Bends in desolate oil field roads occasionally revealed groups of mustangs. Sometimes it was a herd, a dozen dusty hides and windblown manes against the red sandstone buttes. Half the grazing horses would warily eye my large pickup truck while others still focused on grass growing between sagebrush. Other times it was just a couple fillies who shot off in the opposite direction, playfully nipping at each other with tails raised in high spirits and trailing dust.
With every encounter, I marveled at these wild horses in such a wild place. In the serenity of these moments, I nearly forgot horses weren’t native to this barren stretch of south central Wyoming desert I drove daily for my summer job in environmental consulting. I nearly forgot these majestic creatures were invading and degrading the desert rangeland around nowhere towns throughout the West. I nearly forgot mustangs didn’t belong.
After several modern horses journeyed to America with Christopher Columbus and escaped, they founded thriving herds, later joined by other loose domestics. They settled in the West and became a hallmark of its wildness to generations (even informed environmental students), echoing the era of cowboys and open plains.
But regardless of their debated status as a reintroduced or non-native species, herds are now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM’s website records an appropriate management level of 26,690 — a drastic cut from the current 82,000 horses. U.S. mustangs are grazing on lands only suitable to fill one-third of their needs, and will feel the consequences.
Although my Wyoming mustangs all appeared healthy and their rangelands were not overgrazed, horses in the Onaqui Mountain Herd Management Area of Tooele are not so lucky.
An October BLM press release states that the Onaqui herd population exceeded 510. To reduce this to the appropriate management level of 121 to 210, a roundup was organized to corral excess animals into holding pens. Many will be shipped off to long term holding pastures in the Midwest. Wild horse advocates claim these methods are inhumane, that the loud helicopters used to gather frighten the horses can lead to injury. But dying from starvation or dehydration would likely be much more traumatizing.
A few Onaqui mustangs will be “saved” at the upcoming adoption event January 31. But not enough. Everyone wants to see mustangs from afar, but breaking and caring for the wild spirits is much more demanding than old westerns and horse dramas lead viewers to believe.
In the midst of conflicting views surrounding mustangs, perhaps we should reevaluate the inherited beliefs that have led to rounding them up with helicopters and applying costly annual birth control treatments. Well-meaning sympathizers picture herds of horses as living icons of the West, victims trapped on a dwindling range with disappearing resources. They don’t realize herds are still growing in spite of this habitat degradation.
America’s wild horses can not run wild. Their unstable populations must be managed, but the rhetoric of the West prevents them from being viewed like other species. Culling, bounties, relocation and reintroducing predators are practiced solutions in wildlife policy, even for native species.
The public does not accept these solutions because horses are ingrained in American culture as symbols to be revered, not a species to be managed. We see manes whipping in the desert wind and remember iconic mustangs such as Spirit and think surely, these magnificent animals are where they are supposed to be. And before roundup policies are improved or management quotas adjusted, the underlying problematic belief that wild horses are untouchable needs to change.
Saige Bowen is a senior at the University of Utah pursuing an honors bachelor of science degree in environmental and sustainability studies.