Mustangs are a symbol of our Western tradition; yet they are often reviled, as they compete for resources with livestock and wildlife in an ever-changing environment impacted by range fire and drought. Thousands end up in holding corrals far from home, never to return.
In 2017 about 73,000 horses and burros roamed free on designated grazing areas around the West. That's about three times the number originally set forth by Congress. The agencies charged with their care under the Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 are caught in the middle of a political and public affairs crisis as the current administration moves to cut the budget for wild horses and burros.
If this happens, the fate of nearly 50,000 excess animals gathered from the range is uncertain. They are cared for and fed by the government in holding corrals or off-range pasture at a cost of nearly $50 million taxpayer dollars per year. With populations out of control, solutions are dwindling for the Bureau of Land Management.
"The track that we're on is simply unsustainable," says BLM public affairs specialist Heather Tiel-Nelson. "The cost alone of managing wild and free roaming horses off the range is staggering."
Producer Sauni Symonds takes a look at what is happening with wild horse herds in our state and how some new ideas may offer solutions to a seemingly hopeless situation. "It's a very complicated and emotional issue for many, and at the heart of it is an icon of the American West, whose survival seems to depend on compromise and cooperation."
We explore the future of wild horses on the range.
Bureau of Land Management Public Affairs Specialist, Heather is the public affairs lead for Idaho's Wild Horse team.
This interview was conducted by Sauni Symonds in the Spring of 2017.
When did America's wild horses gain protection under the law?
Clear back in the '50s Velma Johnston, otherwise known as "Wild Horse Annie," began the process of protecting our wild free roaming horses and burros. And it wasn't until 1971 that they actually did receive federal protection. And it's a very special part, I think, of America's history. It's one that we're very dedicated to preserving.
So when Congress passed The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, they essentially set forth a mandate to the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to protect those wild and free roaming horses and burros where they were found, and in balance with the other uses. So essentially, we have a mandate to manage these horses, healthy wild horses on healthy rangelands.
What drove Velma Johnston to take action to protect wild horses?
You know, at the time when wild when Wild Horse Annie got involved, the story has it that she followed a trailer that had some fairly mangled, for lack of a better term, horses that were being hauled to slaughter. And she was horrified, and began a letter writing campaign to Congress, saying that these animals need protection.
You know, some people consider horses, of course, to be useless animals. And back in the '50s, '60s, early '70s, you know, unfortunately, some very inhumane practices were being put into place when they were gathering these animals; and then, of course, trying to profit from them by sending them to slaughter. So and that's what precipitated the need for them to receive federal protection.
How did so many horses end up roaming the rangeland of the West in the first place?
So right around the turn of the century many of our farmers and ranchers and even our cavalry were turning horses out when they no longer had the need for them that they used to have. And a lot of times those horses were actually those numbers were being managed by people who would go out and gather those horses, take off the range what they needed for their use in whatever their production operation might be. But that's really how our wild horse herds got their start in America.
Explain the current status of the wild horse and burro herds in the West?
We have about 179 herd management areas across ten different western states that we manage today. And we found because wild horse herds really don't have any natural predators, they can double in size every four years. And at that point it becomes unsustainable. The range can no longer support them in a healthy manner, where the range is sustainable and the horses and the burros are healthy.
When the act passed in 1971 there were about 25,000 horses on the range at that time. Today, as of the spring of 2017, we have nearly three times over that number. We have 73,000 wild horses and burros that are on the range right now. We're facing a chronic overpopulation in many of our herd management areas.
And so what happens in many of our herds that are chronically overpopulated, they begin to starve to death, due to lack of forage, lack of water. So the animals will then move onto private property, onto highways. And that's where they really pose a significant safety risk.
In the last two years in three Arizona counties alone, nearly 200 burros have been hit in vehicle accidents. So it's a tremendous concern.
What is the status of Idaho's wild horse herds?
So here in Idaho we have six different wild horse herd management areas. One in Challis, three that are actually out in the Owyhees, one north of Emmett, and one south of Glenns Ferry. And generally we have about 700 wild horses across those six different wild horse herd management areas.
