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

Page 5

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.

Tim Baker
Tim Baker says:
Nov 12, 2012 10:24 AM
This is a nice article but it appears to have an important omission (unless I missed it myself in reading on the interwebs), namely that the BLM's horse management program is in the midst of a 2-year science review by a team from the National Academy of Sciences. The report is due out next May and I'm going to wait for that report before diving back into the 'wild horse' discussion.
Lyn McCormick
Lyn McCormick says:
Nov 20, 2012 07:58 PM
Thank you HCN and Dave Phillips for a balanced and well written article on this issue.
Peter Craig
Peter Craig says:
Nov 27, 2012 06:06 PM
I was on the wild horse gathering grew in 1980 in Rock Springs, Wyoming. I believe the budget was $13,000,000 in those day's. Today the budget is $76,000? So.....Let's just estimate that the Federal Gov. averaged $30,000,000 a year for 32 yrs. Close to a billion dollars on a completely unsustainable program on feral horses. No wonder we are heading towards a fiscal cliff!! My ranch in Nevada is rated by the BLM for 32 horses. We counted around 100 the other day! It is truly sad to see how these so called wild horse advocates can be so closed minded and self righteous. Good Article! Pete Craig Davis, Calif and Vya, Nevada
Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare says:
Jan 23, 2013 01:19 PM
Lemme see if I understand. More than 20,000 people starve to death everyday, mostly kids. The only access to a 'grocery store' that many inner city families in the United States have is to that ever-nutritious, corner gas-station/convenience store. And we pay millions to keep some 50,000 edible horses in holding pens. Um, what if we turned that edible meat into jerky and used the meat and the millions we spend on captive wild horse management to feed and care for, um....ah, never mind. What I was contemplating would be just crazy. Just let those kids starve.
colt por
colt por says:
Mar 23, 2015 03:17 PM
Horse slaughter blah blah blah.....supposed facts.....blah blah blah......cattlemen want the land and the money Filtered from wild horse program to fund cattle. RANCHERS DESTROYED the Sage the report and the vehicles BLM allowed passage did as well. We dont feed children horses period. If you kill off wild horses then it gets advocates of managed lands and thats only to get slaughter plants open in US once their powerful adversaries are out ofvthe way they theorize. The Mexican plants have laid off workers and are close to shutting down. The NM is UNWANTED. The Canada plants are pulling strings to stay open. So what this comes down to is Koenze reminds of a Senator Aaron Shock. Why is it exactly that the BLM receive for this Blurb. I mean a year ago an on air interview by a for Wy politician stated the BLM would get Rid of the horses and that Congress would Rue the day it Defunded horse slaughter. Interesting that right on cue this is from the BLM as predicted. Raises eyebrows doesnt it?
colt por
colt por says:
Mar 23, 2015 03:20 PM