ild horses drive an emotional wedge between public-land users who believe the animals are either persecuted or a plague. Arizonans like horseman Robert Hutchison want unbridled herds across the range, while those like hunter John Koleszar want to rein them in to protect other species.
The Heber Herd is Exhibit A in their struggle.
The Heber horses inhabit the forest south of Highway 260 and the Mogollon Rim town of Heber. They are readily approachable in bands numbering in the dozens. Unlike some wary herds in other states, some of the Hebers will allow a photographer to walk among them, and will even approach to investigate the lens.
Over the past two years, Hutchison called, wrote or emailed every influential person he thought might come to the Heber horses’ defense.
A young wild horse grazes on rangeland in the Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests near Heber. The Heber Herd has grown in numbers and competes with livestock and wildlife for resources.
A governor. Some legislators. Robert Duvall, star of the TV Western “Lonesome Dove.”
Costner. Redford. Stallone.
“They’re unreachable,” Hutchison said.
He rode his domestic horse through wild-horse territory in the Arizona rim country to rally support for a herd he considered endangered. He organized a horseback rally last May because he fears the U.S. Forest Service will remove the mustangs he loves to watch and photograph, and will call it environmental protection.
The long-haired, retired former construction worker, who favors cowboy garb, even wrote to Donald Trump before the billionaire entered and won the presidential race. He was hoping in vain that a celebrity real-estate developer might come to the mustangs’ rescue.
Individual horses that have been photographed.
The people love horses, Hutchison reasoned, and the people own federal lands.
“We own the forest,” he insisted.
He was speaking broadly of the many Arizonans who strongly support wild horses, and not his rancher neighbors who argue the herds need culling so the public lands can keep feeding cattle and people.
“They think every blade of grass is theirs,” Hutchison said.
Koleszar is among the hunters, ranchers and ecologists who argue that unregulated horse populations across the state are trashing deserts and grasslands and pushing other animals off watering holes.
The Heber Herd’s range on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests also supports deer and elk. Hunters have worked for years to improve conditions for those species.
Koleszar, president of the Arizona Deer Association, has hunted there since the 1980s and noticed a big change after a horse herd that had seemed to disappear re-emerged in the 2000s.
Arizona Deer Association president
“If you go over behind Overgaard or Heber now it’s just covered with horse droppings,” he said.
They’re “majestic animals,” he conceded, but, “when a single species takes precedence over all other species, then you’re going to have some major problems.”
The Arizona Deer Association spends tens of thousands of dollars a year installing watering systems to aid wildlife, but Koleszar said horses soon take them over.
Koleszar co-hosts a weekly Phoenix radio show for hunters and anglers. At times he has used it to pitch a potentially inflammatory solution that he thinks could improve the land and eliminate millions of dollars in taxpayer costs that pile up when the government rounds up and holds horses indefinitely.
In this scene from “Running Wild,” John Koleszar eats a tin of horse meat during a radio show. He thinks that horses should not be protected at the expense of other species.
He suggests exporting wild-horse meat to Europe and putting the proceeds into land restoration.
“It’s an incredible protein asset,” Koleszar said. “While we find it appalling to eat horse meat, other countries consider it a delicacy.”
To prove it he brought a $15 tin of imported German horse meat to the station one Sunday morning last summer and cracked it open on air. He ate it with Wheat Thins and smoked provolone slices.
“It looks an awful lot like Spam,” he said as he peeled the lid away to release a briny stewed meat scent. Then he dipped a plastic spoon in the tin and tasted the meat.
“It’s pretty good,” he said. “It tastes like meatloaf.”
John Koleszar, president of the Arizona Deer Association, holds a can of horse meat that a friend brought back for him from Germany.
Predators and hunters don’t keep horse numbers in check the way they do with deer, he told listeners. Overseas markets could, if the government would allow it.
“If I had to have this as my last meal,” he said as he finished the tin, “that’s pretty darn good.”
Similar debate about the Salt River horses
As the horse walks, the Salt River band lives a long day’s saunter southwest of the Hebers.
Last summer Tice Supplee of the Audubon Society strode effortlessly between the mesquites overlooking the Salt River on the edge of metro Phoenix, unhindered in a sparsely forested plain where horse manure had replaced tall grass and shrubs. Supplee’s hunch is that cattle first nibbled the native plants to the ground, but that the horses are now keeping them down.
