People have been bickering about how many wild horses live in Nevada ever since 1992, when horse lover Michael Blake, author of Dances With Wolves, conducted a census there. His observers found only 8,324 -- less than one quarter of the BLM figure.
Agency officials maintained that Blake's crews were inexperienced, and that the fixed-wing aircraft they flew were inferior to the BLM's helicopters.
Government counts currently show that about 22,800 wild horses now live in Nevada -- more than in all the other Western states combined. Moreover, Betsy Macfarlan, executive director of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, says that horse numbers here are "consistently underestimated" by the BLM.
Dawn Lappin, Wild Horse Annie's successor at Reno-based WHOA! (Wild Horse Organized Assistance), is less ready to fault BLM's counts than some other horse advocates.
"I feel that there's probably a lot more animals out there than people would like to believe," she says.
The Silver State is not an ideal environment for wild horses. Parts of it get as little as five inches of precipitation a year, and the area has also been plagued by droughts. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of Nevada's wild horses died of starvation and dehydration. Mud around drying springs fatally trapped colts and choked adult horses trying to drink.
In 1996, the range here was once again so parched that BLM conducted emergency gathers of wild horses. "It was done to save their lives," says Cathy Barcomb of the state's Wild Horse Preservation Commission. In the past five years, Nevada's herds have shrunk by over a third.
Nobody really knows what impact horses are having on wildlife in Nevada. But Rose Strickland, public-lands committee chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Toiyabe Chapter, believes that when measured against the damage done by cattle, "There's just no comparison."
Lappin says some of Nevada's wild horses are so out-competed by cows that they're getting less than 10 percent of the grass in their own herd areas. But removing the cattle is no answer, she says. Without the water sources stockmen have developed for their own animals, she points out, wild horse herds would not survive.