On a sunny spring day, T.J. Holmes creeps up a dusty arroyo in southwestern Colorado. The 41-year-old former journalist and mountain-bike champ wears beat-up jeans, her blonde curls unfurling from a sun-bleached visor and a big gun slung over one shoulder.
The chalky hills of Disappointment Valley look as if they deserve their name. This sagebrush desert is too dry for farming and not much better for ranching. But it's full of wild horses. Fifty of them now graze these 21,932-acres of BLM land, the Spring Creek Basin Wild Horse Management Area.
Holmes peeks over the rim and spots a gray mare grazing in the open scrub. She quietly unslings the gun and checks the chamber. Then, she edges up into the sage, drops to one knee, levels her scope and fires.
"I have never missed," she says wryly, blowing on the barrel. "They call me Annie Oakley."
The mare, meanwhile, canters away unharmed. "At first, I was against population control," Homes says. "But it is better for the land, better for the horses. I realized it is the only way."
Instead of bullets, the gun shoots darts that will keep her infertile for 12 months. Holmes has darted almost every female in this herd, hoping to keep the population in balance with the limited grass of Disappointment Valley.
"There is something captivating about these horses," she says. "Knowing that they are out there on their own, just being horses. They don't need us. They don't want us. They are just wild." Her eyes moisten. "There is something about it that is just really valuable."
She didn't always think so. In 2002, when she first visited to write a story for a nearby newspaper, she expected to see "pig-eyed, hammer-headed inbreds." Instead, she says, "The horses were stunning."
Holmes came back again and again, to the point where she calls herself the "horse paparazzi." Now caretaker of a small ranch a few miles from the management area, she knows every horse here not only by sight, but by family relationship, social status and individual quirks. She posts horse photos and gossip ("Comanche has taken to hanging with Hollywood, and David has added Kestrel, Juniper and Madison to his family, which previously included just Shadow. No pix yet.") on her blog, Springcreekwild.wordpress.com, which she jokingly calls "As the Basin Turns."
With her dart gun, Holmes hopes to turn her obsession into a solution to one of the West's most expensive and vexing natural resource problems: controlling wild horse numbers.
The animals exist in a sort of legal and cultural gray area, caught between different mandates for their management. To many people, they represent the fierce independence that once defined the frontier and is increasingly scarce today -- a quality that earned them federal protection. "They belong not to man but to the country of junipers and sages, of deep arroyos, mesas and freedom," cowboy writer Will James once wrote. But they are also technically feral -- non-native transplants, like wild hogs or knapweed. That means that the government is charged with keeping their numbers in check, so that they don't graze arid valleys down to dirt, outcompeting livestock and native species.
An estimated 37,000 wild horses now roam parts of 10 Western states -- 10,000 more than the government says the land can support. With their natural predators mostly gone, they consistently outstrip population goals designed to protect the range. Because slaughter and hunting are not viable management options (see sidebar, facing page), the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees most of the lands where wild horses and burros roam, regularly removes thousands through helicopter roundups. Those that aren't adopted enter the so-called "holding system" -- a network of government feedlots and private pastures where they remain until the BLM finds a better solution. Today, more mustangs live in government captivity than in the wild.
Since 2000, this policy has more than tripled the annual wild horse and burro program's cost to $76 million -- a whopping 7 percent of the BLM's budget and three times what the agency spends on the 211 endangered native species that inhabit the land it manages.
And now the BLM is running out of space for the horses. In a normal year, it rounds up 9,000. This fall, it has room for only 3,500 more, and its attempts to find more pasture have yet to yield bids. "We're in a bind," says BLM spokesman Tom Gorey. "We cannot gather more than we can care for."
No one is happy with the status quo. Ranchers, hunters and some environmentalists are frustrated because roundups aren't controlling numbers. Wild horse advocates, meanwhile, feel that the federal law protecting the animals isn't adequately enforced. Lawsuits have flown from both sides. "In the midst of this political tug-of-war is the BLM, the principal agency charged with the nearly impossible task of finding a universally accepted mustang management policy," writes University of Arizona professor of natural resource policy J. Edward de Steiguer in his recent book, Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America's Mustangs. And it "has not always made politically astute choices."
Facing this intractable mess, a growing number of dart-gun armed insurgents like Holmes are attempting an end run around the conflict's entrenched sides. These horse lovers are pushing alternatives like fertility drugs as a way to end the need for both roundups and the holding system by reining in the population at the source. The idea is slowly gaining traction with the BLM -- raising hopes that more reasonable solutions may be possible. Proponents and the agency acknowledge that effective management using drugs is still far in the future. Still, even small gains matter, Holmes says as she gets back in her dusty Jeep Cherokee to go look for the rest of the herd: "You have to start somewhere."