A Salt River wild horse crosses the Bush Highway near an area where the herd roams. The Salt River horses have drawn intense public interest in Phoenix. (Michael Chow/The Republic)
It’s a problem because riverside thickets are rare in the arid Southwest and yet crucial for migrant species of songbirds, the endangered Southwest willow flycatcher or yellow-billed cuckoo.
The Salt River needs all the help Arizona can muster to return it to a bird-friendly stretch of native willows and cottonwoods. A growing horse herd will impede the effort, she said.
She likes horses — she’s a horse owner herself — but fears their permanent, free-roaming residence in and around the river will strip away other life and even leave the horses vulnerable to starvation.
Wild horses graze along the Salt River east of Phoenix. The horses are a popular sight for many, conservation advocates say the animals have damaged the river habitat.
“The ideal would be to manage them just like cattle,” she said, “and be able to take them out of these bottoms seasonally so they’re not here 24/7.”
In 2015 Tonto National Forest officials wanted to round up a band of about 100 horses that frequent the river. They announced their intentions based primarily on the safety hazard the animals posed to highway motorists, though some wildlife advocates applauded because they said the horses were mowing down critical bird habitat.
Thousands more horse backers objected online. Dozens took their protest to the state Capitol. Much of Arizona’s congressional delegation wrote to the Forest Service, asking why it wasn’t instead working with Arizonans to produce a herd management plan.
Supporters of the Salt River wild horses protested and stopped the Forest Service’s plans to remove some of the Salt River horses. (Isaac Hale/The Republic)
The agency isn’t required to write such a plan, because these horses and this herd zone weren’t enshrined in the 1971 federal act protecting wild horses. By some accounts, that’s because most of them likely were released from farms or simply wandered into the area long after that legislation.
Horse advocate Simone Netherlands and her Salt River Wild Horse Management Group argued forcefully that the horses belonged. They contend the horses improve habitat by fertilizing the soil.
“These wild horses have been here for centuries,” she insisted, “and this is the most abundant habitat all along the Salt River.”
The outcry worked. The Salt River horses remain.
Robert Hutchison advocates for the wild horses that live in the area around Heber, on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
Horses are ‘a national treasure’
Robert Hutchison’s proclamation that “we own the forest” echoes doctrine oft-repeated by horse lovers across the West.
The horses, they say, are a national treasure that would get along just fine if not for some “greedy” ranchers leasing federal grazing lands.
That’s why Congress adopted the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Protection Act of 1971, he said.
The Heber Herd, unlike the desert-dwelling Salt River Herd east of Mesa, run in and around a zone of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests that Congress intended for horses. They’re officially protected, but also subject to the agency’s management.
It’s not always clear, at least to the Forest Service, how many deserve to roam.
The Heber horses are protected by the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, unlike the Salt River horses. The law requires the government to develop management plans for the herds.
The herd has drawn scrutiny as it grew to about 400 after the massive Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 opened up a lot of formerly dense ponderosa pine forest on the Mogollon Rim. Hutchison personally has photographed 230 individual horses there.
The fire restored thick grasses and freed up water the trees had used, potentially aiding the horse herd’s growth. But ranchers also insist that the fire burned fences and loosed other horses — some tame, some from the neighboring White Mountain Apache Reservation — to roam into the area.
Horse advocates don’t deny there may have been some mixing with domestic horses during or after the fire, but they argue that has happened periodically for centuries.
How one Arizona man is using wild horses to change lives in an Arizona prison.
“These horses have managed themselves for 400 years,” said Robin Crawford, who helps lead a group of horse enthusiasts that is trying to ensure the Forest Service maintains the herd.
Now, she said, they’re “in dire straits of dying.”
The activists fear the herd will die out because the Forest Service is considering management options that could include a removal into captivity. The agency plans an environmental study of management options, possibly taking several years.
How many horses are too many?
Previously the foresters determined that the 19,000-acre horse territory had been abandoned and was free of horses before the 2002 fire, but advocates went to court to ensure they wouldn’t remove the alleged “trespassers” without first writing a new plan that involves the public.
Foresters don’t want to eliminate the herd, Apache-Sitgreaves spokeswoman Marta Call said, but they do worry about crashes on Highway 260 and they must consider competing demands on forage and water.
“We have to decide how many that territory can support,” she said.
Late afternoon sun lights up the face of a horse from the Heber Herd in eastern Arizona.