In 2015, the Soda Fire burned 280,000 acres along the Owyhee Front in Southwestern Idaho and Eastern Oregon. And it burned 100 percent of two of our herd management areas in the Owyhees and about a third of the Black Mountain Herd Management Area. So it precipitated an emergency gather where we had to go in. We knew that there wasn't going to be enough vegetation left to sustain those horses over the long term. So we went in and we gathered those horses and removed them from the range so that we could ensure that they were being cared for properly while the range recovered.
And we've been caring for those horses at both the Boise and Bruneau wild horse corrals awaiting the day when they can return to their home range. When we do return them, we will return them to the low end of what we call the appropriate management level. So for the Sands Basin Wild Horse Herd Management Area it's about 33 horses. For Hard Trigger it's 66. And right now we have, I think it's about 48 horses at Black Mountain, so we're right in between we're in the midrange of the appropriate management level for Black Mountain.
How does the BLM determine appropriate range size and herd populations?
So, all of BLM's management decisions are guided by our planning process. It's a very public, open process. And that's how we determine the appropriate management levels for our herd management areas. We take a look at use patterns. The one thing that we have to consider for wild horses is that they're out there throughout the year. And so we have to look at critical growth periods for the vegetation, for springtime, early springtime, when they might be more vulnerable to grazing pressure. And then we also have to consider the forage for the horses in the wintertime and what their needs are to ensure that they're met.
So that's the sort of the parameters that go into setting the appropriate management level. You know, we look at vegetation, soil, water, weather, things like that, and that helps us to determine that level of horses on the range.
How does the BLM manage the populations and what are the challenges?
Because wild horse herds really don't have natural predators, when they double in size, that's when BLM has to go in and perform a gather. We've got to remove those excess animals so that the range can sustain the number out there, as well as wildlife habitat and livestock grazing.
So since the '70s, BLM has placed into private care about 235,000 wild horses. In 2000 we were actually able to place about 8,000 horses into private care every year. In 2008, when the economy crashed just a bit, it really impacted our adoption demand. And those numbers, I mean, they dropped to where we were only able to place 2500 horses a year into private care nationwide. And it just simply is not enough to keep pace with the number of horses that we need to remove from the range.
And so what winds up happening is we're now feeding close to 50,000 wild horses off the range to the tune of 50 million dollars every year. And it's just simply unsustainable on the path that it is in right now.
Have adoptions improved with a better economy, and if so, why?
You know, we are seeing an uptick in our adoptions over the last three years. And, in fact, just this summer we've surpassed last year's adoption numbers. We've adopted over 3200 horses right now nationwide, and we're not even at the end of our fiscal year yet. I think so much of our success with our adoptions over the last three years can largely be attributed to our partnership with organizations like the Mustang Heritage Foundation. They were responsible for creating, designing, developing the Extreme Mustang Makeovers, probably one of our more recognizable programs.
I think it's pretty interesting, the story has it that the executive director for the Extreme Mustang Makeover in 2007 was watching an "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," and she thought, hmm, why not 100 horses, 100 trainers, 100 days, we'll just see what happens. And the very first makeover was in Fort Worth, and it was a wild success. And they've just built on that every year. And then they've added the trainer incentive program.
And so since 2007 we've placed 7300 horses into private care through the Extreme Mustang Makeover and other training programs like it. And I think that's really a shining example of success, of being able to capitalize on the trainability of these mustangs.
So BLM has been partners with the Mustang Heritage Foundation for a good number of years as they have worked alongside us to help increase the number of adoption for our mustangs. And it's partnerships like that that we are truly looking to expand. It's just one of the tools in our toolbox that will enable us to place more horses into good homes. And that's really where we're going to be focusing our efforts.
Our primary, number one priority will always be to find good homes for mustangs. And in so doing, we are going to be pursuing more partnerships like the one that we have with the Mustang Heritage Foundation so that we can increase the number of trained animals going into good homes.
