BRITTON SPRINGS, Wyo. - From the top of the ridge we can hear the helicopter droning behind pastel desert hills, and see the distant slopes of the Pryor Mountains just across the Montana line. Finally the wild horses appear.
in and out of washes and around clumps of juniper. In a region
better known for its bighorn sheep and elk, the horses appear too
large and dark - out of place.
But that is only
Those other animals are relative
newcomers to this continent, while horses are the original natives.
At least, so some people believe. The wild horse is an animal so
enmeshed in controversy, so obscured by myth and emotion, that its
management in the West has been contentious for nearly half a
This roundup in late October 1997,
designed to reduce the Pryor Mountain herd of some 190 horses by
about 25 percent, is the culmination of years of studies and
debate. Just before it began, anonymous threats were sent to the
U.S. Bureau of Land Management that the helicopter which is hazing
the animals into corrals would be shot at, and there are sheriff's
cars at the entrance checkpoint.
on the ridge - TV crews, filmmakers, reporters, researchers and
representatives of animal rights groups - crouch in the yellow dust
of the outcrop behind a jute fence that hides us from the horses
below. The cameramen and women have poked holes between its fibers
for their long lenses. Behind us the rising sun shimmers through
the chilly mists above Bighorn Lake.
ancestors of the horses before us evolved in North America from
animals the size of house cats to creatures we would recognize as
equine. Then, around 10,000 years ago, every horse vanished, wiped
out (depending on which theory convinces you) by a changing climate
or human hunters.
Not until 1519, when Cortez
arrived in Mexico with 17 of the animals, did horses return to
their ancestral home. The American natives took to them
immediately, and stolen or escaped Spanish mounts soon spread
throughout the West. Perhaps because several Ice Age predators -
the dire wolf and the sabertooth cat - had long vanished, little
prevented the new herds from multiplying. By the mid-1800s their
population had risen into the millions, augmented by new arrivals
ridden or driven into the West by trappers, miners, cattlemen and
When the first settlers arrived in the
Pryors in the 1890s, they found horses with odd colors and markings
- mouse-grays and duns with zebra stripes on their legs and black
lines along their spines. Genetic research in the 1990s has
confirmed that the Pryor Mountain horses of today are relics of the
Spanish world of the 16th century and a breed now vanished from its
As we wait behind
our fence, the helicopter herds the horses between the lines of
jute that lead to the waiting corral. Sensing danger in this
narrowing alley, they hesitate. At that moment, a hidden wrangler
releases a tame animal that gallops past them into the trap.
Confused, the wild band follows this "Judas horse," and the gate
closes behind them.
The capture is an episode
that has been repeated time and again in the West. By the latter
half of the 19th century, the great North American wild horse herds
of the 1700s and 1800s had already begun to shrink. As fences and
farms took over the Great Plains, wild horses were pushed into
remote deserts and badlands. Tens of thousands were captured for
use in the Boer War and World War I. Later in the 20th century,
first the chicken-feed industry and then the makers of dog and cat
food seized upon them as a cheap source of protein. Continental
Europeans also bought millions of pounds of horsemeat - some of it
wild - to eat.
When the Taylor Grazing Act was
passed in the mid-1930s, the newly formed Grazing Service wanted
only to rid the public lands of wild horses. The practices used to
capture them were appallingly inhumane.
being chased for miles, in some cases by airplanes that sprayed
them with buckshot, they were pushed into corrals barren of food or
water, or even tied to old truck tires, then crammed into trailers
and hauled long distances to the packing
finally reined in after 1950, when Velma Johnston of Reno, Nev.,
found herself driving behind a truck dripping blood onto the
highway. She followed it to a rendering plant, and, horrified by
the sight of the mutilated horses inside, she began a crusade to
improve their treatment.