The answer is fewer, said Kathy Gibson, a 53-year-old vegetable seller who grew up on a Heber-Overgaard ranch and whose brother still runs cattle. Her mom still lives on a third-generation homestead, though the fire destroyed the original house.
The people calling ranchers greedy don’t consider that ranchers hauling and storing water are the ones who make life possible for horses on a dry forest, she said.
Heber vegetable seller
“The tradition of ranching and the food source it provides for our country are very important — no less important than a horse,” Gibson said.
She doesn’t mind seeing a few horses, she said, but the more the herd grows and expands outside of its designated territory, the more it will take resources from others. The land is meant for multiple uses including both recreation and commerce, like what her family has pursued for generations, she said.
“We have skin in the game,” she said.
Like Forest Service officials, she remembers a time before the fire when no horses roamed the area. Some then crossed over from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, she said, while others escaped backyards or were freed by owners who couldn’t afford to feed them during the Great Recession.
“We know for a fact that these horses are not wild horses,” she said.
Part of history or just cast-off horses?
As everywhere in mustang country, the facts surrounding these horses are hotly disputed.
The Hebers include many horses with facial features that appear to indicate Spanish bloodlines and a direct link to the explorers who first brought horses into the area on expeditions in the 1500s and 1600s, according to herd advocate Crawford.
In this scene from “Running Wild,” see how horses went extinct in North America only to be brought back by Western expansion.
“They’re a part of history,” she said. “They’re a part of the land. They’ve been here since day one.”
Others say there’s a link to early cattle ranchers who moved livestock into Arizona from Texas.
If either is true, the horses would have preceded the national forest’s establishment.
5 out of 175
Showed genes linking them to the conquistadors.
A Texas A&M University veterinary geneticist who has sampled the genes of wild horse herds around the West said few show any traits of Spanish bloodlines. Gus Cothran and colleagues wrote in a chapter of the 2016 academic book “Wild Equines” that, out of 175 herds sampled, only five showed genes linking them to the conquistadors.
They missed only a handful of herds living in the West, including the Hebers.
Most horses on the western ranges are related to common American domestic breeds such as quarter horses and Morgans, the scientists found.
Cothran said in an interview that he had not sampled the Heber Herd or Arizona’s other embattled herd, the Salt River horses. Even the other herds with individuals descended from Spanish horses generally showed a weak genetic link, he said, with the one exception being the Sulphur Herd of western Utah.
Wayne Ramey is a horseback riding guide who lives in Heber-Overgaard. He looks the part of an old-time cattle wrangler, jeans and pink Western shirt, blue eyes squinting through crow’s feet, a brown cowboy hat pushed back, a sandy mustache on his lip.
Wayne Ramey is a horseback riding guide who lives in Heber-Overgaard. He calls the wild horses a gift to people who visit the forest.
He grew up in a Laveen farming family and fished in the White Mountains as a youngster. He moved to the forest 20 years ago and, despite his kinship with farmers and ranchers, found the ranchers’ disdain for wild horses troubling.
Horseback riding guide
“They’re a tourist attraction for this forest,” he said. “Everybody that I take riding likes to see these horses. I love these horses.”
He spoke while standing in front of a band of mustangs doing two of the things they do most: eating grass and jockeying for mating position.
The largest stallion grazed warily until one or another of his younger competitors got frisky with a mare, and then he ran them off, nipping after them. Scars on a young male’s rump indicated it wasn’t his first attempt.
Whatever their origins, Ramey said, the mustangs are a gift to everyone who visits the Mogollon Rim.
“They’re a part of us, for crying out loud,” he said. “It’s like going back in time about 200 years. Reminds us of our pioneer days.”
Managing out of existence?
More than 10,000 people follow a Facebook page dedicated to the Heber horses. Advocates use it to update supporters on the herd’s legal status — and to post photos of horses roaming and frolicking among the pines.
Hutchison’s May ride in support of the horses drew a handful of the herd’s fans. They rode down rocky trails in search of wild horses, ultimately finding a group passing through camp when they circled back.
A member of the Heber Herd grazes on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
Along the way they saw elk here and there. To the riders, the grass seemed plentiful, more than the animals in the forest could eat.
Hutchison rides an Appaloosa, his own blond hair pulled back and spilling over a blue kerchief from under a white cowboy hat. His Western shirt depicts mustangs galloping across his chest.
He moved to Arizona’s rim country in 1989 and at the time enjoyed elk hunting. He remembers rolling his motorcycle across Highway 260, coming across a wild horse and thinking, “What a magnificent animal.”
