Wild Horse Wars
The decades-long quest to save wild horses has run amok, creating a problem that even swooping helicopters, aging cowboys, camera-savvy activists, and millions of dollars can’t solve.
America has been fighting a war over wild horses since 1971, when Congress passed a landmark law protecting animals it called “living symbols of the historic and pioneer sprit of the West.”
The measure promised to end the widespread harassment and slaughter of mustangs and assure them a secure place on America’s public lands. But that’s not how things turned out.
What’s happened to the horses it saved?
“I think this whole thing is a train wreck that is maybe months away from coming off the rails,” said David Philipps, a reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette, who has covered the subject extensively.
Wild horses descended from animals brought to North America by Spanish conquistadors. At the turn of the century, vast herds roamed the West—as many as a million by one estimate. But by 1970, that population had fallen to less than 18,000 — victim of a pet food industry hungry for cheap meat. And that outraged the public.
“The mustang, maybe more than any other animal in America, is a symbol,” said Philipps. “It means freedom, it means defiance. It means scrappy but noble. In a sense, it means us, right? It is the American. And to have something that we hold in such esteem, at the same time – not only abused, but turned into dog food – it was just something people could not deal with in their minds.”
In some ways, the spark behind the 1971 federal law to protect wild horses was Greg Gude, who was 11 years old then.
“Knowing that animals were being hunted down, slaughtered, butchered and sold as pet food just really burned me up,” he told Retro Report.
Gude lived in Maryland but discovered the plight of the mustang in the pages of an illustrated children’s book by Marguerite Higgins, “Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West.” Its main character was based on a tenacious real-life activist in Nevada named Velma Johnston, who went by the nickname Wild Horse Annie.
She had been fighting for the protection of wild horses for decades but, in the early 1970s, she enlisted children in a national letter-writing campaign that flooded Congress.
But Gude didn’t need to write letters. His father, Gilbert Gude, held one of Maryland’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I lived with my Congressman,” Gude said. “I could lobby at the dinner table.”
He did – and made the evening news.
“An 11-year-old boy persuaded his father, a Congressman, to introduce a bill to protect wild horses and burros on the western plains,” CBS’s Walter Cronkite reported at the time. “Then the boy, Greg Gude, of Maryland, appeared today to testify at the opening of House hearings on the legislation.”
President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law in December of 1971, making it a federal crime to kill mustangs on public lands. This largely halted the commercial capture and slaughter of wild horses roaming federal rangelands.
But it wasn’t long before mustangs were making news again.
“There has been, according to the Interior Department, a wild horse population explosion all over the west,” Fred Briggs reported in 1974 on NBC.
The rising horse population drew criticism from ranchers paying to graze sheep and cows on public lands. The cattlemen said unchecked mustangs were damaging the range, eating grass that ought to be feeding domestic stock.
“As soon as the law passed, there were essentially more horses than the government knew what to do with.” Phillips said. “There’s only a certain amount of grass out there, especially in the West, and most of it’s already spoken for.”
For the past three decades, wherever the Bureau of Land Management decides horses are too numerous on the range, it sends in the helicopters. Like flying sheepdogs, the aircraft chase bands of horses out of the hills, herding them into funnel-shaped corrals. Whether the round-ups happen in the heat or in the snow, they end when cowboys on the ground release what’s called a Judas horse – a domestic animal trained to lead its wild disciples into captivity.
Wild horse advocates like filmmaker Ginger Kathrens monitor the roundups from the sidelines, watching for cruelty to horses. Kathrens doesn’t want to see helicopters chase mustangs at all. Before a recent roundup in Utah, she confronted the Bureau of Land Management directly.
“We want to go on record as saying that we don’t think that this roundup ought to start today,” Katherns told the agency’s incident commander. “We think it’s too dangerous, too cold and too risky.”
“Helicopter roundups are incredibly stressful on the animals,” she told Retro Report later in an interview. “If you’re wondering why our public lands are overgrazed or degraded, you need to look at the millions of head of livestock, cattle and sheep, that are permitted to graze out here.”
On the other side, ranchers stake their own claim to America’s Western past.
“There are people that think the wild horse is a symbol of the American West,” Utah rancher Bob Garrett told Retro Report. “I think every rancher will tell you that we’re riding the horses that built the American West.”
Garrett says activists have browbeaten the BLM into culling too few mustangs.
“I have a place in my heart for the wild horse,” Garrett said. “But there would be a lot of us out of business if we didn’t have public lands to graze on.”
“If you talk to the advocates, spend some time at a round up with them, eventually they’ll talk about how the BLM is in the pocket of big ranchers,” Philipps said. “And if you talk to the ranchers, if you spend any time at their ranches, they will talk to you about how the government, the BLM, is in the pocket of the advocates.”
At the end of a roundup Retro Report observed in February 2013, the BLM treated a few dozen mares with a birth-control drug and let them go. It also took another 160 horses off the range for good. Those animals joined the more than 7,000 mustangs removed from federal rangelands last year. But that raises a big question: what is the government supposed to do with all these horses?
While the goal is to find the horses permanent, adopted homes, periodic exposés over the years have revealed the animals sometimes met a different fate.
“The BLM sort of binges and purges when it comes to horses,” Philipps said. “They’ll ignore the problem of overpopulation until it gets really bad and they they’ll do something they regret. And so in the 80s they sold a bunch of horses to people that then slaughtered them. And then in the 90s they started doing the same thing again, sort of, but quietly.”
The BLM insists it does not knowingly sell horses to so-called kill buyers. And today fewer adoptions, and a growing number of horses have given rise to what may be the biggest unintended consequence of the 1971 law:
“The Bureau of Land Management is probably the largest horse owner in the United States,” said Gus Warr, the agency’s wild horse program manager in Utah. “Maybe the world.”
There are nearly 50,000 formerly wild horses and burros living in corrals and long-term holding pastures in the Midwest. They’re eating grass on the government dole. The BLM spends $43 million a year to board these captured animals. Five years ago, the Government Accountability Office warned that the ballooning holding costs will overwhelm the program.
“I mean we’re talking, you know, 40, 50, 60 percent of our budget is going to just holding and caring of animals,” Warr said.
Today, more American mustangs live in government pens or pastures than are estimated to live in the wild.
“We’re full up. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nowhere to go with them,” Warr said. “I really don’t know what to say other than it’s not sustainable.”
An independent scientific review recently found that the BLM’s current program is not controlling the population. The study recommended wider use of birth-control drugs but acknowledged there’s no easy way forward.
“It’s a problem – and not an easy way one to solve,” said Gude.
“They really made a mess of it,” said Garrett, the rancher. “Are they wild horses when they are in captivity?”
“It’s awful,” said Kathrens, the horse advocate. “We have to manage wild horses on the range.”
“I don’t think anybody likes it, but nobody can find a way out of it” Philipps said. “The law really did save the wild horse. The question is, what do we do with the horses we saved?”