How is the BLM working to control populations on the range with fertility vaccines?
The one that we have been using is porcine zona pellucida, otherwise known as PZP. And there are a couple of ways that we do that. Probably the most effective way, and especially when you consider the number of acres and the number of horses that are roaming on our public rangelands, the most effective way is to gather those horses and then treat the mares and then release them to the range.
So here in Idaho we actually have a fantastic partnership with Wild Love Preserve and Andrea Maki, the executive director of that organization. And Andrea and a group of her volunteers have become certified to do the darting - they actually will field dart the mares in the Challis Herd Management Area. And I think they've actually treated 62 horses over the last three years. So it's partnerships like that that are really important to us.
So in addition to us pursuing partnerships and working through our training program so that we can place more horses into private care, we're also very committed to pursuing research that will help us identify a more effective, longer lasting fertility control. We absolutely have to address our overpopulation on the range. And if we can begin to curb the growth, it will help us reduce the number of horses that we actually have to gather. And hopefully, we can then have healthy rangelands so that healthy horses and burros can thrive.
So right now where we are, we primarily focus our fertility control efforts on the mares simply because if a mare were to be bred and drop a colt out on the range, that colt could cover that many more horses. And so that's, right now, where we're at. And that's why we've committed 11 million dollars to over 21 different research projects so that we can truly determine a better method of controlling our population growth rates on the range.
What does the future look like for wild horses?
BLM is a multiple use agency. We have a significant responsibility to the American public to manage productive rangelands as well as protecting some of our nation's most precious natural and cultural resources. And so our responsibility is to balance those uses.
The track that we're on with wild horses is simply unsustainable. The cost alone of managing wild and free roaming horses off the range is staggering. And while we're doing our best to transfer horses from our off range corrals, which tend to cost about five dollars a head per day to support those horses, to some of our off range pastures in the Midwest, you know, we've got we have 33 facilities in the Midwest where we have pastures. They represent about 350,000 acres. And it's a little bit more cost effective to care for these horses in a pasture situation that costs more like two dollars a head per day. So we are working on that to reduce our numbers in our off range corrals and move more horses to our off range pastures to alleviate some of the stress on the budget. But any way you look at it, it's extraordinarily challenging.
You are a horse owner. How does this feel on a personal level?
You know, so many of my coworkers within the wild horse program, we care a great deal about what happens to these horses, both on and off the range. And a lot of us have skin in the game, where we've adopted wild horses, we've got mustangs at home in our corrals or our pastures. And it is because we do care a great deal about seeing healthy wild horses and burros on healthy rangelands.
This interview was conducted by Sauni Symonds in the Spring of 2017.
What does the Free-roaming Horse and Burro Act mean to you?
Well, I think it's not being carried out as is intended because of politics. As you know, that the Horse and Burro Act was established to take and to control horses and burros within an HMA. And there was set numbers based upon the condition out on the range. And because of the politics and the concern about wild horses and also to be concerned about animal rights, what has happened is, is that they no longer dispose of them in accordance with what the act called for.
So, today, we gather the horses, and then we take them to permanent holdings, which eats up about 60 percent of the BLM budget.
Why is that a problem?
Well, it's become a real problem not only because it's consuming so much of the budget in other areas. Except for here inside of Custer County's HMA, they have already got populations that are two or three times.
The problem that exists for us, as cattlemen, is that on those areas where that we share a range with them, that because of the overpopulation that they're denuding the habitat. And they also are in the position where that they're starving to death or they're dying of thirst because of the lack of food or the lack of water.
And in those cases where that they have denuded the range, well, then, the cattlemen are being forced to remove their cows from the use of the range.
And yes, they're taking it from the ranchers, but that's not really the big issue. If you are a horse lover, then, without some control over the population of the horses, then there is too many on that range to support them. And that was part of the purpose when the BLM established the numbers that were going to be within one HMA.
So, is the solution to move them to holding corrals?
