Is there a way through the West's bitter wild horse wars?

  • A Bureau of Land Management helicopter swoops in to herd horses in Great Divide Basin, Nevada.

    Melissa Farlow
  • A BLM wild horse roundup in the Nevada desert.

    Melissa Farlow
  • Wild mustangs from the White Sands herd in New Mexico, now living on the South Dakota range.

    Melissa Farlow
  • T.J. Holmes on the range in Disappointment Valley in southwestern Colorado, where she uses a rifle to shoot darts loaded with PZP, a substance that makes mares infertile for a year.

    Dave Philipps
  • T.J. Holmes takes aim at a wild mare on the range in Disappointment Valley in southwestern Colorado, using darts loaded with PZP, a substance that makes mares infertile for a year. She never misses.

    Dave Philipps
  • Jay Kirkpatrick has spent decades researching methods of birth control for wild horses. Now, he teaches advocates how to administer Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP, to wild horses on the range. Some local BLM offices are also using it.

    Dave Philipps
  • Vials of Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP, a birth control drug for wild horses.

    Dave Philipps
  • Horse carcass on the hillside of South Steens Wild Horse Management Area in southeastern Oregon.

    Melissa Farlow

 

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Most of the year, nobody visits Disappointment Valley. It is on a turn-off on a turn-off from a lonely highway. But on a warm September day in 2011, a small crowd, mostly from the resort town of Telluride, appeared. Inspired by a recently shown film called Wild Horses and Renegades in which actors such as Viggo Mortensen and Daryl Hannah warn that wild horses are on the brink of extinction thanks to big business and government conspiracy, some of the activists had unsuccessfully sued to stop a BLM roundup of roughly half of the 85 horses in the valley, due to take place that very day. Now, they hoped to halt it another way, gathering in their designated pink-ribbon viewing rectangle to chant slogans and hoist placards.

"Suddenly, we had all kinds of people coming out of the woodwork," Holmes recalls. "People protesting. People waving signs saying '9/11 was an inside job.' It was a circus."

A small plane buzzed overhead repeatedly, swooping so close to the roundup helicopter that it had to land and the BLM canceled activities for the day. "It was truly a danger to the pilot, the horses and the public. It was completely inappropriate behavior," BLM employee Wayne Werkmeister told the Cortez Journal at the time.

The protesters were, in a way, blind to the horses' true predicament. Holmes says most of them didn't know that the local BLM had agreed to start using PZP after the roundup. They were still fighting the same battle, with the same entrenched, uncompromising positions that have gotten wild horses into the current mess.

Holmes shakes her head as she remembers it. "All that, and the roundup went on anyway," she says. "It was worse, because with all the protesting going on we were not able to select the horses we wanted to remove as carefully as we would have." If they could have gathered more, managers would have had a chance to select horses based on age, genetic diversity and adoptability, then release others. She sighs. "Stuff like that got me interested in looking for a real solution."

A few months after the roundup, the new BLM wild horse and burro manager in the valley, Kiley Whited, started to help Holmes dart the herd with PZP. They treated the last mare in April and will begin again next spring. Once fewer horses need to be gathered each year, the BLM can use humane traps -- basically a corral with a salt lick or other bait that automatically shuts when a horse enters -- instead of helicopters. With fewer captive horses, it would also have an easier time finding homes so that more can avoid the holding system.

"A helicopter gather is expensive, plus we get sued every time we try to do it," Whited says. "If we can limit the herd this way, it will be better for the horses, better for the range, better for everyone."

Even if it succeeds, though, Holmes says, she understands that the idea of controlling wild horses with birth control darts makes many people uncomfortable. Can animals truly stay wild when they're managed that intensively? But sometimes, she says, no matter how much you love the myth of the mustang -- the dream of a free and untamed American West -- you have to set it aside and deal with the reality. Otherwise, the horses will continue to lose.

"It would be nice if we could just let wild horses run wild, but the truth is these horses have a finite piece of land. They have finite resources. They don't really run free anymore, and we need to take care of them."

Dave Phillips is an investigative reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is writing a book on the weird history of wild horses in the 21st century, tentatively titled The Misfits.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.