WHEN he was a boy on a 150,000-acre ranch here in the desert mountains of Utah, which are so remote that there is no power line and electricity comes from a turbine in a mountain spring, Mark Wintch would thrill at the sight of a rare band of wild horses kicking up dust as they disappeared over a rise.
“Now there’re so darned many,” Wintch, 38, said, shaking his head as he bounced his red pickup through sage-dotted public land that his family has ranched since 1935.
“Look out there. You barely see a blade of grass.” Management plans by the federal government call for no horses in this area. But five horses looked up in alarm at his truck, then wheeled off through the brush.
“I counted 60 last night,” Wintch said. “If I put my cows out here, they’d starve.” Wild horses may be a symbol of America’s unbound freedom in the Old West. But in the new West, they are a tightly controlled legal entity, protected by federal law and managed by a perplexing system on the brink of a crisis.
Wintch is a rancher in Beaver County, Utah. There are now twice as many wild horses in the West as federal land managers say the land can sustain. The programme that manages them has broken down, and unchecked populations pose a threat to delicate public land, as well as the ranches that rely on it.
For decades, the Bureau of Land Management has relied on a strategy of rounding up excess horses with helicopters and storing them in a system of private ranches and feedlots. But now there are almost 50,000 horses in storage, and the system is out of space and money. In response, the agency has drastically cut roundups, leaving horses to multiply on the range.
The Bureau of Land Management says that Western rangelands can sustain about 26,000 wild horses. There are now 48,000. In five years, there could be more than 100,000, according to agency projections.
“It’s a train wreck,” said Robert Garrott, a professor of wildlife management and ecology at Montana State University. “I’m worried we are entering an intractable situation that will damage the land for decades.”
If left unchecked, horse populations could decimate grass and water on public lands, he said, potentially leading to starvation among horse herds and other native species, as well as lawsuits from ranchers and wildlife groups.
Wintch and a group of other local ranchers sued the federal government in April, demanding that it remove excess wild horses.
While some ranchers and politicians have pushed to slaughter the horses in storage to free up money and space to continue roundups, Garrott said the idea had proved so controversial that the bureau and Congress had repeatedly refused. “Horses are so beloved in our society that no one wants to make a hard decision,” Garrott said.
“So we take this disastrous policy and just keep kicking it down the road.”
Wild horses today are the descendants of stray American Indian ponies and cavalry mounts, as well as more recent ranch stock.
Roaming a patchwork of parched rangeland roughly the size of Alabama, they have been protected by federal law since 1971 from capture or hunting. Since then, the bureau, which oversees most of the herds, has said that keeping the population around 26,000 would ensure the long-term health of the horses and the land.
Every year, the agency removes horses from the land and offers them for adoption, using programmes with youth organisation 4-H and prison inmates to train the animals. But adoption numbers have never come close to equalling removal numbers.
So for about 25 years, the agency has been paying contractors to house mustangs in private feedlots and pastures spread across several states, which now costs the agency almost $50 million (£31m) a year. The hefty bill has sapped the management programme’s ability to do much else. As a result, the agency cut roundups this year by almost 80 per cent.
This summer, two long-term storage facilities abruptly ended their contracts with the Bureau of Land Management, forcing the agency to find a place for nearly 3,000 horses.
“It’s a triage situation,” said Steve Ellis, the agency’s deputy director for operations. “We can’t do all we need to.”
The agency usually rounds up about 9,000 animals a year. This year, it will round up just 2,500.