NARRATION: Today, in parts of the country where herds of wild horses still roam, there is a curious yearly ritual. Anywhere the Bureau of Land Management decides wild horses are overpopulating public lands, it sends in the helicopters. Like flying sheepdogs, the aircraft chase bands of horses out of the hills, herding them, coaxing them, scaring them into a funnel-shaped corral. Whether the round-ups happen in the heat or in the snow, they follow the same pattern. And they end when cowboys on the ground release whats called a Judas horse a domestic animal trained to lead its wild disciples into captivity. Watching the drama from the sidelines are contenders in a high plains standoff.
GINGER KATHRENS: If was just a little bit warmer
NARRATION: Wild horse advocates like filmmaker Ginger Kathrens are against the culling of the herds.
CHAD HUNTER: It doesnt happen very often, but on occasion a horse might come in, might slip on the ice
NARRATION: Sometimes she confronts the BLM directly.
GINGER KATHRENS: We want to go on record as saying that we dont think that this roundup ought to start today. We think its too dangerous, too cold, and too risky.
GINGER KATHRENS (WILD HORSE ADVOCATE): Helicopter roundups are incredibly stressful on the animals. Foals will sometimes literally have their hooves fall off their feet.
NARRATION: On the other side, ranchers paying to graze sheep and cows on public lands. They say unchecked mustangs are damaging the range, eating grass that ought to be feeding domestic stock.
BOB GARRETT (RANCHER): I have a place in my heart for the wild horse. But there would be a lot of us out of business if we didnt have public lands to graze on.
NARRATION: So how did the situation get so tense that the federal government is sending in herders in helicopters to mediate the standoff? Its a classic tale of unintended consequences.
In 1970, the wild horse population had fallen from approximately a million at the turn of the century to less than 18,000 victim of a pet food industry hungry for cheap meat.
ARCHIVAL (THE MISFITS, 1961):CLARK GABLE: Get that horse!
NARRATION: The 1961 movie The Misfits dramatized the brutality of capturing wild horses, a practice which enraged a growing number of animal-lovers.
ARCHIVAL (THE MISFITS, 1961):MARILYN MONROE: Killers! Murderers!
DAVE PHILIPPS (NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES): The mustang, maybe more than any other animal in America, is a symbol. 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, was just something people could not deal with in their minds.
GREG GUDE: Knowing that animals were being hunted down, slaughtered, butchered and sold as pet food just really burned me up.
NARRATION: Greg Gude was a young boy when he discovered the plight of the mustang in the pages of an illustrated childrens book. Its main character was a tenacious Nevada activist with a catchy nickname.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS):REPORTER: Velma Johnston has fought for the protection of these animals all her life and she is known as Wild Horse Annie.
NARRATION: Wild Horse Annie enlisted school children in a national letter-writing campaign. By some accounts, they flooded Congress that year with a volume of letters second only to mail received about the Vietnam War. But Greg Gude didnt need to write letters. His father, Gilbert Gude, held one of Marylands seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
GREG GUDE: I lived with my Congressman. I could lobby at the dinner table. I think it probably took a hunger strike.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 4-19-71):WALTER CRONKITE: An 11-year-old boy persuaded his father, a Congressman, to introduce a bill to protect wild horses and burros on the western plains. Then the boy, Greg Gude, of Maryland, appeared today to testify.
NARRATION: And so, a few months later, in December of 1971, the wild horses were saved.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-17-71):ANCHOR: Today President Nixon signed a bill to make killing them a federal crime.
NARRATION: This largely halted the commercial capture and slaughter of wild horses roaming the west. But it wasnt long before mustangs were making news again.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-21-76):ANCHOR: It may surprise you to hear theres a surplus of wild horses in what was once the Wild West.
DAVE PHILIPPS: As soon as the law passed, there were essentially more horses than the government knew what to do with. Theres only a certain amount of grass out there, especially in the West, and most of its already spoken for.
NARRATION: Ranchers who rely on public lands for their livestock say whats at stake is their claim on the American West.
BOB GARRETT: I roped my first wild horse when I was 11. That was in 1952. There are people that think the wild horse is a symbol of the American West. I think every rancher will tell you that were riding the horses that built the American West.
NARRATION: Garrett says activists have browbeaten the BLM into culling too few mustangs. Horse activists like Ginger Kathrens see it differently.
GINGER KATHRENS: If youre 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.
DAVE PHILIPPS: If you talk to advocates, spend some time at a round up with them, eventually theyll talk about how the BLM is in the pocket of big ranchers. 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.
NARRATION: The BLM removes approximately 4,000 horses a year, hoping to find them permanent homes. But periodic exposes over the years reveal that the animals sometimes met a different fate.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 1997):ROGER ONEIL: NBC News has been told by just about everyone we talked with, a large number of BLM horses likely end up slaughtered.
DAVE PHILIPPS: The BLM sort of binges and purges when it comes to horses. Theyll ignore the problem of overpopulation until it gets really bad and then theyll 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. They would sort of do a dont ask, dont tell type of thing where were going to sell you the horses, dont slaughter them, were just never going to check.
NARRATION: The BLM insists it does not knowingly sell horses to so-called kill buyers. And today, the growing number of horses and fewer people willing to adopt them have given rise to what may be the biggest unintended consequence of the 1971 law.
GUS WARR (BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT): The Bureau of land management is probably the largest horse owner in the continental United States. Maybe the world.
NARRATION: There are more than 46,000 formerly wild horses and burros living in corrals and long-term holding pastures in the Midwest, eating grass on the government dole.
The BLM spends almost $50 million a year to board these captured animals. The Government Accountability Office has warned the ballooning holding costs will overwhelm the program.
GUS WARR: I mean were talking, 40, 50, 60 percent of our budget is going to just holding and caring of animals. Were full up. Theres nowhere to go. Theres nowhere to go with them. I really dont know what to say other than its not sustainable.
NARRATION: The BLM estimates the number of wild horses on federal rangelands could soon exceed 100,000. Drastic measures, like euthanasia, provoke a strong public outcry. So the agency treats some horses with birth control and recently added a new program offering up to a $1,000 to anyone who adopts a wild horse.
DAVE PHILIPPS: Its unclear whats going to happen when they no longer have the money to expand the system. Do they leave horses on the range and get sued? Do they sell horses to the market and have them slaughtered? Do they euthanize them in some massive crazy process and just bury them in a big pit? Seriously, when they run out of money, what happens?
GREG GUDE: Its a problem and not an easy one to solve.
BOB GARRETT: They really made a mess of it. Are they wild horses when they are in captivity?
GINGER KATHRENS: Its awful. We have to manage wild horses on the range.
DAVE PHILIPPS: I dont think anybody likes it, but nobody can find a way out of it. The law really did save the wild horse. The question is, what do we do with the horses we saved?