Well, they don't have enough room. And really, now, what the government is looking for, is they're look for a less expensive solution. And there has been a lot of proposals out there. And some, which you've heard on the news, is Miss Pickens, down South, out of Texas, you know, she's proposed to take and to convert a ranch down inside Northern Nevada.
Well, the issue that we still have, as cattlemen, or maybe as myself as part of a public and private partnership, is that her solution is still that what the government is going to do is they're going to pay her to take and to gather horses and then turning them out on the range.
The additional issue is that when we graze cattle on the range, we graze them for a certain period of time based upon the forage. Her proposal is that she's going to turn them out all year round. And in the process, she's going to send a bill to the government. And that's why this program up here, inside Custer County, that Miss Maki has, is unique.
Tell me about that.
When Andrea came into Custer County, then she was concerned that she could try and convince all of the stakeholders, in which a major one of that is the cattlemen, to understand what she was trying to accomplish. And, of course, rightfully so, she had met with a lot of skepticism, and there was a lot of reticence in terms of what her real purpose was. And, of course, a lot of that is because we live in a very beautiful area, it's very controversial. And we are assailed as public land users by environmental extremist groups. So she approached me because she wanted to get some support among the cattlemen.
And so after she explained what her program was and what she was hoping to accomplish, she somewhat won me over. But, basically, I told her, I said, "well, we'll give you the support until you demonstrate that you are not able or willing to do what you said you were going to do."
So that's how I got introduced. She had agreed to take possession of over a hundred head of horses, but she had to find someplace where she could put them. And that's where I came in. I offered to fix up my corrals and get them approved by the BLM, so she could bring this wild horse herd. And then what I have done, over the years, is I have supported her with, you know, hay.
So what do you think of Miss Maki's project?
Well, I think that she has worked very hard, and she's done what she said that she was going to do, and she has won over, you know, a lot of people because she has been persistent in attempting to do something. And I think in anything she has helped make us, inside of Custer County or the Challis BLM office, as one of the HMAs where that we don't have an overpopulation of horses.
The other thing which I give her a lot of credit because she has done that personally and to a large, personal financial burden. And I find it interesting that with all of the horse lovers that are out there that they don't support her, necessarily. And they definitely don't support her, you know, financially.
And the BLM put out a proposal here about a year ago, and they were looking for alternatives, is what they said, to the wild horse problem. And, you know, what I see is, is that I see that the program that Miss Maki has is a viable alternative, where the government is not expected to continue to pay for all of it.
How does the community feel about Wild Love Preserve?
Well, I think that the community, as a whole, is positive. If there was ever a concern, I think that the concern that they have is, is that if she doesn't find some outside support to come in, some private entities or the public at large to take and support her, then we're concerned about the continuation of this particular program.
What will it take for WLP to be successful?
Well, no, I think it goes beyond that. And not to get into the middle of her finances, but I know that she goes through a great financial burden, personally, just to make sure that she gets out enough, you know, feed.
You know, one of the issues that, of course, we're always looking at is, is that you have a whole lot of environmental organizations that collect a whole lot of money across this country for various purposes. And, yet, here we have a program that's put together by her, not only to address an issue that's on public lands, but if you take a look at her whole program, her idea is to show the general public, to invite them in and show about how that we can accomplish both things. We can keep the horses out on the range. We can keep them managed. And at the same time, we can show the other side of the coin, the public, that they can enjoy that.
Well, in order for her to do that, then she needs to find someplace where there is a great many where there is a big ranch or something that she can bring them to. And she has found them, but the problem is, is that most of these places were bought up by these environmental organizations whose sole purpose is to get the cattle off of the range. But, yet, they don't seem to be interested in doing something that will help the range, which is, in my opinion, the supporting of this program that Miss Maki has.
Help the range in what way?
Well, if you do not continue to manage the wild horses, as they're required to by law, then what you're going to have is what we have in other areas, inside of Northern Nevada, especially, where they have tens of thousands that are over the numbers. Then what you're going to find is, is that an overpopulation denudes the range and that there is only a limited number of water spots and water locations for which to take care of those horses.
