“Horse killers! Killers! Murderers! You’re liars! All of you, liars! You’re only happy when you can see something die!”
— Marilyn Monroe in “The Misfits”
“Honey, nothing can live unless something dies.”
– Clark Gable, in the same movie
Sixty-three years after the release of Monroe’s and Gable’s final film in 1961, virtually nothing has changed about the wild horse debate. “The Misfits” refers to the movie’s whiskey-soaked drifters who head out of Reno to chase wild horses, and to the horses themselves that are neither completely wild nor domesticated. Monroe’s character is outraged to find out the chase is about rounding them up for pet food, and Gable’s character sees it as just another circle of life.
Figuring out how to manage wild horses in the West has always been a mix of romance and range science. Are they the land equivalent of quagga mussels leeching off the prairie? Or are they, well, Mustangs? Ford tapped into a very basic emotion when it named its iconic car.
Are wild horses a native species because some version of horses once roamed North America before the ice age? Are they an endangered species even though there appears to be more of them than the range can sustain? Should cows take precedence over wild horses? How about horses over cows? And how about putting horses on mandatory birth control?
It was never this complicated in the Louis L’Amour novels.
When range managers talk about culling horse herds, an outcry comes that the horses deserve their home as much as the next species. Unless, of course, the next species is the cow, a creature that never got a Ford name (unless you want to count Mavericks).
The ranchers say their cattle compete for food and water with the horses, and the cows should dominate because there is a ranching economy to preserve. But that economy is already subsidized by low grazing fees on federal range lands. It’s reasonable to wonder how much of the government trough these cows deserve.
And now the feds are being petitioned to list the horses as an endangered species, an argument that relies on a fossil record of Pleistocene mustangs. The range managers at the Bureau of Land Management aren’t buying that, but it will be the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that decides.
The BLM estimates there are 50,000 wild horses and burros in the West, and the population could double every four years without intervention. Only a meeting of the nation’s hearts and heads about wild horses will drive a solution, and that has been elusive since the days of Monroe and Gable.