He became a horse guy, and eventually stopped hunting when he became obsessed with ensuring the herd’s survival about five years ago.
“Since I got into this,” he said, “I can’t come out here and take a life while I’m trying to save (another) one.”
He has little trust in the government or its land and animal policies. He scoffs at a federal program that restored Mexican gray wolves to Arizona, in part because he believes they threaten young horses.
He insists that the government ships excess wild horses from roundups to Mexico for slaughter and sale to European diners — a charge that would be illegal and that federal horse managers reject.
Some horses rounded up on the Navajo Reservation likely still go south to slaughter, Navajo officials acknowledge, because the tribe sells them without restrictions and is not bound by the same law. The reservation in places is overrun with horses that compete with sheep and may cause desertification. Officials routinely trap and sell small bands.
Federally managed horses trapped in roundups, though, are adopted out, no more than four to a customer, and must remain in the adopter’s care for at least a year. After that, adopters gain title and are free to sell to anyone including foreign slaughterhouses, though by then the expenses of the year would have made it unprofitable to do so.
Those that are not adopted — the vast majority from any given roundup — are sent to government corrals or leased grazing lands on the Great Plains, where they spend the rest of their lives at government expense.
Those that are at least 10 years old or are offered for adoption and rejected three times become available for sale, but buyers are also restricted to four per year unless they get written permission and submit to extra monitoring. The limits are designed to make it unprofitable to try buying mustangs and trucking them to international slaughter markets.
Hutchison doesn’t believe it, and he doesn’t believe land managers want any horses on the range.
“They want to manage them out of existence,” he said, sipping Southern Comfort in a folding camp chair by his fire the night after his ride among the mustangs.
“As long as I’m sitting in this chair I’m not going to let that happen.”
AVIS, Okla. — Dozens of mares cluster across a rippling prairie, munching on thick green grass between oaks and golden wildflower patches. Except for the fences, and the giant wind turbines twirling atop a distant Arbuckle Mountains ridge, it might seem a snapshot from centuries past when wild horse herds roamed the tall grass of the vast southern plains.
Instead, this rented pasture costs taxpayers $2.13 per day for each horse and is a final destination for hundreds of the 45,000 wild horses and burros that the U.S. government has pulled from the West’s mountains and deserts with nowhere else to go.
The Oklahoma pasture is one of at least two dozen private mid-continent farms where the government is paying to keep horses it doesn’t want running wild. Some of them will live in captivity for decades, aided by secure food and water that can double a wild horse’s life expectancy to about 30 years.
Roughly 31,000 of those captive horses live in leased pastures at an average cost around $2 a day, or a total of nearly $23 million a year. The rest live in corrals such as one where Arizona prison inmates train them in Florence. Corral care averages $5 a day per horse, or a total of nearly $26 million a year.
Until land managers can fight through political stalemates to either effectively control wild-horse births or expand mustang territory across more public lands, this is their solution.
John Jameson approaches a captive wild horse on his pasture in Davis, Okla. Over 45,000 once-wild horses live out their lives on pastures like his, at a lifetime cost of about $50,000 each.
The Great Plains are where once-wild horses go to live and die.
Dentist and businessman
“We are a retirement center,” said dentist and businessman John Jameson, who converted this grassland, his family’s one-time cattle ranch, into two fenced pastures so he could contract with the Bureau of Land Management to care for wild horses for about $14,000 a month.
Weaving his pickup around a 215-mare herd and applying one of his ostrich-skin boots to the brake, he noted that they had lost their wariness quickly after arriving in Oklahoma. They approached the truck looking for hay.
He proudly pointed to an Appaloosa’s belly, swollen from the lush grasses it likely would never or rarely encounter in its former wild range out West.
“They ain’t pregnant,” he assured.
That would be a near impossibility, as wranglers separate the sexes before sending mustangs to pasture.
“This is a noble activity that BLM does to provide for these animals,” Jameson said.
The praise is far from universal.
Wild horses graze on John Jameson’s ranch in Davis, Okla. Jameson contracts with the federal government to care for the horses, which were rounded up from Western rangelands.
… or sign of failure?
Long-term pasture rentals are “a symptom of the broken program” on the Western range, Nevada mustang advocate Laura Leigh said.
They are what government officials erroneously consider a “necessary evil” to manage mustangs, she said, when those officials created the problem by rounding up thousands of horses in the first place.
