BRITTON SPRINGS, Wyo. - From the top of the ridge we can hear the helicopter droning behind pastel desert hills, and see the distant slopes of the Pryor Mountains just across the Montana line. Finally the wild horses appear.
They trot in and out of washes and around clumps of juniper. In a region better known for its bighorn sheep and elk, the horses appear too large and dark - out of place.
But that is only an illusion.
Those other animals are relative newcomers to this continent, while horses are the original natives. At least, so some people believe. The wild horse is an animal so enmeshed in controversy, so obscured by myth and emotion, that its management in the West has been contentious for nearly half a century.
This roundup in late October 1997, designed to reduce the Pryor Mountain herd of some 190 horses by about 25 percent, is the culmination of years of studies and debate. Just before it began, anonymous threats were sent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that the helicopter which is hazing the animals into corrals would be shot at, and there are sheriff's cars at the entrance checkpoint.
We spectators on the ridge - TV crews, filmmakers, reporters, researchers and representatives of animal rights groups - crouch in the yellow dust of the outcrop behind a jute fence that hides us from the horses below. The cameramen and women have poked holes between its fibers for their long lenses. Behind us the rising sun shimmers through the chilly mists above Bighorn Lake.
The ancestors of the horses before us evolved in North America from animals the size of house cats to creatures we would recognize as equine. Then, around 10,000 years ago, every horse vanished, wiped out (depending on which theory convinces you) by a changing climate or human hunters.
Not until 1519, when Cortez arrived in Mexico with 17 of the animals, did horses return to their ancestral home. The American natives took to them immediately, and stolen or escaped Spanish mounts soon spread throughout the West. Perhaps because several Ice Age predators - the dire wolf and the sabertooth cat - had long vanished, little prevented the new herds from multiplying. By the mid-1800s their population had risen into the millions, augmented by new arrivals ridden or driven into the West by trappers, miners, cattlemen and farmers.
When the first settlers arrived in the Pryors in the 1890s, they found horses with odd colors and markings - mouse-grays and duns with zebra stripes on their legs and black lines along their spines. Genetic research in the 1990s has confirmed that the Pryor Mountain horses of today are relics of the Spanish world of the 16th century and a breed now vanished from its homeland.
As we wait behind our fence, the helicopter herds the horses between the lines of jute that lead to the waiting corral. Sensing danger in this narrowing alley, they hesitate. At that moment, a hidden wrangler releases a tame animal that gallops past them into the trap. Confused, the wild band follows this "Judas horse," and the gate closes behind them.
The capture is an episode that has been repeated time and again in the West. By the latter half of the 19th century, the great North American wild horse herds of the 1700s and 1800s had already begun to shrink. As fences and farms took over the Great Plains, wild horses were pushed into remote deserts and badlands. Tens of thousands were captured for use in the Boer War and World War I. Later in the 20th century, first the chicken-feed industry and then the makers of dog and cat food seized upon them as a cheap source of protein. Continental Europeans also bought millions of pounds of horsemeat - some of it wild - to eat.
When the Taylor Grazing Act was passed in the mid-1930s, the newly formed Grazing Service wanted only to rid the public lands of wild horses. The practices used to capture them were appallingly inhumane.
After being chased for miles, in some cases by airplanes that sprayed them with buckshot, they were pushed into corrals barren of food or water, or even tied to old truck tires, then crammed into trailers and hauled long distances to the packing plants.
"Mustangers" were finally reined in after 1950, when Velma Johnston of Reno, Nev., found herself driving behind a truck dripping blood onto the highway. She followed it to a rendering plant, and, horrified by the sight of the mutilated horses inside, she began a crusade to improve their treatment.
It was not only the cruelty that disgusted her. The herds once numbering in the millions had by the 1950s shrunk to 25,000 or so.
The campaign launched by Johnston, better known to wild horse lovers as Wild Horse Annie, was one of the more remarkable political phenomena of the 20th century - a citizens' crusade backed by schoolteachers and housewives raised on books like My Friend Flicka and The Black Stallion.
Its strength derived from an American attachment to the horse, a connection that may go back to prehistoric British tribes who used to carve giant effigies of the animal into chalk hillsides. After the industrial revolution largely replaced work horses with machines, this fascination grew even stronger.
Although people of other countries look at the horse and think food (see story page 10), in the United States we shudder at the thought of eating horsemeat. Domesticated so recently that it easily reverts to the wild, the horse symbolizes freedom, power and beauty to many Americans. The wild horse has been used to peddle everything from Mustang cars to Marlboro cigarettes, and legislators challenge such emotions at their peril.
