Fifty miles from Delta, Utah, Fred Tolbert's pickup bounces along a dirt road. Tolbert, a cattle rancher in the west desert, leases Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated land in the Great Basin Desert. He has been working cattle for years and, like all people whose work is tied to the land, he has an on-the-ground perspective of the impact of horses roaming the desert plain.
"I believe horses should be in the West. I would never want to see them gone. I just think we have to be wise about how many there are," Tolbert says.
Wood's grazing area and ranch operates on a swath of land that covers 80,000 acres. Some of it is BLM land, and some of it is privately owned. One small stream runs through the entire property; this stream and some springs show how limited natural water is in the desert. Wood has had to drill his own wells to supplement the water supply. All the wildlife on the land benefits from these wells, but Wood claims the horses have damaged any range improvements before they get a chance to take hold.
For Tolbert, the businessman, the horses are in competition with his livestock on land he has been legally leasing from the BLM. For Tolbert, the rancher, he is in sync with the desert. He knows what the land can withstand, and what is beyond its limits. And Tolbert, the citizen, understands what it means to keep the land as useful as possible.
Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward
The most recent scientific data about wild horses, including population numbers and potential solutions to maintain them, are in a document published in 2013. Read the document here.
Far from the Great Basin, in the mountains of Wyoming, Ginger Kathrens unloads her gear from her truck. She hauls a camera, tripod, and audio package to a location where she can best observe the herd. Even though it is warm, a patch of snow lingers…much to the delight of the horses.
"There are too few horses on our public lands to be living in genetically viable herds. Most of the herds are too small to be able to continue without some genetic degradation and inbreeding. So the herds need to be larger," she says.
The most controversial outcome of managing the herd is the round up. BLM officials fly helicopters to drive the horses to holding areas.
"Helicopter roundups are not humane in my experience," Kathrens says. "I've been seeing roundups and attending roundups for 20 years. I don't think any animal should be chased with a helicopter. It's incredibly stressful. And small foals can't keep up."
"We do take it very seriously, the safety of the animals," says Reid. "It is stressful. We've never said that it's not, but we do our best with what we've been given and we feel that removing horses by helicopter is very humane."
One of the fears of the BLM is that ranchers will take the issue into their own hands and manage the wild horses on the land they lease themselves.
Over the last several years, the Wild Horse and Burro Program has experienced various levels of controversy," Lisa Reid says. "Whether it be from the side who does not want the horses removed, all the way to the side [favoring] to have complete removals. And it's our job to do what's best for the range and for the horses."
But with the recent memory of the Cliven Bundy conflict in 2014, where armed militia stood off against federal officials, there is always a fear that there will be some who will flout federal legislation to do what is may be best for the local citizenry. Rancher Matt Wood will not take matters into his own hands, but he is frustrated with the actions, or non-actions, of the BLM.
The west desert, which covers four states, is emblematic of both the old and the new west. The issues that come up are old and ongoing. Individualism versus good of the group. The reach of authority into the individual's way of life. The effectiveness of government on a micro level.
Dr. Kirkpatrick has a word for the question that surrounds wild horses: balance.
"Wild horses have no economic value," Kirkpatrick says. "And they live on those public lands with other operations - mining, drilling, hunting, ATVs, recreation, grazing - all of which have enormous economic values. That's how we get ourselves in this dilemma. We really should be talking about public lands not the little icons: the wolves and the bison and the wild horses and the grizzly bears."