Is there a way through the West's bitter wild horse wars?

by Dave Philipps

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."

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.

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."

There is, perhaps, one way to turn down the heat -- something the BLM itself began back when it was first tasked with protecting wild horses and burros.

On a hot summer afternoon in 1971, a young reproductive biologist named Jay Kirkpatrick was working in his office at Montana State University when, as he recalls, "two BLM cowboys with sweaty hatbands and shit on their boots walked in."

"They said, 'Can you make horses not reproduce?' " Kirkpatrick, now 72, remembers. "Even back then, they knew it was going to be a problem."

Kirkpatrick said he thought he could. First, he looked into spaying or neutering in the field, but quickly learned that ornery horses and rugged terrain made it nearly impossible. Next he tested hormonal steroid drugs similar to human birth control pills, but discovered the large doses required could not be delivered through a dart. Plus, they changed horse behavior and lingered in the food chain.

In the late 1980s, he finally settled on Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP, a sticky protein that coats domestic pig eggs, allowing sperm to bind to their surface. All mammals have similar egg coatings. When PZP is injected into any mammal, its immune system flags the intruder and responds by making antibodies shaped to bind to the chemical. But the antibodies also bind to the animals' own eggs, blocking sperm for about a year.

The drug is simple to apply with a dart and easily reversible, so managers can change course if there's an epidemic or a big winter die-off. It also breaks down and doesn't linger in the food chain. Just as important, Kirkpatrick says, "It's cheap," about $25 per dose.

To make the stuff, Kirkpatrick's lab at Zoo Montana in Billings gets cast-off pig ovaries from a Midwestern butcher, grinds them to isolate the coating, then parses tiny doses into vials to be loaded into darts in the field. A few other researchers also make PZP. Kirkpatrick says the process could easily be ramped up if there was more demand.

On Maryland's Assateague Island, Kirkpatrick has successfully used the drug over 20 years to trim the local wild horse population from 175 down nearly to the goal of about 100. He has also used PZP effectively on elephants in enclosed game reserves in Africa, water buffalo in Guam, urban deer on the East Coast and scores of zoo animals -- sending the drug to wildlife managers around the world. "Anything with a hoof, it seems to work," he says.

Paradoxically, the agency that inspired his research has been hesitant to adopt the drug. The BLM has been "studying" the use of PZP in wild horses for over 20 years, according to agency documents, but has never treated much more than 1,000 of the estimated 19,000 free-roaming mares under its management in a given year, so the drug has had little big-picture impact. "It's a cultural thing," says Kirkpatrick. The BLM still has "a cowboy mentality and it will take a generational change to get over that."

But BLM spokesman Gorey counters that the obstacles to wide use of PZP are more practical than cultural. Though PZP shows promise in small studies, it's hard to apply to huge herds in wide-open spaces. "We want to pursue the PZP avenue as far as it can go. The challenge is that our horses roam over essentially 30 million acres. This is not Assateague Island."

There are very few places the BLM can get close enough to use a dart gun, he says, so the agency rounds up horses by helicopter, then injects mares by hand. For PZP to work, the agency then has to recapture each mare every year to treat them. "That is just not a functional solution." Researchers are working on a form of PZP that could last four or five years, which could make catch-and-release practical, Gorey says, but results so far have been mixed.

And because wild horses are above the target populations set by the BLM in most of the West, Gorey adds, in many cases the agency can't treat and release them without risking lawsuits or damage to the land. It must remove horses until it reaches its target. "It is a wonderful goal to treat and release and not keep adding to holding, but we are not there yet and it is a tough road ahead."

Dissatisfied with such answers, Kirkpatrick searched for another way to get the drug out to the herds. He needed people who were able to recognize individual mares in a vast landscape and get within 50 meters to dart them. Only one group fit this description: Wild horse lovers.

All across the West, people like T.J. Holmes have fallen under the spell of these animals. They visit specific horse herds, photograph and blog about their favorites. They ride with them and camp with them. After roundups, they often adopt them.

In 2001, Kirkpatrick began inviting such enthusiasts to his lab for a three-day PZP training. One of his first graduates was a retired Colorado schoolteacher named Marty Felix. After she learned how to mix the drug and shoot a dart gun in 2002, she convinced her local BLM office to let her dart the 150 wild horses of the Little Book Cliffs herd near Grand Junction. Within a few years, PZP cut the herd's offspring by nearly half, she says. "Because of what we've done, they've postponed roundups again and again. They just don't need them."

News of her success inspired other groups in Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Colorado. More people trained with Kirkpatrick and cajoled their local BLM offices into trying PZP. Looking for a better solution than roundups, Holmes trained with Kirkpatrick in 2010.

These volunteers now account for about 16 percent of PZP applications. Yet even with their help, the BLM has sometimes failed to meet its goals. In 2012, for example, it aimed to inject 2,000 mares, but treated only about 1,015. Next year, it plans to treat only 900, claiming that it must redirect limited resources to gathering horses threatened by the effects of this year's serious droughts and wildfires.

Altogether, volunteer horse groups are now treating five herds in four states. The herds are small -- none larger than 150 animals -- but advocates say they are seeing results. And despite the currently limited reach of their efforts, many feel lessons learned in the field could inform larger attempts to use fertility drugs in the future.

"We pushed for it because there has to be a better solution than roundups," says Karen Herman, who began treating horses in northern New Mexico in 2009. "And it has made a real difference."

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.

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