By 1959, Wild Horse Annie's troops had pressured Congress to outlaw the chasing of wild horses with airplanes and motorized vehicles. By 1962, although one wild horse refuge had been created in Nevada, no legal protection existed for the Pryor Mountain horses.
In 1964, Bureau of Land Management officials, alarmed by the deteriorating condition of the public land here, and assuming that the several hundred horses that roamed the Pryors were mere farm animals turned out in the 1930s, announced their intention to round them up. Federal officials were surprised when the public, convinced that the horses would end up in dog food cans, rose up in wrath.
Local people quickly formed a Pryor Mountain Mustang Association to oppose the BLM plan. They were joined by the chamber of commerce, several regional newspapers, and a number of national animal welfare groups. National Geographic, Newsweek and ABC News - which sent Hope Ryden, a feature producer for the evening news, to do a spot on the horses - let the nation know that the animals were in danger.
After Ryden's ABC spot was aired, both the network and the BLM were inundated with letters, telegrams and calls from outraged viewers. In 1968, just after the agency had finished building its trap for the Pryor Mountain horses, the Humane Society of the United States persuaded a judge to prohibit the Bureau from destroying them.
Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall was reportedly furious that the agency had made such a botch of the roundup. Taking matters into his own hands, he created the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.
Three years later in 1971, after more floods of letters - one congressman reportedly received 14,000 - Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, protecting all the wild horses living on public lands in the United States by making them the property of the federal government. There was not a single dissenting vote.
Back at the cabin that serves as headquarters for the roundup, the BLM wild horse specialist in charge of the Pryor Mountain roundup steps in front of the TV cameras. Linda Coates-Markle, a compact, tanned woman in a down vest and hiking shoes, gives no sign of nervousness as she explains the removal plan she has worked on for almost two years.
But tension fills the air. For almost 26 years the Pryor Mountain herd had been limited, by periodic roundups, to around 138 animals - a number which seems to have kept the range here in fairly good condition. In the past several years, however, the herd has grown to nearly 190.
And the last roundup, held in September 1994, was disastrous: At least five horses died, several colts were separated from their mothers, and sick and injured animals were left without veterinary care. Worse, BLM officials lied to the public about a colt that fell off a cliff and had to be shot.
In the scandal that followed, the Montana state BLM director went looking for what he called "fresh ideas and fresh approaches." He found them in Coates-Markle, then director of the Equine Sciences Program at Oregon State University.
Coates-Markle acknowledges that the alpine meadows near the summits of the 8,000-foot Pryors look lush. But at the lower elevations where the horses winter, "the pickings are so scarce even the bunnies might wish they'd packed a lunch," she wrote in a recent article. In the snowy winter of 1977-78, nearly half the herd starved to death.
In the past two years Coates-Markle has corralled an impressive group of independent biologists and geneticists - people who have worked with the Pryor Mountain horses or studied their range - who support her plans for the gather. She also has the backing of the Pryor Mountain Mustang Association, whose members spend their weekends keeping tabs on the range, and have named every horse on it.
Just weeks before the roundup was due to begin, however, an independent filmmaker named Ginger Kathrens filed a motion with the Interior Board of Land Appeals to halt the gather, accusing the BLM of managing the herd to conform to an arbitrary population number instead of a true ecological balance. Kathrens maintained that the range was in good condition, and could easily support the current herd.
When it became evident that the ruling would not come in time to stop the operation, she and several other plaintiffs asked a U.S. District Judge in Montana for a temporary restraining order. The BLM is going ahead anyway, although if the order is granted, all the animals will have to be released.
Coates-Markle tells the clustered reporters that the horses are being moved in slowly, and are being put into the corrals in family groups, to prevent fighting and social disruption. She explains that the ones kept for adoption will be mostly young males, which are overabundant in this herd. She adds that the genetic studies and ecosystem models are not yet complete, and therefore, "it's important to be conservative in our management decisions."
No one says anything, but many people here must be thinking of the troubled history of BLM's wild horse program. In 1971, when it suddenly found itself in charge of what one writer has called "the world's largest horse-breeding operation," the agency had no idea how to manage the animals.
Shortly after the Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed, it became apparent that there were many more horses on public rangelands than the 9,500 (plus 7,500 burros) BLM had estimated. The animals also seemed to be multiplying at astronomical rates - by 1980 the population of the two species had risen to 65,000 or more.
In the 1970s, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act directed BLM to manage rangelands more scientifically, maintain an inventory of wild horses, and remove those the range could not support. What to do with the surplus was the sixty-four-dollar question.
