Wild Horses of the West - KUED Productions | KUED.org

At 4,500 feet, the winter months bring frost, snow, and wind to the Great Basin Desert. It is the largest desert in the United States, covering 190,000 square miles and four states. The road to the gold rush in California passed through the Great Basin. Promontory Point, where the transcontinental railroad was joined, lies within its boundaries. While the desert may not have the splendor of the Saguaro cactus of the Sonora or the red rock monoliths of the Colorado Plateau, it is emblematic of the west - both old and new.

An iconic symbol of the American West is the wild horse. "Horses are native to North America," says Jay Kirkpatrick, senior scientist for the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana. "They originated in North America…evolved here, disappeared for reasons we're not totally sure of…then the Spanish brought them back home." For some of these wild horses, home is in the west desert. It is idyllic, pastoral even, to think of wild horses roaming this wildest of ranges. If only it were that simple.

Fifty miles from Delta, Utah, Fred Tolbert's pickup bounces along a dirt road. Tolbert, a cattle rancher in the west desert, leases Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated land in the Great Basin Desert. He has been working cattle for years and, like all people whose work is tied to the land, he has an on-the-ground perspective of the impact of horses roaming the desert plain.

"I believe horses should be in the West. I would never want to see them gone. I just think we have to be wise about how many there are," Tolbert says.

Fred Tolbert surveys the land he leases from the BLM for grazing cattle. Read his transcript here.

Today he is going to a spring on the land he leases. Water is precious. The Great Basin Desert, despite its high elevation, only gets twelve inches of precipitation each year. The plants and animals that live on the playa adapt themselves accordingly. But with no natural predators, Tolbert feels there are too many horses. Too many horses do too much damage to the scarce resources available. Tolbert claims that not only is the spring not used by the cattle, but the trail the horses take to get to the spring is overused.

Matthew Wood is another rancher affected by the wild horses. "They're there 365 days a year, never rotated, never managed and so they'll stay on an area until they've devastated it and killed all of the plants and then they'll move on," he says. "Where the deer, the elk - they will migrate with the seasons and go to summer ranges, winter ranges; the horses just stay in one spot and pound that range to death."

Wood's grazing area and ranch operates on a swath of land that covers 80,000 acres. Some of it is BLM land, and some of it is privately owned. One small stream runs through the entire property; this stream and some springs show how limited natural water is in the desert. Wood has had to drill his own wells to supplement the water supply. All the wildlife on the land benefits from these wells, but Wood claims the horses have damaged any range improvements before they get a chance to take hold.

For Tolbert, the businessman, the horses are in competition with his livestock on land he has been legally leasing from the BLM. For Tolbert, the rancher, he is in sync with the desert. He knows what the land can withstand, and what is beyond its limits. And Tolbert, the citizen, understands what it means to keep the land as useful as possible.

Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward

The most recent scientific data about wild horses, including population numbers and potential solutions to maintain them, are in a document published in 2013. Read the document here.

"Well, the public will always own the ground. I don't own anything, other than the right to graze. I don't own the ground. I just have the right to graze that ground. We've all lived under the multiple-use concept, which looks out for the interest of everybody. And that is the way it ought to be."

In 1950, a secretary from Reno, Nevada, named Velma Johnson found out that wild horses were being culled from herds and sold for slaughter. With righteous outrage, she started a letter-writing campaign that led to a series of laws protecting the wild horse. Ultimately, in 1971, President Nixon signed into law the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which gave the federal government the responsibility for the wild herds.

The law spelled out requirements of the government; one of which was to maintain an inventory of both the herds and the land they live on. The government agency that oversees the herds depends on the lands where the herds roam. In many cases in Utah, the task falls to the Bureau of Land Management. The most recent data the BLM has publicly offered shows that there are over 40,000 wild horses and burros in the United States, with 3,500 of them living in Utah.

Ranchers like Tolbert and Wood think there are more. Others don't think there are enough.

Far from the Great Basin, in the mountains of Wyoming, Ginger Kathrens unloads her gear from her truck. She hauls a camera, tripod, and audio package to a location where she can best observe the herd. Even though it is warm, a patch of snow lingers…much to the delight of the horses.

"There are too few horses on our public lands to be living in genetically viable herds. Most of the herds are too small to be able to continue without some genetic degradation and inbreeding. So the herds need to be larger," she says.

After seeing the wild colt she named "Cloud", filmmaker Ginger Kathrens started a Wild Horse preservation foundation in his name. Read his transcript here.

Kathrens has been monitoring the wild horse population for over 20 years. A documentary filmmaker, Kathrens has been following one horse for much of her professional life: the stallion she named Cloud. She watched and filmed as Cloud grew from a foal to a horse-band leader; her movies on Cloud were featured on the PBS series, Nature.

"When I first started filming them 20 years ago I thought they were like wolves. And that sounds ridiculous because of course they're a prey species, an elegant prey species. But they live in family groups where there is a stallion father there 365 days a year, and he functions to hold the family together and protect the family," she says. "They're absolutely fascinating."

Cloud has been the selling point for her passion to promote awareness of wild horses in the United States. The foundation she started bears his name. Cloud is probably the most famous wild horse in the world.

Ranges of wild horses in Utah.

When asked if the wild horses have a negative impact on the multiple use rangeland, Kathrens puts the herds' population in perspective. "There are millions of head of livestock. There are a few thousands wild horses spread over ten western states," she says. "So the idea that they're doing the damage is ridiculous." Still, when a rancher sees competition on rangeland that he has purchased grazing rights for, that competition is a threat. "Our permits, for instance, have been cut through time about 50 percent," Wood says. "Then last fall they sent us all a letter asking us to voluntarily cut our numbers by 50 percent more, so there was more room for the horses."

