The last of the wild horses
With 30,000 in captivity awaiting possible euthanasia, the future of the mustang looks bleak
If the freeze brand along his neckline were hidden by his long, flowing black mane, nobody would ever know that Artista, a handsome little bay horse with a pretty head and kind eyes, was a mustang rounded up last fall from the wilds of Nevada.
Ridden less than a dozen times, yet showing an intelligence many believe is inherent of the West’s wild horses, Artista displayed a trust in his new human companion, Robert Carlson, at a modest training facility in Red Bluff earlier this week. Amazingly, trainer and wild horse have gotten acquainted to the point where the animal appeared relatively calm as he was asked to walk, trot and lope in small circles.
After Carlson dropped the reins, the 4-year-old gelding followed his owner around the large, sandy arena as if he were a dog.
“When they bond with you, they really bond with you, a lot more than a domesticated horse,” Carlson said while scratching Artista’s face and neck.
Picked up from the National Wild Horse and Burro Center in Nevada’s Palomino Valley just seven weeks ago, Artista is part of a joint program of the Bureau of Land Management and the Mustang Heritage Foundation in which approved trainers have 100 days to gentle their mounts for a competition worth $50,000.
But the stakes are much higher for America’s iconic wild horses.
BLM is charged with overseeing the herds roaming 10 western states from Montana to California, including rounding up and finding homes for thousands of animals when their numbers grow unsustainable. With the economy in a slump, interest in adoptions has waned significantly, and the federal agency is now considering euthanasia as an option to controlling the population.
In years past, John Neill, who runs the BLM’s short-term holding facility near Sparks, Nev., said the public would adopt anywhere from 7,000 to 8,000 horses annually. This fiscal year, which ends in October, the agency has found homes for fewer than 3,000 horses. A stagnant adoption program has resulted in a glut of wild horses now living in captivity, in holding pens such as those found at the Palomino Valley facility and in long-term facilities in Oklahoma, Kansas and South Dakota.
Having recently completed three roundups in Nevada, the state with the most wild horses, Neill estimates the total number of captive mustangs at more than 30,000. The figure is staggering, especially considering the agency estimates about 33,000 are left in the wild. BLM will spend a majority of its annual budget—about $26 million of the $37 million—caring for the animals.
BLM proposed destroying horses in June during a meeting of the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, and officials, including Neill, note that the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act allows the agency to dispose of “excess” horses. The method of death outlined in BLM’s own policy is a firearm, meaning “euthanasia” is a loose term for a bullet.
“It clearly states in the law that we are authorized to euthanize excess healthy animals which there’s no adoption demand for,” Neill said. “We’ve always chosen not to go down that road.”
Another option on the table, Neill acknowledged, is selling the horses “without limitation,” meaning the animals could be sold for slaughter. Both considerations have stirred the ire of animal advocates who say BLM is trying to eliminate the entire population.
“Two or three years ago, if you said BLM is managing to the point of extinction, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Ginger Kathrens, “but it’s very clear to me now.”
Kathrens volunteers as the executive director of The Cloud Foundation, a Colorado-based nonprofit wild horse preservation organization. She’s also an award-winning documentary filmmaker who for 14 years has been filming mustangs of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, including the life of Cloud, a pale palomino stallion born about a year after she first set to work on a special called Year of the Mustang for the PBS series Wild America.
The horses on the Pryor range near the Arrowhead Mountains of Montana and Wyoming are magnificent animals, descendants of horses brought to America by the Spanish conquistadors. By chronicling Cloud’s journey from a days-old colt to leader of his own band, Kathrens has put a face to the plight of the West’s last wild horses.
Kathrens is extremely critical of the BLM, charging that the agency is looking out for the interests of cattlemen, whose animals compete with the mustangs for forage and water on the public lands.
In the past eight years, more than 75,000 horses have been removed from 19 million acres of rangeland while millions of cattle roam the regions at a charge to their owners, mostly corporations, of less than $2 per month per cow and calf, Kathrens said. Since there’s no cheaper way to feed livestock, she calls the arrangement “welfare ranching.”
BLM contends the roundups are for the welfare of the horses, which officials maintain would starve if left alone, and for the health of the environment. Neill notes the agency’s mission is to ensure healthy rangelands and ecological balance.
“Too much of one thing can destroy natural habitat,” he said, “and natural habitat can take years to come back.”
Mustang activists don’t buy that. While BLM is mandated to keep numbers consistent with sizes sustainable for their designated herd areas, Kathrens said the regions are not representative of the animals’ real range. The agency needs a complete overhaul, she insists, and in hindsight, probably shouldn’t have been charged with caring for the animals in the first place.
In her mind, the solution to BLM’s captive catastrophe is simple: Let the 30,000 horses in holding go free.
“They wouldn’t make a dent in those 19 million acres,” she said.
Neill couldn’t reveal a timeline for a decision about euthanasia, but called the fate of the horses a high priority. BLM is taking public comment at this time and discussing its options internally, prior to a management report of the General Accountability Office.
Meanwhile, the federal agency is attempting to breathe life into its lethargic adoption program through contests such as the one Carlson and Artista have entered. Back in Red Bluff, the two are preparing their debut in the Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Will Rogers Equestrian Center in Forth Worth, Texas, in September.
The pair will be competing against 199 other mustangs and trainers during several classes designed to showcase the animals’ versatility, beauty and sound mind.
Carlson is already a fan of the breed, having previously trained about 10 of them. But there’s something pretty special about Artista, which is why he’s planning to buy him at the end of the competition when all of the mustangs are auctioned off to the highest bidder.
As Carlson rode him around the arena, his girlfriend, Madeleine LeClerc, also a horse trainer, looked on as Artista nonchalantly trotted over a jump. She said the couple are planning to head to Europe in the near future to conduct riding clinics and if they can afford the mustang at auction they’d like to take him along.
“But we’re not going to hold him back to keep him,” she said. “If somebody else buys him, they’re going to have a heck of a horse.”