Nevada mustang advocate
“Kinda like a wife beater that blames his wife when she dies,” she said.
Leigh and many other horse advocates want the government to focus on birth control that could keep mustangs free while limiting environmental damage they may inflict through unchecked breeding.
It’s an approach that land managers are trying on a limited scale, but one they argue is not yet feasible across the 10 rugged states where mustangs roam. They’re counting on researchers to create longer-lasting contraception, and on the public eventually accepting some permanent sterilizations.
The entire federal wild horse and burro program costs about $80 million a year, but most of that goes into caring for horses that government helicopter contractors and wranglers have removed from the wild.
America’s horse owners once relieved much of the population pressure by adopting and training wild horses. Adoptions declined around the time of the Great Recession, though, and the few thousand per year that still occur don’t come close to keeping up with reproduction.
Horse trainer Darrell Gardner readies his horse for a Mustang Makeover competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Such competitions bring together owners of once-wild horses and people who might adopt a horse.
‘We’re horse savers’
Darrell Gardner is part of a small army of horse trainers trying to bump up the adoption numbers.
The 28-year-old from Amet, La., competed in the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Fort Worth, Texas, “Extreme Mustang Makeover” last fall. The event, with BLM support, is intended to show what expert trainers can do with a captured wild horse within 100 days, and to encourage onlookers to adopt.
Gardner trotted his student — T2, after a previous horse named Tex — into the Will Rogers Equestrian Center arena and showed off the animal’s ability to step over logs, swing around a post and hold still for gate openings and closings.
In this scene from “Running Wild,” horses gathered from the range are put into long term pastures.
These same tricks won Gardner the event with a different mustang in 2014, for which he split a $7,800 prize with the foundation.
Mustangs make quick learners because they’re savvy and adaptable from their time on the range. They rely on people the way they once did their herd, Gardner said. His technique begins with patience, with long hours spent in a corral until they become comfortable and approach him.
“You look at a transformation before your eyes and you know that, pretty much, you did it,” he said.
While in Fort Worth he perused a number of wild horses the BLM had trucked in for possible inclusion in another program the foundation pays him to join. He gets $800 for each horse he can train to the point that someone will adopt it.
He has trained 10 so far, and kept at it last summer even when a flood forced him from his home. He said he sees the work as a calling because the horses need homes.
“We’re horse savers,” he said.
Wild horses run down a chute while being unloaded at a Mustang Makeover event in Texas. Some of the horses were adopted; others were selected to be trained by Mustang Makeover participants.
Captive herds carry limits
At the corrals outside the Forth Worth arena, dozens of admirers said they were looking but not shopping for a stallion. Some already had adopted one and could afford no more.
The roundups keep coming, snaring hundreds and, in some years, thousands more animals than private adopters. For that reason, the agency is looking to contract with a handful of new Great Plains pasture owners for long-term care starting this year, 2017 off-range program spokeswoman Debbie Collins said.
“You can see they’re not sad,” Collins said during an autumn tour of Jameson’s 1,000-acre Oklahoma pasture. “You have some fantastic grass growing.”
BLM off-range program spokeswoman
The pastured mares, separated from stallions, arguably have easier lives than they had in the wild, she said. On the Western range, stallions breed many of the fertile mares every year without rest.
Stress-free as the pastured life can be, though, perpetually shunting more animals into captive herds is no solution to wild horse overpopulation.
“That’s not the answer, just like opening up every acre that we have in the West (to wild horses) isn’t the answer,” she said. There’s not enough water and forage for an unlimited wild population, she said, and not enough money for ever-expanding leases.
“At some point you’re going to hit that wall.”
Horses adapt to life on a pasture
On Jameson’s Oklahoma ranch, the influx of Western mustangs solves two problems.
Jameson always wanted to keep the family land in a natural state, perhaps as some kind of preserve for the quail, turkeys and deer that move between it and neighboring Chickasaw Tribe lands. Cattle ranching was a volatile business, though, and not one that his children were likely to take up.
The government contract for horse care ensures they can keep the land as is with predictable costs and income.
How one Arizona man is using wild horses to change lives in an Arizona prison.
The program also helps the horses, he said.
They want for nothing, and have learned to trot toward the sound of an air horn when it’s feeding time in winter.
The few deaths so far included one from old age, one from lightning and one from sharp sheet metal that a tornado sent twirling into its neck.