It was not only the
cruelty that disgusted her. The herds once numbering in the
millions had by the 1950s shrunk to 25,000 or
The campaign launched by Johnston, better
known to wild horse lovers as Wild Horse Annie, was one of the more
remarkable political phenomena of the 20th century - a citizens'
crusade backed by schoolteachers and housewives raised on books
like My Friend Flicka and The Black Stallion.
Its strength derived from an American attachment to the horse, a
connection that may go back to prehistoric British tribes who used
to carve giant effigies of the animal into chalk hillsides. After
the industrial revolution largely replaced work horses with
machines, this fascination grew even stronger.
Although people of other countries look at the horse and think food
(see story page 10), in the United States we shudder at the thought
of eating horsemeat. Domesticated so recently that it easily
reverts to the wild, the horse symbolizes freedom, power and beauty
to many Americans. The wild horse has been used to peddle
everything from Mustang cars to Marlboro cigarettes, and
legislators challenge such emotions at their
By 1959, Wild Horse Annie's troops had
pressured Congress to outlaw the chasing of wild horses with
airplanes and motorized vehicles. By 1962, although one wild horse
refuge had been created in Nevada, no legal protection existed for
the Pryor Mountain horses.
In 1964, Bureau of
Land Management officials, alarmed by the deteriorating condition
of the public land here, and assuming that the several hundred
horses that roamed the Pryors were mere farm animals turned out in
the 1930s, announced their intention to round them up. Federal
officials were surprised when the public, convinced that the horses
would end up in dog food cans, rose up in wrath.
Local people quickly formed a Pryor Mountain Mustang Association to
oppose the BLM plan. They were joined by the chamber of commerce,
several regional newspapers, and a number of national animal
welfare groups. National Geographic, Newsweek and ABC News - which
sent Hope Ryden, a feature producer for the evening news, to do a
spot on the horses - let the nation know that the animals were in
After Ryden's ABC spot was aired, both
the network and the BLM were inundated with letters, telegrams and
calls from outraged viewers. In 1968, just after the agency had
finished building its trap for the Pryor Mountain horses, the
Humane Society of the United States persuaded a judge to prohibit
the Bureau from destroying them.
the Interior Stewart Udall was reportedly furious that the agency
had made such a botch of the roundup. Taking matters into his own
hands, he created the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse
Three years later in 1971, after more
floods of letters - one congressman reportedly received 14,000 -
Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act,
protecting all the wild horses living on public lands in the United
States by making them the property of the federal government. There
was not a single dissenting vote.
Back at the cabin that serves as headquarters
for the roundup, the BLM wild horse specialist in charge of the
Pryor Mountain roundup steps in front of the TV cameras. Linda
Coates-Markle, a compact, tanned woman in a down vest and hiking
shoes, gives no sign of nervousness as she explains the removal
plan she has worked on for almost two years.
tension fills the air. For almost 26 years the Pryor Mountain herd
had been limited, by periodic roundups, to around 138 animals - a
number which seems to have kept the range here in fairly good
condition. In the past several years, however, the herd has grown
to nearly 190.
And the last roundup, held in
September 1994, was disastrous: At least five horses died, several
colts were separated from their mothers, and sick and injured
animals were left without veterinary care. Worse, BLM officials
lied to the public about a colt that fell off a cliff and had to be
In the scandal that followed, the Montana
state BLM director went looking for what he called "fresh ideas and
fresh approaches." He found them in Coates-Markle, then director of
the Equine Sciences Program at Oregon State
Coates-Markle acknowledges that the
alpine meadows near the summits of the 8,000-foot Pryors look lush.
But at the lower elevations where the horses winter, "the pickings
are so scarce even the bunnies might wish they'd packed a lunch,"
she wrote in a recent article. In the snowy winter of 1977-78,
nearly half the herd starved to death.
past two years Coates-Markle has corralled an impressive group of
independent biologists and geneticists - people who have worked
with the Pryor Mountain horses or studied their range - who support
her plans for the gather. She also has the backing of the Pryor
Mountain Mustang Association, whose members spend their weekends
keeping tabs on the range, and have named every horse on
Just weeks before the roundup was due to
begin, however, an independent filmmaker named Ginger Kathrens
filed a motion with the Interior Board of Land Appeals to halt the
gather, accusing the BLM of managing the herd to conform to an
arbitrary population number instead of a true ecological balance.