The American public had made it plain that euthanasia was not an option. So the Adopt-a-Horse program was born. Since its inception in 1976, over 140,000 wild horses have been transferred for varying but modest fees to private citizens.
It soon became evident, however, that there were not enough adopters to keep up with the removals. So many horses piled up in government corrals that by 1986 the BLM was spending $7 million a year just to maintain them.
In 1984, the agency started waiving adoption fees for anyone who would take over 100 animals at a time. When thousands ended up in slaughterhouses that supply the international horsemeat market, there was a public outcry, and in 1988 the mass adoptions were stopped.
The agency then experimented with wild horse sanctuaries and with giving animals to prison inmates for training so they would be more adoptable. Neither proved entirely successful.
A sudden rise in the price of horsemeat in the early 1990s started horses moving toward the slaughterhouses again. After the mad-cow disease scare hit Europe in 1996, horsemeat was occasionally worth more per pound than beef. Although adopters were now limited to four animals apiece, the unscrupulous could get more than that with the help of friends and relatives. Wild horses probably didn't bring top dollar, and also cannot be resold for a year, because the BLM does not give the owner a title until the horse has been kept and fed for a year. But since they were bought at the rock-bottom price of $125, there was evidently money to be made from them.
The BLM has been prohibited for the last decade from letting horses go to adopters with commercial intentions, but the agency's policy was "don't ask, don't tell." Scandal re-emerged in 1997, when the Associated Press reported that thousands of wild horses - rounded up and prepared for adoption at a taxpayer expense of $1,100 a head - were vanishing into meat-packing plants. Worse, some BLM employees appeared to be profiting from the trade. "You couldn't throw a rock without hitting a crook in this program," said Steve Sederwall, a former BLM law-enforcement agent.
Now, at the second day of the Pryor Mountain roundup, a storm is threatening, and the crowd of spectators is considerably smaller.
A group of filmmakers has persuaded the contractor who is handling the gather to let them hide close to the runway, where several bands of horses that will not be put up for adoption will be released to the wild. Given dire warnings of disaster if the horses see them, the filmmakers have clustered - almost invisibly - in a juniper thicket.
The first horses to come out, a group of mares led by a black stallion called Two Boots, pause in astonishment when they reach this shrub bristling with lenses. Then they wheel and canter away to freedom.
After the horses have passed, Ginger Kathrens hefts a pack of equipment nearly as big as she is onto her back. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she first came to the Pryors in 1994 to make a feature about wild horses for Marty Stouffer. Her pale blue eyes sparkle with interest when she talks about the animals she knows so well.
During the ill-fated 1994 roundup she watched in horror as the family of horses she had featured in her film, led by a stallion named Raven, lost two of its three colts, one of them the colt BLM officials lied about shooting.
"Loving an animal makes you vulnerable," she says, "like having a child makes you vulnerable."
Kathrens worries that once the roundup has cut their numbers, a severe winter could kill enough horses that the Pryor Mountain herd would no longer be genetically viable. And she believes there is little evidence of overgrazing. "It doesn't matter (to BLM) if the horses look terrific, and the range looks terrific," she says.
She has just learned, however, that the board of land appeals judge rejected her request that the roundup be stopped. A few days later the district judge followed suit, saying that BLM did not have to wait for horses to cause damage before removing them. Coates-Markle later commented that, although the grass looks good now (the summer of 1997 was unusually rainy), "you can't manage on a yearly basis. You have to look at long-term trends."
Court actions against wild horse gathers are nothing new. In 1989 the Animal Protection Institute, a California group, convinced the Interior Board of Land Appeals to halt virtually every roundup in the West on the grounds that the BLM had not provided enough range data to justify them.
Ironically, the 1994 Pryor Mountain roundup might have gone more smoothly if the American Horse Protection Association and other groups had not protested the use of helicopters. As a result, mounted wranglers gathered up the horses in a grueling process which took three weeks.
Although horse numbers in the Pryors are well documented, some wild horse advocates are convinced that BLM's population estimate for the West - about 37,600 (plus some 5,400 burros) - is too high. They also fear that the agency's target number of about 23,000 horses is too low, that the number of herds is declining, and that many of them have too few horses to be genetically viable.
There is a widespread feeling among these groups that an agency that manages livestock on the public lands is ill-suited to care for wild horses. Michael Markarian of the Fund for Animals says the BLM is "wedded to the notion that cattle ranchers should have first priority on land that we all pay for with our tax dollars."
Horse advocates like Robin Lohnes of the American Horse Protection Association say they believe that the environment comes first.