About the only stress most of them have suffered came from a helicopter that a neighbor used to spray weeds, he said, perhaps reminding them of a roundup in the West.
This arrangement seems to Jameson the most humane way to handle overpopulation.
“They know us and they know we support them,” he said.
“It’s a great way to solve it.”
NAQUI MOUNTAINS, Utah — The answer to America’s wild-horse problem may be somewhere in the ovary of a pig. Porcine zona pellucida — or PZP — is an ovarian protein that, when extracted from a pig and injected into other mammals, causes an immune response that blocks sperm from attaching to egg.
It works in horses, and since the 1990s, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and trained volunteers have darted or injected thousands of wild horses. They’re trying to cut into a population growth rate of up to one-fifth per year, with limited results so far.
The dart vaccine generally lasts through only one mating season, and officials say it is impractical if not impossible to stalk or capture half of the West’s wild mares each year to ensure zero population growth.
Jim Schnepel, who works with the Wild Horses of America Foundation, uses an air gun to deliver a dose of the fertility drug PZP to a horse in the Onaqui Herd in Utah. The process is slow and deliberate.
‘Another day of paparazzi’
Volunteer Jim Schnepel was out doing what he could about that with a CO2-powered dart gun in a dry mountain valley south of the Great Salt Lake.
He joined BLM wrangler Tami Howell in stalking the Onaqui Herd, a group of about 400 horses separated from Salt Lake City by two mountain ranges but still among the West’s most visited and virtually tame herds.
Schnepel shook a bottle of the clear pig protein solution and injected it into a dart cylinder with a needle on one end and a firing pin on the other to detonate and force the liquid out upon impact with the skin.
He and Howell circled horses on foot, looking to single out familiar mares that they had not already darted in the past year. Except for one stallion trying to herd his band away from the intruders, most of the 100 or so horses they closed in on took little notice.
“Just another day of paparazzi,” joked Schnepel, a mustang advocate who heads the Wild Horses of America Foundation.
It was a reference to this herd’s conditioning to day-tripping photographers from Salt Lake, whose constant approaches have made it one of the West’s easiest herds to sneak up on with a dart gun.
Having agreed on a target, Schnepel stalked to within 50 yards before the mare caught on and maneuvered behind a wall of other horses.
Ultimately Schnepel would have to change targets. With a new mare in range, he raised the thin metal tube to aim and tapped the trigger, releasing a burst from the canister at its back end.
The mare leapt as the dart hit her haunch, then trotted in a circle, stopped and resumed grazing.
Now came the hard part. The BLM doesn’t want darts lying around on public lands, so the shooter must continue stalking until the dart falls out of the animal, then retrieve it.
This process meant Schnepel and Howell would only have time to dart two horses that day — a typical quarry, they said.
Wild horses in the Onaqui Herd in western Utah are used to photographers and other people who come to see them, so they are easier to approach than horses in other herds. (David Wallace/The Republic)
Too few people working the herds
Other herds across the West are skittish and hide out in remote, rocky terrain where attempting to dart half the mares every year would present logistical and budgetary problems.
The BLM estimates the cost of darting each mare is $306, including $28 for the PZP dose and $278 for labor. Using a helicopter to gather and treat mares raises the cost to $2,670 per mare but enables faster work.
Laura Leigh, a Nevada advocate who photographs and also helps dart horses in her state, said cost is no excuse. Wary horses are susceptible to baiting with food and water, bringing them to within dart range, she said.
Nevada mustang advocate
Even without bait, she said, a strong effort to recruit volunteers could change the population trajectory.
“If I can hunt them down and shoot them with a camera I can shoot them with a dart,” she said.
The problem, Leigh contends, is that the government throws money at sterilization studies instead of at hiring or coordinating enough people to treat thousands of horses per year.
As a result, the BLM is darting only hundreds.
“It’s like giving one girl at the senior prom birth control,” she said.
Finding the right approach
Utah’s Cedar Mountains Herd has proven far harder than the Onaquis to treat with birth control.
In this scene from “Running Wild,” volunteers dart wild horses with fertility drugs in the hope of slowing the herd’s population growth.
There, in the rugged juniper hills farther from the city, the horses shy away from people.
The BLM successfully teamed with the Humane Society of the United States to gather 120 Cedar mares with a helicopter-driven roundup in 2012, said Gus Warr, head of the agency’s Utah wild horse program. They hand-treated those mares with time-released doses of PZP, which often last longer than the dartable form and can prevent pregnancy for up to two years.