Kathrens maintained that the range was in good condition, and could
easily support the current herd.
When it became
evident that the ruling would not come in time to stop the
operation, she and several other plaintiffs asked a U.S. District
Judge in Montana for a temporary restraining order. The BLM is
going ahead anyway, although if the order is granted, all the
animals will have to be released.
tells the clustered reporters that the horses are being moved in
slowly, and are being put into the corrals in family groups, to
prevent fighting and social disruption. She explains that the ones
kept for adoption will be mostly young males, which are
overabundant in this herd. She adds that the genetic studies and
ecosystem models are not yet complete, and therefore, "it's
important to be conservative in our management decisions."
No one says anything, but
many people here must be thinking of the troubled history of BLM's
wild horse program. In 1971, when it suddenly found itself in
charge of what one writer has called "the world's largest
horse-breeding operation," the agency had no idea how to manage the
Shortly after the Wild Horse and Burro
Act was passed, it became apparent that there were many more horses
on public rangelands than the 9,500 (plus 7,500 burros) BLM had
estimated. The animals also seemed to be multiplying at
astronomical rates - by 1980 the population of the two species had
risen to 65,000 or more.
In the 1970s, the
Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the Public Rangelands
Improvement Act directed BLM to manage rangelands more
scientifically, maintain an inventory of wild horses, and remove
those the range could not support. What to do with the surplus was
the sixty-four-dollar question.
public had made it plain that euthanasia was not an option. So the
Adopt-a-Horse program was born. Since its inception in 1976, over
140,000 wild horses have been transferred for varying but modest
fees to private citizens.
It soon became
evident, however, that there were not enough adopters to keep up
with the removals. So many horses piled up in government corrals
that by 1986 the BLM was spending $7 million a year just to
In 1984, the agency started
waiving adoption fees for anyone who would take over 100 animals at
a time. When thousands ended up in slaughterhouses that supply the
international horsemeat market, there was a public outcry, and in
1988 the mass adoptions were stopped.
then experimented with wild horse sanctuaries and with giving
animals to prison inmates for training so they would be more
adoptable. Neither proved entirely successful.
sudden rise in the price of horsemeat in the early 1990s started
horses moving toward the slaughterhouses again. After the mad-cow
disease scare hit Europe in 1996, horsemeat was occasionally worth
more per pound than beef. Although adopters were now limited to
four animals apiece, the unscrupulous could get more than that with
the help of friends and relatives. Wild horses probably didn't
bring top dollar, and also cannot be resold for a year, because the
BLM does not give the owner a title until the horse has been kept
and fed for a year. But since they were bought at the rock-bottom
price of $125, there was evidently money to be made from
The BLM has been prohibited for the last
decade from letting horses go to adopters with commercial
intentions, but the agency's policy was "don't ask, don't tell."
Scandal re-emerged in 1997, when the Associated Press reported that
thousands of wild horses - rounded up and prepared for adoption at
a taxpayer expense of $1,100 a head - were vanishing into
meat-packing plants. Worse, some BLM employees appeared to be
profiting from the trade. "You couldn't throw a rock without
hitting a crook in this program," said Steve Sederwall, a former
BLM law-enforcement agent.