"If the forage isn't there, nothing's going to be there," she says. But she and others deplore what they call the "paper cow syndrome," in which horse reductions are "matched" by reductions in cattle which take place only on paper. The problem, according to Dawn Lappin of Nevada's Wild Horse Organized Assistance (WHOA!), is that when the Wild Horse Act was passed, all the grass was already allocated to domestic livestock.
"Everybody just assumed that the forage was out there," she says.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association is sure that it is not, and says excessive numbers of wild horses are ruining the range in many areas of the West.
"No one's disputing the fact that wild horses are kind of nice to have out there," says Brian Garber of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Lands Council (which represents ranchers with federal grazing permits). He says the BLM did a good job of bringing the horses back. But, he adds, "They forgot to let a little water out of the bathtub when it got full."
Tom Pogacnik, chief of the BLM's National Wild Horse and Burro Team in Nevada, defends the agency's horse counts as "very accurate," and says that most herds that have been "zeroed out" conflicted with endangered species or private lands. The majority of those with fewer than 100 animals, he says, are not genetically isolated from other populations. He admits that the agency has made mistakes, but points out that the program is the only one of its kind.
"We've been writing the handbook as we go," he says.
The fact is, however, that blunders have weakened the agency's credibility and turned the wild horse program into a battleground of competing interests.
Green organizations have mostly avoided the bloodletting. With the exception of the Sierra Club - which views wild horses as feral animals that should be eliminated from key wildlife habitat - few of them even deal with the issue.
Unraveling the relationships between wild horses and other species is a difficult exercise. There is no question about competition with cattle: Both animals are grass-eaters, and the overlap between their diets is as much as 90 percent in winter. Horses eat more for their weight than cows, and also crop grass closer to the ground.
Mule deer and antelope - both common in wild horse areas - are browsers, but they, too, will eat grass in spring and summer. A wild horse eats five or six times as much as a deer, and even more, compared to an antelope. On one Nevada ranch adjacent to a wild horse range, deer and antelope populations plunged as the horse herds grew.
Another Nevada study found that when food was short, all grazing animals - horses, cows, elk, deer and antelope - began to eat the same plants. Horses may also drive cows and wildlife away from water holes.
But since almost all wild horse ranges are also grazed by cattle, it is practically impossible to say how much damage horses do. A 1990 General Accounting Office report found that in four Nevada wild horse areas it reviewed, domestic livestock were eating 81 percent of the forage.
Competition with livestock is not a problem on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range; there are no grazing leases here. There is a small herd of bighorn sheep in the area, however.
A recent study revealed that horses and sheep here have similar diets in spring and summer - a crucial time for bighorn lambs. The study's author, biologist Robert Kissell, stressed that it was not designed to measure conflict between species. But he said that sheep deferred to horses, and that while the horse herd was growing, the sheep herd was stagnant.
Which animal should get priority? Bighorns have been pushed out of much of their original range, and there are actually fewer of them in the West today than there are wild horses. On the other hand, the Pryor Mountain horses contain priceless genetic material that is no longer found in domestic breeds.
Horse advocates sometimes comment that wild horses suffer because they are the only animals on public lands that don't bring in money to either game and fish agencies or stockgrowers. But there is another side to that coin. Wild horses are also the only animals that cannot be managed by killing them.
Rounding up wild horses humanely is expensive. The price tag for the Pryor Mountain operation, the professionalism of which is being widely praised even by those who do not concede that it was necessary, was $78,000.
There is still a surplus of animals nationwide: About 6,500 wild horses and burros are being held in BLM corrals and sanctuaries. It costs taxpayers over $16,000 a day just to maintain them.
The needs of the adoption program have produced an unintended effect in some herds. Wild mares often nurse for several years, and lactation keeps them from conceiving new foals. Young horses are the easiest to place with adopters, but when unweaned animals are removed, their mothers quickly become pregnant, and the population is soon right back where it was.
One promising solution is an immunocontraceptive vaccine called PZP, which essentially makes mares reject their own eggs.
The vaccine, which is now being tested on several Nevada herds, can be delivered with darts, does not alter social structure or behavior, affect existing pregnancies, or pass into the food chain when the mare dies. It is also reversible. It has been used to stabilize the horse population on Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland since 1994.
The cost, according to Allen Rutberg of the Humane Society of the United States, who is part of the Nevada research team, is about $25 a dose. If the horses are being gathered anyway, he says, "it costs essentially nothing."
"We think it's going to be a valuable tool," Pogacnik says. But he says PZP is not a panacea. "We're still going to have to gather and adopt."
However, BLM's track record with "solutions' to the wild horse problem makes some horse advocates wary even of fertility control. Says Karen Sussman, president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, "In the hands of the BLM it could be dangerous."
