Twenty miles north of Reno, after casinos and strip malls yield to the high desert, the Bureau of Land Management holds 1,100 wild horses in a series of corrals. From the highway, the federal facility—the National Wild Horse and Burro Center at Palomino Valley—looks like a dusty feedlot, the kind of place you might smell before you see passing through some forlorn corner of Texas or Oklahoma.
But walk down the hill from Route 445 and stand alone among the pens as the sun rises in late July, and you’ll find that the place smells fine, sort of earthy and clean. Instead, what concentrates the mind is something altogether unexpected: silence. Somehow, amid 1,100 wild animals held in confinement, the only sound I hear is the wind whistling across the plastic lid of my coffee cup.
These horses and burros are a mere fraction of the roughly 45,000 kept in BLM holding facilities across the country. The primary reason they’re confined is the nearly 18,000 ranchers grazing an estimated 747,963 “animal units”—a bureaucratic term that can represent either a horse, a cow/calf pair, or five sheep—on 155 million acres of land. The horses might be silent, but lately these cattlemen have been quite loud indeed.
They view the remaining 58,150 mustangs and burros roaming wild across 10 western states as invasive pests who gorge on precious forage and trample the landscape into hardpan. They often compare the horses and burros to feral pigs, expressing their opinions in a low octave of barely repressed anger. “Big-headed mongrels,” one rancher calls the wild horses that had recently eaten his crested wheatgrass. Another suggested slaughtering them for food. “They’re a delicacy other places in the world,” she says. (Legal slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States effectively ended in 2007.)
These views might strike the average horse-lover as extreme. But the issue is complicated by the fact that we nurture two notions of freedom in this country, especially in the West. The first is the freedom to hit the road, to be left alone, to start anew—to be wild. The other is the freedom to acquire, to control, to commercialize—to be a self-made success. When these versions of freedom clash, as they do when wild horses and domestic cattle compete for natural resources, the result reminds us that one kind of freedom all too easily compromises the other.
Staring into the moon-shaped eye of a twitching mustang, whose foal stands beside her in a small corral, I find it hard not to wonder if the trade-off is worth it.
The arbiter in this conflict is the BLM. In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, placing the BLM in charge of protecting and managing wild horse herds on BLM land. At the time, there were 17,000 free-ranging mustangs to oversee, down from folklorist J. Frank Dobie’s estimated two million at the start of the 20th century. President Nixon, quoting Thoreau, believed wild horses reflected “the tonic of wildness” and, as such, needed to be kept safe on public lands.
Because the BLM also issues grazing allotments to private ranchers and must manage the ecological health of those allotments while considering disparate factors such as drought conditions and mining interests, the agency is entrusted to balance wild horse and cattle populations on land where these animals overlap.
To say that the task has been challenging is to put it mildly. Virtually every party involved in this rangeland drama thinks the BLM has monumentally botched it. Mark Wintch, a Utah rancher who grazes his cattle on public land just west of Milford, says that “these horses are nothing more than feral animals, and if the government isn’t going to do anything about them then they should remove the  act from the books.”
Paula King, communications director for the Cloud Foundation, a Colorado-based non-profit dedicated to protecting wild horses on public lands, retorts: “Wild horses are native and should be protected, but the intent of the 1971 act has been misconstrued. The BLM has consistently managed in favor of livestock.”
The numbers, for their part, favor King’s assessment. A 15.8-to-one ratio of livestock animal units to wild horses on BLM land would hardly seem to justify the ranchers’ vitriol (even in regions where the ratio drops to 10-to-one). Consider the additional fact that BLM ranchers lease land from the government at a bargain-basement rate of $1.69 per “animal unit month” (AUM)—a reference to the forage allotted to an animal unit for one month. This fee stands well below market values, which range from $9 to $23 per AUM in 11 western states (with their average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, being $18.20), and represents a huge public subsidy to a private industry that produces less than three percent of the nation’s beef. Taken together, the numbers suggest that all the purported horse troubles are really just a bad case of protesting too much.
Plus, the BLM’s grip on rancher autonomy is light. Of all the public grazing land the BLM manages (155 million acres), wild horses are technically allowed to graze on only 17 percent of it. Horses tend to move within their Herd Management Areas, but if they range beyond they become fair game for a BLM round-up. Within that 17 percent, moreover, only 23 percent of the forage is designated for wild horses.
Point being: There are no designated wild horse habitats on the vast majority of the land leased to ranchers by the BLM. As far as the numbers go, most ranchers leasing public land from the BLM would seem to have little to complain about when it comes to wild horses. The life of a BLM cowboy appears to be relatively unhindered.
Of course, numbers are only numbers. Beyond them are real ranchers with real interests in protecting their investments. And with horses going where horses go, and cattle going where owners move them, and drought making the competition for forage as fierce as ever, these authentic pursuits of freedom inevitably clash. Even if those clashes are less frequent than the ranchers would have us think, they still hurt.
“I’ve spent my life breeding up my herd and re-establishing my pastures,” says Utah rancher Gib Yardley, who has worked the same land for 43 years. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.” After recently re-seeding his summer pasture, Yardley contends that between 50 and 60 horses “moved in and ate the grass,” forcing him to raise some of his 500 cattle in pens. “The past two to three years have been the worst,” he says, noting, “there’s a big market for horse meat in Europe and the Orient.”
“I’m just trying to maintain my cattle and the range grounds,” says Tammy Pearson, another Utah rancher. “We haven’t run full numbers of cattle for 30 years because of horses.” Pearson’s BLM-leased land is part of the 17 percent that overlaps with HMAs, but Pearson thinks that the BLM has allowed wild horse populations to swell to proportions she deems invasive.
“We’re supposed to have 15 to 20 horses on our allotments but the BLM counted 200 in 2012, and we estimated 300,” Pearson says. The situation gives her the fantods. “We can’t rest our pastures with horses out there 365 days a year. They’re doing irreparable damage to the pastures, and the BLM’s hands are tied by horse-advocacy groups and environmentalists.” Out of the 537 cattle that she owns, 300 are currently kept off the range for part of the time.
For ranchers without wild horse problems, stories such as Yardley’s and Pearson’s leave an indelible impression. Will they, too, soon be under siege by an unruly herd of mustangs? Don Anderson, who grazes cattle on BLM land in western Utah, has seen only five or six horses on his property. But he’s not resting easy.
“I’m very concerned,” he says. “I’m seeing horses in areas I haven’t seen them before. A few horses don’t worry me, but knowing their growth, those five to six will become 40. If I don’t get excited about it, I’ll have horses competing for my forage. Then what recourse will I have?”
King and the Cloud Foundation aren’t buying a word of it. “It’s the same old song and dance,” she says when I mention the ranchers’ complaints. “Wild horses are not doing much damage to the rangeland. Cattle are. If you sit and watch a herd of cattle, you see they congregate around water holes and obliterate the surrounding landscape. Horses move on.” King insists she has nothing against the ranchers. “It’s just that the balance is tipped in their favor.”
“They collude,” says Debbie Coffey, referring to the BLM and public land ranchers, “and it’s all crooked.” Coffey, who is the vice president and director of wild horse affairs for the Wild Horse Freedom Federation, suggests that the numbers of horses and the nature of the damage they allegedly do are bald exaggerations calculated to motivate BLM wild horse removals. “We’re talking about remote places,” she says of the ranges where ranchers complain about invasive horses—always, many advocates claim, without providing photographic evidence of rangeland destruction.
Advocates further chide ranchers for confusing rights with privileges. “The American people share public lands with private livestock ranchers who, in turn, don’t want to share public land with the wild horses and burros that are owned by all Americans,” Coffey says. “These ranchers seem to take the attitude that public land is their private property.”
Others view wild horse round-ups as a violation of America’s founding values. Deanne Stillman, author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, says that “the wild horse is North America’s gift to the world.” She claims to “love cowboys as much as the next American gal” but insists that “the war against wild horses is a war against ourselves.” We are, she adds, “a cowboy nation destroying the horse we rode in on.” Why, Stillman wonders, would we want to rid the West of “the greatest symbol of freedom?” Round-ups, she says, are nothing less than “an assault on our wilderness.”
What’s difficult to escape when it comes to this latter-day range war is the elemental nature of the fight. Ranchers want to be free to operate without interference—be it from the government or wild animals. Wild horse advocates want to see mustangs live free of capture and harassment, unfettered by the strictures of commercial life. There are few indications that ranchers and wild horse advocates will find resolution anytime soon.
But when the debate pauses, as it occasionally does, what you find is something more interesting than competing interests. You find competing myths. You find taxpayer-subsidized ranchers espousing a libertarian ethos. You find wild horse advocates espousing a Wild West “tonic” of animal liberation that may or may not be possible to achieve. And, finally, you find tens of thousands of wild horses stuck in limbo, awaiting a decision on which myth Americans want to accept as reality. They’d better be patient.
Lead Photo: (Photo: Michael Friberg.)
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