The intoxicating scent of alfalfa and rain-scrubbed desert welcomes visitors to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) horse corrals south of Boise. Spread across a dozen corrals and small pens, 40-50 horses and burros munch hay, innocent of their next fate.
These animals were gathered within the last two to three months from the nearby Hard Trigger Herd Management Area in southwestern Idaho. Under the guidelines of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burros Act of 1971 (WFRHBA), the BLM—or in some cases the Forest Service—is charged with managing wild horse herds on federal land.
During the early part of the 20th century, wild horses were seen as scavengers and competition for precious western grazing land. Ranchers pushed the government to reduce the competition for forage, which resulted in inhumane roundups, shootings, and capturing of feral horses to be turned into dog food. To non-ranchers, the mustang symbolizes the mystique of the west—an icon of courage, independence, and freedom. Public outcry in defense of wild horse herds resulted in Congress passing the WFRHBA, which President Nixon signed into law.
But, like many of our attempts to solve a problem and do something good, the WFRHBA presented a new set of dilemmas. It is complicated and greatly misunderstood by people who do not live on western lands; lands which are vast, dry, sparsely vegetated, and ravaged by frequent wild fires that decimate vegetation. Mustangs’ only predators are man, wolves and cougars. With the latter two nearly eradicated wild horse populations exploded. As vast as the western landscape looks, when the balance of grazers to forage is upended, starvation results. The BLM walks a tightrope in trying to balance protection of the land in its purview, the health of wild horse populations, and wildly divergent public opinions.
Each year the BLM assess conditions on the ground, estimates horse populations, evaluates herd health, then determines how much herd thinning is necessary. The animals are rounded up, often with the aid of helicopters, and brought to temporary holding pens where they are culled, provided with medical treatment and vaccinations, wormed, aged, and freeze-marked for identification. Then let the adoptions begin!
Patiently a horseman waits for contact, meanwhile assessing the animal’s conformation, intelligence, and sociability.
My next post will address the details of the adoption process. And now I’m off to brush my teeth!