And so if you're going to protect the range because that's why they're asking us, as cattlemen, to get our cows off of the range. Well, then, they should step in and do something that is going to help the range.
What would you like to see happen?
Well, I would like to see that with all the money that these environmental organizations, you know, generate and there's a whole slew of them that have a whole bunch of good sounding names and for the hundreds of millions of dollars that they get and from the contributions that are made to them by the major corporations because they and want to go and show their stockholders that they're out there doing something good for the environment, is for some of them to write some checks so that Miss Maki's goal of going out here and getting a you know, a 500, 800, or a 1,000 acre ranch where that she can take these horses and put them out there, and that she can find a way that they can support them. And that is a workable program.
Bureau of Land Management Challis Wild Horse Specialist
This interview was conducted by Sauni Symonds in the Spring of 2017.
What makes the Challis Wild Horse herd different from Idaho's other herds?
So the Challis herd is really special. I think the biggest thing is the geography in which they live, the high mountains that you can see. You can see Mount Borah, the highest peak in Idaho, from the herd management area. A lot of photographers like it because they can take pictures of the horses with the snow on Mount Borah in the background. And you can see the Capitol Peak, which is in one of the new wildernesses. And part of the herd management area is a wilderness now.
The horses are neat, they're a mix of saddle horses and draft horses that were released in the late 1800s. Some of the people that released those horses still live in Challis. Some of them went clear to England to get studs to bring back and turn loose in the Challis Herd Management Area. And so that's kind of neat. And there are stories about that.
The reason they introduced specific horses to the herd management area was they were looking for a specific kind of horse to do jobs that they were looking for. Some of them were looking for horses that could pull stagecoaches. Some of them were looking for good ranch horses. And so they needed a horse that could travel across country, but still large enough that could pull loads. And so you can still see that mix of horses today.
How did the mustang herd develop and what kinds of breeds make up the Challis herd?
They never intended to create a wild horse herd. They were just turning the horses that they used out onto the range. And then they would collect those horses every so often and use them for the jobs that they needed them to.
And so, over time, they weren't able to always catch all the horses that were loose. And, you know, and the herd just grew. But they kept introducing domestic horses. And it was a good area for horses to be able to graze, and they were able to gather these horses every few years.
There's one of the guys that would catch the horses as three year olds, halter break them, and then turn them loose again for a couple more years. And then as five year olds, he would catch them again, and then he would use them in a stage line for stage horses. There was a lot of ranching and mining influence in the area. There's a lot of Saddlebred or American Standardbred put into these horses, some Thoroughbred.
When we do DNA tests when we gather these horses. We've done it a couple of times now. And we have the good oral tradition. We have the good oral history of the horses, but we also have the genetics, the modern technology to go back and look at these horses. And we can track, you know, kind of what the oral history has said and see those different influences of horse breeds in there.
These horses must be pretty tough to roam free through the seasons.
The horses have to be tough to be able to survive out there. That's one of the things I would say about wild horses in general is they're extremely tough. I've seen drought conditions where the wildlife suffer. I've seen heavy snow conditions, like this past winter in Challis. And the horses still manage to do pretty well. They're extremely hardy. And that's kind of a proving by fire that only the horses that are tough live.
And so they worked well for a lot of the things that the local community needed them to do to be able to ranch on them and pull stagecoaches and take them over the mountain into the mines and different things. So they worked really well. And they're just extremely tough.
How do the locals feel about wild horses?
We have a lot of mixed reactions to the wild horses in the area, mostly favorable. Everybody has different opinions. I mean there's no two people are the same. I think the majority of people enjoy seeing the horses out there. I mean, everybody, when they go out, and they see the horses running through the sagebrush and, you know, the manes are flowing, and they can really see the wildness of them. And I think everybody enjoys seeing them out there.
I think where people get crosswise with the wild horse program and the wild horses is where we fail to manage them correctly. And, you know, BLM, we've been put in a difficult situation where we have to manage an animal that is extremely successful on the landscape and we have to try to manage the numbers without a lot of tools or opportunities to be able to find good solutions for or to find good homes for these horses.
