Friday, January 17, 2020

Taming an American icon: A plan to curb wild horses, and save the West - Full Article

The emotional debate over the growing number of wild horses in the West is about more than animals and public lands. It’s about people and values, which is why a compromise has been so elusive. Is one now at hand?

January 15 2020
By Amanda Paulson Staff writer

When the first wild horses come into view, thundering through high desert sagebrush, it’s easy to imagine they’re in the American West of 150 years ago. This part of Nevada is desolate and beautiful: massive plains that stretch for miles without a building – or tree – in sight, rugged snow-gauzed mountains piercing the sky.

But if the idea of wild horses is a romantic one in America, conjuring images of unfettered freedom and unfenced spaces, the reality, in today’s West, is far more complicated. These horses – herded by a helicopter and headed for relocation to private pastures or adoption – lie at the nexus of a human-wildlife conflict that is one of the most incendiary in the West. It is a dispute rife with emotions and with little common ground.

Wild horses may be beloved in America, but to some, they’re also a nuisance – a remarkably fecund one, with a population that grows by about 20% a year, wreaking havoc on rangeland vital to ranchers and other wildlife. Estimates put the wild horse and burro population at 88,000 on public lands as of this past spring, though most experts say it’s now closer to 100,000. That’s more than three times the target population of 26,700 that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management believes its herd management areas can sustainably support.

With limited resources and management options constrained by law, court order, and public opinion, the BLM is trying to handle the horses through a piecemeal solution of roundups, adoptions, and maintenance on taxpayer-funded private lands. But it’s a system that satisfies no one, is expensive, and is leading to growing populations of horses both on and off public rangeland.

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“It’s like a runaway freight train, and it’s not easily solved,” says Dean Bolstad, who retired from the BLM in 2017 after 44 years with the agency. “I can’t tell you how important [dealing with these animals] is to the health and well-being of public lands.”

Now, for the first time in years, there are glimmers of a solution...

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