The bastard child of the range

 

About 10 years ago, reporter Dave Philipps found himself staring in awe at the thousands of captive mustangs corralled near Cañon City, Colo.

He was there to write about wild horses rounded up from public rangelands by the Bureau of Land Management. Some were adopted out, he was told, but most would go into "retirement": long-term holding pastures in the Midwest where they'd live indefinitely on the government dole. The prospect struck Philipps as strange. What if the agency ran out of room?

"I don't know," his BLM host replied.

Today, that question is in urgent need of an answer. The number of "retired" horses was well above 10,000 when Philipps first saw them.  Now there are nearly 50,000. How, he wondered, had this happened?

For many, wild horses are mythic symbols of America's frontier heritage, conjuring cinematic visions of glossy herds thundering across clear mountain streams. But they're also technically feral, the descendants of escaped domestic stock. So it is that the BLM is charged with both protecting mustangs and controlling their population -- a difficult balance to strike, and one that's fueled controversy for nearly half a century.

That controversy, in turn, has generated its own myths. When Philipps began researching the issue -- the subject of our cover story -- he encountered "a lot of vitriol, remotely generated out of sentiment rather than real information from on the ground."

Wild horse advocates traded conspiracy theories on the Web: The BLM, they said, is illegally colluding with ranchers and extractive industries, and horse populations would naturally stabilize if left alone. Meanwhile, rangeland advocates dismissed the creatures as "hoofed locusts" -- using  John Muir's epithet for domestic sheep -- that denude the landscape. In fact, it's hard to separate horses' grazing impacts from those of another vastly more numerous non-native: cattle.

In order to get past the noise, Philipps "just looked for the people who were actually doing something," he says -- a search that took him to Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, New Mexico and Nevada. He met wild horse advocates looking for practical ways to manage local herds, ranchers simply trying to be good land stewards, and plenty of federal agents thanklessly working to "take care of land and horses the best they can with the resources they have."

What Philipps did not find was an obvious solution -- one that finally reconciles America's idealistic vision of wild horses with the needs of the land itself. The words of Lynne Bama, the author of HCN's last wild horse feature, are as poignant today as they were when we printed them in 1998: "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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: