The roundups have kept populations somewhat stable but provoked increasing anger from horse-advocacy groups. Activists accuse the BLM of everything from shortsighted brutality to conspiring with cattle ranchers to carry out "a wild horse holocaust." They hold fundraisers complete with appearances from celebrity backers like Willie Nelson, the Barbi Twins and even U2. They denounce roundups at public comment meetings, sue to stop them in court and protest them on the ground. In the past, fringe groups have even burned down BLM corrals. Their efforts have not stopped the roundups, but they have made them increasingly expensive and unpleasant.
The situation has become so tense that last winter, on a visit to watch a roundup in a remote swath of Nevada desert where I was the only civilian for miles, I was told I could only observe from a closet-sized rectangle, marked by pink ribbon and guarded by a law enforcement ranger with a pistol and a Taser.
Roundups are not the advocates' only issue. The 1971 law says wild horses should be protected and managed as the primary use on the 47 million acres of BLM land where they roamed when the act was passed. But because of the agency's multiple-use mandate and conflicts with private property, cattle grazing and energy development, a third of those acres have been "zeroed out," pushing the horses into a smaller and smaller area, concentrating their impacts on the land, and justifying more roundups (see map, facing page).
Environmental groups have mostly avoided the horse fight, but ranchers are not much happier than advocates. Many say they appreciate wild horses, as long as their populations are kept at appropriate levels. But even the BLM acknowledges that this goal is rarely achieved.
Joe Fallini, 70, a third-generation rancher with a tidy push-broom mustache, grew up in Nye County, Nev., on a 3,000-acre ranch with over 650,000 acres of federal grazing leases. He's the type of generous, easy-going person who seems to thrive in the wide-open spaces, but his brow furrows with anger when anyone mentions mustangs.
"Growing up, we always had about 120 head of wild horses on our land. We liked 'em," he says on a winter morning, sitting at his dining-room table beneath sepia-toned portraits of his grandparents. "We'd round 'em up and use some for saddle horses and give some to folks who wanted them. And, yes, we would chickenfeed the ones no one wanted, but that was normal then."
Initially, Fallini had high hopes that the BLM would keep the same balance after the 1971 law. Now, he sighs. "I'll show you how they managed them."
He pulls out a stack of photos, explaining that the BLM said his ranch could sustainably support 138 wild horses alongside the family's roughly 2,000 head of cattle. Any more, and the agency would round them up before they caused excessive damage. But it didn't. The herds grew and grew.
By 1983, Fallini estimates, there were 2,400 horses, toppling fences, damaging water troughs and gobbling much of the grass.
"Look at this," he says, showing a photo from that year: "Nothing but a moonscape and horseshit."
The toll horses take on the range, like everything else in the wild horse world, is a matter of hot debate. Arguments rage over whether equines' unique hooves and digestive systems are better or worse for the land than those of elk or cattle. Few contest the fact that the range is depleted, but it is difficult to separate the impacts of wild horses from over a century of heavy grazing by cattle and sheep.
Fallini, though, felt that he needed to protect his family ranch, carefully stewarded for a century, or he would be out of business.
In 1984, he sued the BLM, saying the horses were damaging the range and taking forage he had a right to through the grazing leases his family had paid for since before the agency was created. The court agreed and ordered the BLM to reduce the horses to the target number. Fallini has returned to court twice since to get the BLM to keep the herds at legal levels.
His story is an extreme example of the problems ranchers face. If they put more cattle on the land than their permits allow, they face stiff penalties and risk damaging their ranches' long-term viability. But if the BLM has more horses on the land than its own targets allow, there is no penalty, no guarantee of roundup. Ranchers regard this as hypocritical at best. At worst, they say, it spells economic disaster.
That's why they've taken an increasingly hard line on wild horses. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association calls for horse populations to immediately be brought down to federal targets, and the excess sold to private bidders, many of whom would likely sell them for slaughter. It also wants to sell off the thousands of horses in storage, with the proceeds going to fund the BLM wild horse program.
"We used to have wild horses that didn't cost nobody nothing. I have probably spent a million on lawyers over the years just to get the damn BLM to follow their own rules," Fallini says. "These days I don't want to do anything with the horses. I am so damn bitter."
Just outside Cañon City, Colo., dozens of large pens stretch for half a mile along the Arkansas River's banks. The air churns with the dust of more than 2,000 captive wild horses milling around listlessly, browsing at the dirt like inmates killing time. Fittingly, the corrals are housed at a state prison. Usually, the only significant activity here is the BLM tractor delivering the daily ration of hay, which stirs the skittish horses against the far fences and around again to devour the long rows of freshly dropped feed.
The corral is one of about a dozen short-term holding facilities where horses land after roundups. They stay until they are sorted and vaccinated. Then, most are trucked to contract ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma for long-term holding. The BLM started storing horses in 1988, as a temporary measure. By 2002, though, there were over 12,000 horses in both short- and long-term holding. Today, there are 47,000.
These are the horses that nobody wants. When the agency rounds them up, it tries to find them homes. Anyone with the right facilities can get one for $125. Horses older than 10 cost just $10. But even at those prices, it's a struggle. In the 1980s and 1990s, adoptions kept pace with removals until a number of scandals revealed that many of the horses were quickly sent to slaughter. The BLM put rules in place to stop the practice, but the restrictions drastically cut adoptions. Rising hay prices and the recession pushed numbers even lower. Now only one in three horses finds a home. The rest go into holding-system limbo.
Internal audits have long warned that this could cause trouble. In 1990, the Government Accountability Office cautioned that the practice was unsustainable and urged the BLM to find alternatives, including fertility control. In 2008, another GAO report chided the agency for failing to explore those alternatives, warning that, "If not controlled, off-the-range holding costs will continue to overwhelm the program." Still, the BLM has made no significant changes. A new effort, launched last year, to find "ecosanctuaries" for unwanted horses differs little from long-term holding, and is unlikely to make a dent in the number of horses held in those pastures (see sidebar, facing page).
The holding-system program, which now consumes roughly half of the wild horse program's budget, may face tough choices if federal budget balancers target it as part of the automatic 2013 budget cuts known as the "fiscal cliff." "Every year, more money, more horses," says a BLM corral manager who did not want his name used for fear of retaliation. "Something has got to give. The pot is about to boil over."