Now, at the second day of the Pryor Mountain roundup, a storm is
threatening, and the crowd of spectators is considerably
A group of filmmakers has persuaded the
contractor who is handling the gather to let them hide close to the
runway, where several bands of horses that will not be put up for
adoption will be released to the wild. Given dire warnings of
disaster if the horses see them, the filmmakers have clustered -
almost invisibly - in a juniper thicket.
first horses to come out, a group of mares led by a black stallion
called Two Boots, pause in astonishment when they reach this shrub
bristling with lenses. Then they wheel and canter away to
After the horses have passed, Ginger
Kathrens hefts a pack of equipment nearly as big as she is onto her
back. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she first came to the
Pryors in 1994 to make a feature about wild horses for Marty
Stouffer. Her pale blue eyes sparkle with interest when she talks
about the animals she knows so well.
ill-fated 1994 roundup she watched in horror as the family of
horses she had featured in her film, led by a stallion named Raven,
lost two of its three colts, one of them the colt BLM officials
lied about shooting.
an animal makes you vulnerable," she says, "like having a child
makes you vulnerable."
Kathrens worries that
once the roundup has cut their numbers, a severe winter could kill
enough horses that the Pryor Mountain herd would no longer be
genetically viable. And she believes there is little evidence of
overgrazing. "It doesn't matter (to BLM) if the horses look
terrific, and the range looks terrific," she
She has just learned, however, that the
board of land appeals judge rejected her request that the roundup
be stopped. A few days later the district judge followed suit,
saying that BLM did not have to wait for horses to cause damage
before removing them. Coates-Markle later commented that, although
the grass looks good now (the summer of 1997 was unusually rainy),
"you can't manage on a yearly basis. You have to look at long-term
Court actions against wild horse
gathers are nothing new. In 1989 the Animal Protection Institute, a
California group, convinced the Interior Board of Land Appeals to
halt virtually every roundup in the West on the grounds that the
BLM had not provided enough range data to justify
Ironically, the 1994 Pryor Mountain
roundup might have gone more smoothly if the American Horse
Protection Association and other groups had not protested the use
of helicopters. As a result, mounted wranglers gathered up the
horses in a grueling process which took three
Although horse numbers in the Pryors are
well documented, some wild horse advocates are convinced that BLM's
population estimate for the West - about 37,600 (plus some 5,400
burros) - is too high. They also fear that the agency's target
number of about 23,000 horses is too low, that the number of herds
is declining, and that many of them have too few horses to be
There is a widespread
feeling among these groups that an agency that manages livestock on
the public lands is ill-suited to care for wild horses. Michael
Markarian of the Fund for Animals says the BLM is "wedded to the
notion that cattle ranchers should have first priority on land that
we all pay for with our tax dollars."
advocates like Robin Lohnes of the American Horse Protection
Association say they believe that the environment comes
"If the forage isn't
there, nothing's going to be there," she says. But she and others
deplore what they call the "paper cow syndrome," in which horse
reductions are "matched" by reductions in cattle which take place
only on paper. The problem, according to Dawn Lappin of Nevada's
Wild Horse Organized Assistance (WHOA!), is that when the Wild
Horse Act was passed, all the grass was already allocated to
just assumed that the forage was out there," she
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association
is sure that it is not, and says excessive numbers of wild horses
are ruining the range in many areas of the
"No one's disputing the
fact that wild horses are kind of nice to have out there," says
Brian Garber of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Lands Council
(which represents ranchers with federal grazing permits). He says
the BLM did a good job of bringing the horses back. But, he adds,
"They forgot to let a little water out of the bathtub when it got
Tom Pogacnik, chief of the BLM's
National Wild Horse and Burro Team in Nevada, defends the agency's
horse counts as "very accurate," and says that most herds that have
been "zeroed out" conflicted with endangered species or private
lands. The majority of those with fewer than 100 animals, he says,
are not genetically isolated from other populations. He admits that
the agency has made mistakes, but points out that the program is
the only one of its
"We've been writing the
handbook as we go," he says.
