given that the weather has been so unpredictable lately and an economic turnaround has not materialized, the bureau has started looking at new methods for managing free-roaming wild horse populations beyond the adoption program. In 2009, 500 female wild horses were given fertility control treatments before being released back into the wild. This year and the next, they hope to treat 2,000 annually.
Wild horses are an instructive example of how the protection of both animal welfare and ecosystems, which you would think go hand in hand, requires compromises.
Who would have thought that the government would be capturing and sterilizing an animal that represents something fundamental to the nation’s heritage? But there you have it.