Other groups, impatient for the agency to get PZP into use, think it's been studied enough. "What are they dragging their feet for?" asks Donna Ewing of the Hooved Animal Humane Society.
Meanwhile, the BLM is setting up a new advisory board, and an independent fact-finding team has been appointed to look into the horse program. As for the slaughterhouse scandals, a recent court decision now requires the agency to make adopters swear they won't sell the animals for meat.
One week after the last bands of Pryor Mountain horses were hazed into corrals, the roundup headquarters at Britton Springs is crowded again, this time with people ready to adopt a horse. The parking area, with its colored flags, looks like a used-car lot. It's the first of November, and Coates-Markle, addressing the gathering from the porch of the cabin, is flanked by corn shocks and pumpkins.
She explains how the adoption will be conducted - by silent bids entered on sheets of paper posted on each corral. This is a recent policy designed to increase revenue from the horses, but it has thinned the crowd, which had been expecting to pay only the customary $125 fee.
Coates-Markle also outlines the BLM's new program for checking up on adopters. She stresses that if a horse doesn't work out, it can be returned.
"We're from the government," she jokes. "We're here to help you."
Then the public is admitted to the network of corrals where the newly branded and vaccinated horses wait, each with an identification number on a nylon rope around its neck. Most mill restlessly, trying to keep away from the spectators, but two late foals - so tiny that they look like fuzzy toys in their long winter fur - have fallen asleep on a pile of hay.
Kathrens is here today, too, watching the horses with a motherly eye and informing prospective buyers about their various idiosyncrasies. She tells me she was up on the ridge a few days ago watching the wild ones rolling and playing in the snow.
"What a difference," she says, gesturing toward the penned creatures.
Coates-Markle would agree. A few weeks later, she says she has been impressed by the contrast between domestic horses that never get to make their own decisions and wild ones.
"I have a great deal of respect for them," she says of her charges. "These are pretty intelligent animals."
In spite of the small crowd, by the end of the day every horse has found a buyer. The Pryor Mountain range is one area where PZP will be a hard sell - the animals here, because of their rare genes, are popular with adopters.
In fact, the highest price the BLM has ever received for an unbroken wild horse - $825 - was paid here today for a blue roan yearling. The buyer was Kathrens.
Although the horse has been part of human society for 6,000 years, it still remembers how to survive in the wild. For a people who have lost their connections to nature, that ability feeds an irresistible collective fantasy of freedom - a fantasy which may keep us from seeing the animal clearly.
Not many horse advocate groups are based in the regions where wild horses actually live, and their understanding of biological systems sometimes seems sketchy. To a few of them, the very term "feral" is an insult to wild horses, and some advocates consider environmentalists who refuse to classify horses as wildlife as much the enemy as the cattlemen are.
Wild horses raise more than environmental questions. Except for the zebras and a few herds in Asia, indigenous wild horses are almost gone from the world. Many scholars believe that domestication saved horses from extinction, as grasslands shrank and humans expanded their range at the close of the Ice Age.
Where does the horse, this outmoded beast so near to our hearts, belong? Should it - as some supporters maintain - have the same rights as non-endangered wildlife species? Do we owe it something for its long years of service to humanity?
Americans have made one thing clear: We can't manage horses the way we manage most other animals. We are too close to them. It is significant that the only solution we have found for their increasing numbers is the one we use ourselves - birth control.
As the Pryor Mountain auction ends, a line of vehicles forms next to the corrals. A frisky dun stallion named Mooneye is hazed into the carpet-lined squeeze chute, where the number is removed from its neck and replaced with a nylon halter. Then it thunders into the trailer of a dapper gray-haired man from Indiana.
The truck pulls away, dwindling to a tiny speck on the desert highway. In the fading autumn light, it seems emblematic. For thousands of years the horse pulled and carried us, but now the roles are reversed. Early in this century a Scottish writer commented, "God forbid that I should go to any heaven in which there are no horses." Many Americans feel the same way about the earth.
Lynne Bama freelances from Wapiti, Wyo.
You can contact ...
* The Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L St. NW, Washington DC 20037 (202/452-1100);
* Tom Pogacnik, chief, Wild Horse and Burro Program, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, P.O. Box 12000, Reno, NV 89520 (702/785-6583);
* Linda Coates-Markle, state wild horse and burro specialist, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Billings Resource Area, 810 E. Main, Billings, MT 59105 (406/238-1548);
* International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB), 6212 E. Sweetwater Ave., Scottsdale, AZ 85254 (602/991-0273);
* Wild Horse Organized Assistance (WHOA!), P.O. Box 555, Reno, NV 89504 (702/851-4817).