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."

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