The fact is,
however, that blunders have weakened the agency's credibility and
turned the wild horse program into a battleground of competing
organizations have mostly avoided the bloodletting. With the
exception of the Sierra Club - which views wild horses as feral
animals that should be eliminated from key wildlife habitat - few
of them even deal with the issue.
the relationships between wild horses and other species is a
difficult exercise. There is no question about competition with
cattle: Both animals are grass-eaters, and the overlap between
their diets is as much as 90 percent in winter. Horses eat more for
their weight than cows, and also crop grass closer to the
Mule deer and antelope - both common in
wild horse areas - are browsers, but they, too, will eat grass in
spring and summer. A wild horse eats five or six times as much as a
deer, and even more, compared to an antelope. On one Nevada ranch
adjacent to a wild horse range, deer and antelope populations
plunged as the horse herds grew.
study found that when food was short, all grazing animals - horses,
cows, elk, deer and antelope - began to eat the same plants. Horses
may also drive cows and wildlife away from water
But since almost all wild horse ranges
are also grazed by cattle, it is practically impossible to say how
much damage horses do. A 1990 General Accounting Office report
found that in four Nevada wild horse areas it reviewed, domestic
livestock were eating 81 percent of the forage.
Competition with livestock is not a problem on the Pryor Mountain
Wild Horse Range; there are no grazing leases here. There is a
small herd of bighorn sheep in the area,
A recent study revealed that horses and
sheep here have similar diets in spring and summer - a crucial time
for bighorn lambs. The study's author, biologist Robert Kissell,
stressed that it was not designed to measure conflict between
species. But he said that sheep deferred to horses, and that while
the horse herd was growing, the sheep herd was
Which animal should get priority?
Bighorns have been pushed out of much of their original range, and
there are actually fewer of them in the West today than there are
wild horses. On the other hand, the Pryor Mountain horses contain
priceless genetic material that is no longer found in domestic
Horse advocates sometimes comment that
wild horses suffer because they are the only animals on public
lands that don't bring in money to either game and fish agencies or
stockgrowers. But there is another side to that coin. Wild horses
are also the only animals that cannot be managed by killing
Rounding up wild horses humanely is
expensive. The price tag for the Pryor Mountain operation, the
professionalism of which is being widely praised even by those who
do not concede that it was necessary, was
There is still a surplus of animals
nationwide: About 6,500 wild horses and burros are being held in
BLM corrals and sanctuaries. It costs taxpayers over $16,000 a day
just to maintain them.
The needs of the adoption
program have produced an unintended effect in some herds. Wild
mares often nurse for several years, and lactation keeps them from
conceiving new foals. Young horses are the easiest to place with
adopters, but when unweaned animals are removed, their mothers
quickly become pregnant, and the population is soon right back
where it was.
One promising solution is an
immunocontraceptive vaccine called PZP, which essentially makes
mares reject their own eggs.
The vaccine, which
is now being tested on several Nevada herds, can be delivered with
darts, does not alter social structure or behavior, affect existing
pregnancies, or pass into the food chain when the mare dies. It is
also reversible. It has been used to stabilize the horse population
on Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland since
The cost, according to Allen Rutberg of
the Humane Society of the United States, who is part of the Nevada
research team, is about $25 a dose. If the horses are being
gathered anyway, he says, "it costs essentially nothing."
"We think it's going to be a
valuable tool," Pogacnik says. But he says PZP is not a panacea.
"We're still going to have to gather and adopt."
However, BLM's track record with "solutions' to
the wild horse problem makes some horse advocates wary even of
fertility control. Says Karen Sussman, president of the
International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros,
"In the hands of the BLM it could be dangerous."
Other groups, impatient for the agency to get
PZP into use, think it's been studied enough. "What are they
dragging their feet for?" asks Donna Ewing of the Hooved Animal
Meanwhile, the BLM is setting up
a new advisory board, and an independent fact-finding team has been
appointed to look into the horse program. As for the slaughterhouse
scandals, a recent court decision now requires the agency to make
adopters swear they won't sell the animals for
One week after the
last bands of Pryor Mountain horses were hazed into corrals, the
roundup headquarters at Britton Springs is crowded again, this time
with people ready to adopt a horse. The parking area, with its
colored flags, looks like a used-car lot. It's the first of
November, and Coates-Markle, addressing the gathering from the
porch of the cabin, is flanked by corn shocks and
She explains how the adoption will be
conducted - by silent bids entered on sheets of paper posted on
each corral. This is a recent policy designed to increase revenue
from the horses, but it has thinned the crowd, which had been
expecting to pay only the customary $125 fee.
