06 September 2010


This is one of those issues which tears at your heart, and has no simple solution. In the unpopulated stretches of the American West, wild horses have roamed freely since the time of the Spanish conquistadores, starting in the early 1500s. Equine escapees from Spanish, Mexican and later American herds were the progenitors of today's mustangs. The animals are technically feral rather than wild, since their ancestors were domesticated. It was the capture and taming of mustangs which transformed the plains Indian tribes from walking wanderers to the most splendid light cavalry the world has ever known.

A NYTimes article describes the mustangs' fate in recent years (be sure to watch the video embedded in the article). As the West was increasingly settled by the flood of American invaders from the east, railroads, ranches, roads and towns combined to diminish the area of wilderness available to free-ranging mustang herds. Their numbers dwindled, both from loss of habitat and from capture or predation by human hunters. In 1971 the Wild Free-roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed, protecting dwindling herds from being rounded up for sport or profit. In the years since, mustang numbers have blossomed, to the point where ranchers and BLM officials felt it necessary to periodically cull the herds, limiting the population size. Ostensibly mustang roundups were conducted so that their numbers would not outpace the capacity of the land to support both mustangs and other, co-existing wild herbivores. But it is also true that large portions of Federal land (our land) are leased at bargain-basement prices to ranchers as grazing allotments. The ranchers' cattle, of course, can be sold for profit, with no benefit to taxpayers. When numbers of mustangs are perceived to interfere with that profit, there is no question or hesitation about which presence is more important. For ranchers, it is their cattle. For wild horse advocates, it is the mustangs.

The roundups are conducted not from horseback, as they were traditionally, but using helicopters to haze the animals in the direction of a fence funnel leading them into a holding corral. Wild horse advocates contend that the process is cruel, pushing both adult horses and their young at full speed to the point of exhaustion, injury or death. Those who conduct and advocate the roundups insist that they are conducted as humanely and efficiently as possible.

Once captured, some mustangs are put up for adoption, but there aren't nearly enough people willing or able to adopt so many detainees. The remaining horses are sent to private ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma for stockpiling -- their upkeep is again paid for by taxpayers. It is ostensibly illegal to sell wild horses for slaughter. This writer is skeptical. Here is another viewpoint, that of the American Mustang Foundation.

As I said at the top, there are no easy answers. Even if cattle were not present on public lands (a situation I would dearly love to see), it is likely that eventually mustang herds would grow beyond the carrying capacity of their habitat. Humans have so effectively contained or eliminated their natural predators (mountain lions, wolves, grizzley bears), and mustangs are so swift and hardy to begin with, that some sort of population management is inevitable to prevent mass starvation. One possible solution is birth control -- using dart guns to inoculate selected mares with infertility drugs. Another, and more controversial, solution is to allow natural predators to flourish in mustang habitat. I'm all for natural predators as a matter of principle, but I doubt that they could keep up with the mustangs' breeding rate.

It is a touchy and polarizing situation. The lives of 40,000 mustangs hang in the balance.

An aside -- many years ago I was privileged to see a locally legendary mustang herd for myself. I was on a three-day solo hike into the Tortolita Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona, the rumored home of the herd. On the second day of my sojourn (amid canyons and a central flatland positively teeming with rattlesnakes), I took a short walk up a side-canyon. On my way back to my tiny camp, I sensed that I was being watched. I eased to a stop, looked up over my left shoulder, and there on a ledge halfway up the mountain slope, was a group of fifteen or twenty horses, staring at me intently. We watched each other for a few minutes, then I lowered my eyes and slowly resumed my path campward, so as not to spook them.

What a thrill !! It is possible that they were part of some rancher's herd, but I doubt it. Not that many horses. The romantic in me will always believe that these were mustangs and that for a few minutes beneath the roasting desert sun, we regarded each other as fellow travelers on this shared planet of ours.

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