Listen to KNPR’s panel discussion here.
Whether you view them as nuisance farm animals or as a symbol of freedom in the West, wild horses roam among us.
But drought and shrinking resources threaten the survival of these wild horses, especially in Nevada, which holds the largest mustang populations of any state.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act passed by Congress in 1971 mandates that the wild horse populations be managed and protected.
The federal agency responsible for managing most of the mustangs, is the very one that has been embattled with state’s rights advocates since the dawn of the century.
The Bureau of Land Management manages more than 34,000 wild horses and burros in the state, which, they say, is almost three times as much as the land can actually support.
Which is why they conduct roundups, adoptions and employ other strategies to try and control population numbers.
These strategies strike a political chord among horse advocates and ranchers, who believe in strikingly different approaches to how the horses should be managed.
The BLM declined to be interviewed for this panel.
To understand what may lie ahead for the horses, Leisl Carr Childers, a historian who specializes in the American West, weighs in on where exactly the horses came from. Some say they originate back into the millenia with ancient species, some date the horses to the second landing of Columbus, while some just see them as escaped farm animals.
“As a historian and not a scientist, I think it’s all those things, Carr Childers said. “All of those populations have sort of co-mingled to form the hers we have today, and I don’t think you can necessarily point to one point of origin.”
While there remains disagreement over the horse’s history, there’s also the issue of classification, as they are not classically livestock, nor are they wildlife.
“The 1971 law designed to protect them, classifies them as a national heritage species, and no other animal that I know of has that particular classification,” Carr Childers explains. “What that means, we’re still unclear on.”
Nonetheless, there exists a particular fascination and affinity in the hearts of Americans toward the wild horse.
“Horses really stand in for a lot of the way we think and feel about open space,” Carr Childers explains. “They need a lot of territory to roam, and seeing them out in the distance with their manes flowing in the wind – this is a very romantic view that we have both of horses and the space they occupy, which is largely the American West.”
This fascination is what leads to much disagreement over how the horses should be managed. Much of the BLM’s wild horse and burro program is focused on roundups, and adoption events to try and control herds interfering with range land and other environmental needs.
“No matter how many horses [the BLM] roundup, it’s not enough for the ranchers who want them all gone, and no matter how much management they try to enact, the wild horse advocates think it’s too much, so they can’t win,” said George Knapp, an investigative reporter with KLAS channel 8.
Knapp has reported on wild horse issues in Nevada for more than two decades.
“As a result, the BLM has locked into one policy and one policy only and that is round them up and get them off the range,” Knapp said. “And that is not what the American people want.”
Laura Leigh, the president of Wild Horse Education, was part of court litigation that, in 2015, resulted in a humane handling policy for roundups.
“Change is possible, it just takes a lot of effort,” Leigh said. “When we talk about issues of forage in the most arid state in the nation, we need to look at the federal grazing program as a whole and recognize that horses are a minor portion of that.”
Leigh tries to educate about horse management policies, including temporary fertility control, which is also controversial among wild horse advocates and the BLM.
The BLM in Nevada, Leigh said, has not used fertility control in the way it is intended.
Nevertheless, the future of the wild horses in the state remains unsteady. With budgetary cuts on the potential horizon under the Trump administration, environmental agencies will have some tough choices to make.
“This is a terrifying time for wild horses,” Leigh said.
Secretary of the Department of the Interior Ryan Zinke supported measures for horse slaughter when he was a Montana Congressman.
“Those of us who live here in the west should be really concerned because basically the policy sounds like it’s going to be ‘drill baby drill,’ ‘mine baby mine’ and I don’t think the wild horses are going to fare all that well,” Knapp said.