Coates-Markle also outlines the BLM's new program for checking up
on adopters. She stresses that if a horse doesn't work out, it can
"We're from the
government," she jokes. "We're here to help you."
Then the public is admitted to the network of
corrals where the newly branded and vaccinated horses wait, each
with an identification number on a nylon rope around its neck. Most
mill restlessly, trying to keep away from the spectators, but two
late foals - so tiny that they look like fuzzy toys in their long
winter fur - have fallen asleep on a pile of
Kathrens is here today, too, watching the
horses with a motherly eye and informing prospective buyers about
their various idiosyncrasies. She tells me she was up on the ridge
a few days ago watching the wild ones rolling and playing in the
"What a difference," she
says, gesturing toward the penned creatures.
Coates-Markle would agree. A few weeks later, she says she has been
impressed by the contrast between domestic horses that never get to
make their own decisions and wild
"I have a great deal of
respect for them," she says of her charges. "These are pretty
In spite of the small
crowd, by the end of the day every horse has found a buyer. The
Pryor Mountain range is one area where PZP will be a hard sell -
the animals here, because of their rare genes, are popular with
In fact, the highest price the BLM has
ever received for an unbroken wild horse - $825 - was paid here
today for a blue roan yearling. The buyer was
Although the horse
has been part of human society for 6,000 years, it still remembers
how to survive in the wild. For a people who have lost their
connections to nature, that ability feeds an irresistible
collective fantasy of freedom - a fantasy which may keep us from
seeing the animal clearly.
Not many horse
advocate groups are based in the regions where wild horses actually
live, and their understanding of biological systems sometimes seems
sketchy. To a few of them, the very term "feral" is an insult to
wild horses, and some advocates consider environmentalists who
refuse to classify horses as wildlife as much the enemy as the
Wild horses raise more than
environmental questions. Except for the zebras and a few herds in
Asia, indigenous wild horses are almost gone from the world. Many
scholars believe that domestication saved horses from extinction,
as grasslands shrank and humans expanded their range at the close
of the Ice Age.
Where does the horse, this
outmoded beast so near to our hearts, belong? Should it - as some
supporters maintain - have the same rights as non-endangered
wildlife species? Do we owe it something for its long years of
service to humanity?
Americans have made one
thing clear: We can't manage horses the way we manage most other
animals. We are too close to them. It is significant that the only
solution we have found for their increasing numbers is the one we
use ourselves - birth control.
As the Pryor Mountain auction ends, a line of
vehicles forms next to the corrals. A frisky dun stallion named
Mooneye is hazed into the carpet-lined squeeze chute, where the
number is removed from its neck and replaced with a nylon halter.
Then it thunders into the trailer of a dapper gray-haired man from
The truck pulls away, dwindling to a
tiny speck on the desert highway. In the fading autumn light, it
seems emblematic. For thousands of years the horse pulled and
carried us, but now the roles are reversed. Early in this century a
Scottish writer commented, "God forbid that I should go to any
heaven in which there are no horses." Many Americans feel the same
way about the earth.
Bama freelances from Wapiti, Wyo.
You can contact ...
Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L St. NW, Washington DC
* Tom Pogacnik, chief,
Wild Horse and Burro Program, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, P.O.
Box 12000, Reno, NV 89520 (702/785-6583);
Linda Coates-Markle, state wild horse and burro specialist, U.S.
Bureau of Land Management, Billings Resource Area, 810 E. Main,
Billings, MT 59105 (406/238-1548);
International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros
(ISPMB), 6212 E. Sweetwater Ave., Scottsdale, AZ 85254
* Wild Horse Organized
Assistance (WHOA!), P.O. Box 555, Reno, NV 89504