The idea was to hike back into the mountains in the third year and dart those mares for a booster.
“They could not dart a single mare because they were too flighty,” Warr said.
The Cedar Mountains Herd numbered about 400 before the successful roundup in 2012. That number was close to the agency’s management goal for the area.
By last fall the herd grew to nearly 1,000.
The Bureau of Land Management says that a band of wild horses, left to reproduce without interference, will double in size every four years.
Slowing the freight train
University of Toledo endocrinologist John Turner is working on improved PZP applications that he said the BLM could use to get extra years of birth control.
He and Tufts University colleague Allen Rutberg have found that a treatment with a two-year dose called PZP-22 followed by retreatment in the third year limits mares to one or two births in a seven-year period.
If those numbers bear out across the wild population, it could enable the agency to achieve its goal of 50 percent coverage and zero population growth in some herds, he said.
University of Toledo endocrinologist
He and another colleague previously helped the National Park Service do just that on Assateague Island National Seashore, an East Coast park that confines a wild horse herd that’s now under control.
“The question is, can you do that in every population?” he said. “I would doubt it. Some of the populations are more difficult than others.”
Still, he added, “It is worth trying.”
Leigh, the Nevada horse advocate and dart volunteer, said increasing the treatments offers the most humane and effective solution to overpopulation.
“I really believe fertility control is the answer,” she said. “It slows down the freight train.
“The freight train is going off the track. We need to stop it.”
merica’s wild horses and burros wildly outnumber what federal land managers say is healthy for the range, and their herds grow every year. Some mustang enthusiasts question the government’s ideal herd numbers, while others say there’s room to grow if managers stop favoring cattle or expand territories where horses can roam.
The Bureau of Land Management, though, says a healthy population spread across 10 Western states would be roughly 27,000, far fewer than the 55,000 horses and 12,000 burros its census estimated before last spring’s foaling season. That census represented a 15 percent gain in a single year.
How can America maintain free-roaming horses and burros without trampling the wildlife habitat, grazing rights, recreation and other uses that people expect on their public lands?
Following is an examination of some of the things that managers are trying, and other ideas that could work in combination to keep the animals in check but still free. Each has significant costs or other limitations.
Tami Howell, who works for the Bureau of Land Management, readies a dart with the contraceptive drug PZP, a dose intended for horses in the Onaqui Herd in western Utah.
A form of birth control called PZP can keep mares from getting pregnant for a year; one form that generally requires capture for application of a time-released dose can last two years. Researchers are trying to perfect longer-lasting vaccines/birth control, with results suggesting a couple of applications can prevent most pregnancies over five years.
Trouble is, wild horses are wild.
Some herds are readily approachable and easy to dart, while others are skittish and live in rugged country. The BLM estimates it costs more than $300 to dart each mare, and using the helicopters that might be required to round up and treat some of the warier herds pushes that cost above $2,000 an animal.
The National Park Service has used PZP effectively to achieve a sort of equilibrium in the horse population on its East Coast reserve of Assateague Island. But doing so requires regular treatment of half of the island’s mares. Replicating this success across the West would require, at minimum, a new investment of millions of dollars every year. Depending on how the horses cooperate, the cost for treating thousands could easily climb to the tens of millions.
Currently the BLM is treating fewer than 500 horses a year in the West.
Some advocates, including Utahn/Utah resident Jim Schnepel of the Wild Horses of American Foundation, undergo training so they can volunteer to help dart horses. With thousands of Americans professing love for the creatures, he said, the volunteer program could bulk up to aid the BLM’s quest.
“I don’t think it’s been tried to its full extent,” he said.
Spay or neuter them
BLM officials thought they were closing in on an important solution when they contracted Oregon State University to remove the ovaries from wild horses in a pilot project that could have demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of this permanent sterilization. Horse advocates sued, though, and the agency canceled the program last fall.
John Turner, a University of Toledo zoologist working on better birth control for horses, said fears of the government using sterilization to eliminate herds are overblown. It’s unlikely that the government would or even could trap and treat enough horses to achieve that, he said.
University of Toledo endocrinologist
“It’s only realistic to recognize that there’s a place for sterilization somewhere in the BLM program, somewhere down the line,” he said. “How that’s accomplished is another matter.”
Suzanne Roy of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign said surgical ovary removals would be dangerous and likely would require up to a week of observation to be sure the mares didn’t hemorrhage.