"Livestock on public lands cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year," Kathrens counters. "They're allocated 82 percent of the forage. The wild horse gets 18 percent."

So there are not enough horses, but at the same time there are too many. On a site-by-site basis, the raw numbers and the observed count are often in conflict. It is a common and recurring theme in the west: the land is vast, but also too limited.

The ire shown by both ranchers and conservationists falls hard on one governmental agency: the BLM. While both sides see the issue differently, they both feel that the BLM is not properly doing its job, especially as it relates to herd management.

"The BLM has a number that they've established called the AML, which is Animal Management Limit," says Wood. "They arrived at that number through their studies on what the range can support. The numbers of the horses are at present somewhere in the neighborhood of ten times the AML numbers."

Kathrens has a different take on the BLM. "The BLM has always considered the wild horse, which is the only wildlife species that they manage, as a problem. And the resolution to the problem in their mind is to get rid of them."

Lisa Reid works for the BLM, and is the point person to talk to when discussing the wild horses in her jurisdiction.

"Our numbers show…that we are above AML or appropriate management level in all of our herd management areas across the United States." Reid says. "So that would indicate that our numbers are high. And we're using all the tools that are available to try and manage the herds to the appropriate management levels that we've been given."

Reid cites a macro and micro view of the obstacles she faces. "We handle each herd management area on a case-by-case basis," she says. "But there's a bigger picture. We are not just one county or one state. We are 10 states managing 40,000 horses. And we have to prioritize them as such."

The most controversial outcome of managing the herd is the round up. BLM officials fly helicopters to drive the horses to holding areas.

"Helicopter roundups are not humane in my experience," Kathrens says. "I've been seeing roundups and attending roundups for 20 years. I don't think any animal should be chased with a helicopter. It's incredibly stressful. And small foals can't keep up."

"We do take it very seriously, the safety of the animals," says Reid. "It is stressful. We've never said that it's not, but we do our best with what we've been given and we feel that removing horses by helicopter is very humane."

The images of helicopters flying a few feet above a running herd of wild horses are dramatic, even traumatizing. They are the rallying point around which wild horse conservationists drum up the most support.

"When I came here in 1994, I saw the first roundup, Kathrens says. "Even some of the cowboys who were rounding them up on horseback lost their own horses who died. Mares were separated from their foals, foals from their mothers. Half a dozen horses were killed, including Cloud's other brothers."

Even after the roundup, Kathrens believes the horses are never the same. "Roundups are so destructive because they immediately break up that family unit. They're a family, and we have to appreciate that they're a family."

"They've been mistreated by the very agency that's supposed to protect them."

Roundups are not the only tool available to control herd population. Contraception is also being tested. Jay Kirkpatrick, a scientist in Billings, Montana, has been working with a dart-delivered chemical called PZP that has reduced fertilization in herds.

"We think PZP has merit," Kirkpatrick says. "And we think it has merit not as an opinion, but based on 28 years of successful management of wild horses with the vaccine."

Kathrens is less enthusiastic about the use of PZP to manage the herds. "The solution is on-the-range management. That means that the horses are managed where they live. And if that requires reversible, dartable PZP vaccines, then so be it. But the idea is that reproduction and mortality equalize over time. And so the herds aren't wildly growing and they're not crashing, which is what a roundup does."

One of the fears of the BLM is that ranchers will take the issue into their own hands and manage the wild horses on the land they lease themselves.

Over the last several years, the Wild Horse and Burro Program has experienced various levels of controversy," Lisa Reid says. "Whether it be from the side who does not want the horses removed, all the way to the side [favoring] to have complete removals. And it's our job to do what's best for the range and for the horses."

But with the recent memory of the Cliven Bundy conflict in 2014, where armed militia stood off against federal officials, there is always a fear that there will be some who will flout federal legislation to do what is may be best for the local citizenry. Rancher Matt Wood will not take matters into his own hands, but he is frustrated with the actions, or non-actions, of the BLM.

"Keep the horses at AML," he says. "If I leave cattle on the range after my grazing permit term has ended for the year they call me and they'll say, 'You got two weeks to get them cattle out of there and we don't care if you've got a truck to haul them in or a place to go with them, just get them gone.' So I would think that what's good for the goose should be good for the gander."

David Miller, Utah Iron County Commissioner, can see the possibility of a standoff unfold much like it did with Cliven Bundy.

"Let's say, for example, the BLM perhaps does not work with us to get these horses to the appropriate management level," he says. "I could see that this tenuous situation could precipitate. And whether that would reach the same level that we saw down in Clark County, Nevada, I couldn't predict. But I would say that there's certainly the makings for a serious conflict if things aren't done."

The west desert, which covers four states, is emblematic of both the old and the new west. The issues that come up are old and ongoing. Individualism versus good of the group. The reach of authority into the individual's way of life. The effectiveness of government on a micro level.

Dr. Kirkpatrick has a word for the question that surrounds wild horses: balance.

"Wild horses have no economic value," Kirkpatrick says. "And they live on those public lands with other operations - mining, drilling, hunting, ATVs, recreation, grazing - all of which have enormous economic values. That's how we get ourselves in this dilemma. We really should be talking about public lands not the little icons: the wolves and the bison and the wild horses and the grizzly bears."

Lisa Reid emcees the "Impact of the Horse" event, where the public can watch wild horses the BLM rounded up compete in arena events. They can also be adopted at the event. Read her transcript here: Part 1, Part 2

"The whole controversy about wild horses has less to do with wild horses than it does the public lands they live on. The real question that we should be asking is, who gets to use public lands, how do they get used, and who benefits the most?"