Few people ever see wild horses. They live where we do not -- in cedar breaks, salt flats, rimrock and shale barrens, on nuclear test sites and off-limits missile ranges -- remote scraps of flyover country with forbidding names like Devils Garden and Deadman Valley.
Modern mustangs are descended from Eurasian domestic stock first brought to New Mexico by the Spanish in the early 1500s. They escaped during Indian raids, storms and epidemics, or simply because the land was unfenced. They swiftly became an essential part of the lives of many American Indian tribes, and tribal traders spread them throughout the Rockies and the Plains. Meanwhile, a smaller number of wild burros, also largely Spanish in origin, escaped from prospectors and pack-train drivers and wandered throughout the desert Southwest.
Horses have deeper roots here, though: Their ancestors evolved in North America. In the shale hills of Wyoming's Big Horn Basin, the 55 million-year-old jaws of tiny, cat-sized horse-like creatures rest in the dirt next to the hoof prints of modern mustangs. As the continent gradually changed over the eons, horses evolved long teeth, hardy digestive systems, and fleet legs that helped them dominate the forbidding savannah. Then, 10,000 years ago, they disappeared from the continent, most likely due to a combination of climate change and overhunting by a more recent arrival: man.
When horses were introduced by European colonizers millennia later, they thrived as if they had never left. By 1800, mustangs of all colors and varieties roamed from San Antonio to San Francisco and up into Canada. There might have been 2 million in North America, according to J. Frank Dobie's classic study, The Mustangs. West Texas had so many that early mapmakers covered thousands of square miles by simply writing "wild horse desert." In some places, Dobie writes, the bands seen on the Great Plains rivaled the seas of bison.
As settlers poured into the West, though, wild horses and burros were increasingly hunted down. States and grazing associations offered bounties because horses competed with cattle and sheep. The BLM's predecessor, the U.S. Grazing Service, coordinated efforts to destroy herds, shooting horses or driving them off cliffs. In the 20th century, most of the remaining mustangs went to slaughterhouses to be exported as steaks, or ground up for dog food or chicken feed. By 1970, only an estimated 17,000 were left.
That year, the BLM decided to rid Nevada of many of its remaining wild horses. A rancher once showed me old mimeographed copies of its plan -- never carried out -- calling for a massive aerial roundup. Sharpshooters would deal with the horses that could not be wrangled. A bulldozer and an "asphyxiation chamber with hoists and rails for disposal" would take care of the rest.
The prospect of the annihilation of the mustangs inspired a shy but feisty secretary from Reno, Nev., named Velma Johnston -- better known as Wild Horse Annie -- to take up their cause. Before Congress, Johnston, the daughter of a wild horse wrangler, argued that the mustang belonged to everyone and should be protected by law because it is "a symbol of freedom for all."
She won over millions. After all, horses were different from kudzu, starlings and other introduced invasive species. Centuries of living alongside people in the West had made them an emblem of the wide-open landscapes, and of the grit, defiance and hardiness that Americans -- especially those who now lived in cities -- still believed defined their nation. Fired-up horse groups and schoolchildren around the country lobbied Congress; tens of thousands of letters poured into Washington.
In response, Rep. James Wright, D-Texas, memorably wrote to his constituents in 1971, "Am I going to be susceptible to pressure? Am I going to be influenced by a bunch of children? Am I going to support a bill because kids … are sentimental about wild horses? You bet your cowboy boots I am!"
A few months later, Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The law banned hunting and private roundups of wild horses and burros and tasked the BLM -- the agency that had so long worked to eradicate them -- with their protection and management.
The measure was controversial from the start -- pitting the ideals of urban people against the livelihoods of some rural families. Many ranchers, sensing that the law would erode local control of public lands, laid claim to thousands of wild horses near their properties, calling them "private" horses and selling them to slaughter. Wild Horse Annie received so many threats that she said she answered her door with a .38. (The situation hasn't defused much: In much of wild horse country, locals see mustangs as a symbol of unwanted outside meddling. Stopping for a beer once in Tonopah, Nev., I asked the bartender what he thought about wild horses. He looked at me and said, simply, "Kill 'em.")
It was also swiftly apparent that unchecked herds could potentially eat the range bare. By 1976, the number of wild horses had nearly doubled. That year, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which gave the BLM a new mandate to manage multiple uses on public land to maintain a "thriving natural ecological balance," putting horses on level with other considerations. Then Congress passed the Public Rangelands Improvement Act, which ordered the BLM to set a target horse population using scientific methods and to periodically remove excess animals.
BLM studies concluded that the West could sustain 27,000 horses and burros, and in 1978, the agency began contracting helicopters for regular roundups. The same methods, and sometimes the same antique Bell 47 helicopters, are still used today. The helicopters chase the horses for miles across the desert, pushing them into funnel-shaped traps. Occasionally, horses are maimed or killed in the process.