Instead, she said, the BLM should consider evidence that its own culling efforts are increasing the mustangs’ fertility by reducing populations below what the land can sustain. Healthy, well-fed and well-watered horses have more babies, reinforcing the agency’s futility, she said.
“They’re basically creating their own reality,” Roy said.
The agency has not entirely abandoned sterilization. It is studying the behavioral effects of neutering some stallions and returning them to the range.
Horses from the Conger Herd in west-central Utah run from a helicopter during a roundup in 2016. The government conducts roundups like this several times a year in an attempt to control the wild horse population.
Round them up
This is what the government has traditionally done, but it’s getting expensive.
A country that once adopted 10,000 or more wild horses in any given year now adopts a third or less that number, often leaving thousands removed from the public range but without private homes.
Currently the BLM is housing more than 45,000 animals in corrals or on leased pastures in the Great Plains states. Each animal in government care costs about $50,000 over its lifetime.
At that cost, rounding up and caring for the 40,000 or so horses and burros the agency believes are exceeding the public range’s capacity would cost $2 billion — and that wouldn’t even keep the remaining 27,000 or so from breeding their way back to the current levels.
The BLM plans to add new leased farms to the program this year to handle more roundups, but officials say they need other options.
A wild horse rears up on the rangeland outside Reno, Nev. Horses compete for food and water with livestock on public land grazing leases in this part of Nevada.
Leave them alone
A common wish among horse lovers is for the government to simply stop rounding up horses or attempting to contain them on certain corners of the public range. Left to themselves, some advocates insist, the horses will reach their appropriate numbers and then “self-regulate” as deaths and births come into balance.
“Are they really overpopulated?” said Craig Downer, a Nevada naturalist who published a book called “The Wild Horse Conspiracy” and argues ranchers and other industries persecute horses against the public will.
Craig Downer, a Nevada naturalist who published a book called “The Wild Horse Conspiracy”, watches a band of Nevada wild horses in the Pine Nut Mountains. “There’s people that just look at these horses as domesticated animals, end of story,” Downer said. “That’s a tremendous injustice to these ancient, ancient presences.”
“They’re not even filling their niche yet,” he said.
Sitting among the brush and wildflowers of the Pine Nut Mountain foothills near Carson City last spring, Downer scoped the hillsides for a herd that the BLM claims is pushing the range’s capacity with about 200 animals.
In this scene from “Running Wild,” a baby horse orphaned days before adjusts to her new life off the range.
In Downer’s opinion, that’s not even enough horses to guarantee long-term survival. They need to number at least 1,000 to be safe in the 90,000-acre management area, he said.
He pointed to tall grasses and pink phlox on the hillside as evidence that the horses aren’t harming anything. They may even help, he contends, by adding fertilizer from their droppings.
Horses originally evolved in the West and should be allowed to return and play an ecological role, he said.
Wild Horses of America Foundation
“There’s people that just look at these horses as domesticated animals, end of story,” Downer said. “That’s a tremendous injustice to these ancient, ancient presences.”
Because horses disappeared from the continent thousands of years ago, though, the BLM considers them non-native. The agency also frequently has to step in to save drought-stricken animals.
BLM horse wranglers in northern Utah had hoped to spend much of last year darting mares with birth control. Instead, they spent most of the summer hauling water to horses in the Cedar Mountains southwest of the Great Salt Lake.
That single rescue operation lately has cost the agency $25,000 or more per year.
The idea of letting horse numbers grow to until they naturally self-regulate is not universally accepted even among horse advocates.
“Self-regulation usually means starving,” or dying of thirst, Schnepel said. “We don’t’ have any predators out here besides man.”
A foal drinks milk from its mother on the rangeland outside Reno, Nev.
All of the above
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., thinks the time is right to push for enough federal funds to handle the West’s need for better, humane horse management. Within Arizona, he said, the bipartisan effort that kept the Forest Service from eliminating the Salt River wild horses demonstrates a broad support for the animals.
Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., both intervened to protect the herd in 2015.
Land managers need adequate birth-control options for horses, and they need more federal lands dedicated to preserving horses, Grijalva said. Horse adoptions have declined by thousands per year in the last decade, and can’t halt the population explosion, he said.
“I’ve always seen it as a resource issue more than anything else,” Grijalva said. He expects to introduce legislation that would give managers more funds and options.
“Its time has come because the population on the ground is driving this to (be) a bipartisan issue,” he said.