And so people are fine almost everybody is fine with the horses out on the range. It's when there gets to be too many horses, and we don't keep the numbers in check. It's all about a balancing act. You know, we have to balance the amount of forage that we have out there for all the different uses.
And so that sometimes becomes difficult. And when you're not balancing those when you're not balancing the numbers, then those numbers have to be taken from somewhere else. So that's when wildlife are affected or livestock grazing is affected. And so, you know, that's when people start getting upset is when we start affecting those other uses.
And, you know, it was never meant to be a single use. You know, when the Challis Herd Management Area was created, it wasn't designated to be just horses. We're still multiple use, and we still have to balance all the different uses out there.
What if the horses had their own land separate from cattle?
You're kind of comparing apples and oranges because the wild horses are out there all year round. And so the livestock are out there in the summer when there's more forage, and then they're taking off. We can manage the livestock. We can manage where they are in any one time. We can rest pastures. We can move them so that we manage where they're at and how much forage they're taking.
We don't have a lot of those tools with the wild horses. The wild horses go where they want to go and use it however they want to. And it's year round, not just part of the year.
Talk about how you manage the Challis herd population?
So we have the appropriate management level of 185 horses. That's the level of horses that we feel we have the forage, based on our winter range, to be able to use the landscape without having a negative effect on them. So if we have 185 horses, is what we plan for, but we realize that that can range up to like 250. Once we get above that point, then we really start affecting the rangeland health and range conditions. So we initiate a gather at that point. We're at 280 horses now, so we're about a 100 horses above our appropriate management level.
We did a gather in 2012. And in the NEPA documentation in 2012 we talked about the opportunities of a possible bait gather. And so this year we revisited that. We decided that, based on our 2012 documentation, we could try a bait gather.
So we have bait trapped horses before in Challis before they were a public hazard with horses. They were getting on the highway at night, and we were concerned that somebody was going to get hurt and hit those horses. And we didn't want the horses to get hit, either. And so we caught in 2009 we caught about five horses this way. But we've never done a large scale bait trap.
And when we first started talking about the concept of maybe trying a bait gather, I was looking at, you know, 30 to 50 animals. And then we decided if it was successful, we didn't want to limit the contractors to stop when we could catch more horses, so we bumped the boundaries out to 150 horses to catch, and that we would treat all the mares that were released back into the herd management area with the fertility control vaccine, and then we would remove 50 horses.
By removing 50 horses, that would get me to the appropriate management level again, around 250 horses. 253 is what we were trying to get to. As of right now we've caught about 15 horses, and so we're approaching that lower level that we talked about, but we still have some time, and we hope to be able to catch more. One, to get to the appropriate management level, and then, also, to be able to catch horses to be able to treat with the fertility control.
So why bait-gather instead of helicopter gather?
So we were trying to bait gather for a couple of reasons. We wanted to see, you know, what will happen. You know, is it possible to catch large numbers of horses in Challis just using bait. And so, you know, nobody's ever done it before, and we wanted to see what's going to happen.
Bait trapping is actually more expensive per horse to catch than a helicopter gather. It's more time consuming. It takes a lot of time to be able to wait for the horses to enter the trap on their schedule. I would say it's less controversial, that more people are accepting of a bait gather than a helicopter gather. I still believe that helicopter gathers are humane, that we have a really low mortality rate when we gather horses. You know, less than 1 percent of horses are injured.
And one of the ironic things is usually those injuries occur once a horse is in the trap, when we're moving a horse from one location to another, like from the trap to a horse trailer or something like that. So it's the same whether it's a bait trap or a helicopter gather.
But, you know, it will interesting to find out what happens. And, you know, we've already proven we can catch we've already proven that we can catch some horses. And if we had a longer period of time, we may be able to attain that 150.
The bottom line is we still have to manage wild horses at their appropriate management level. If we can do that with multiple tools, then that's what we're going to do, is try to use everything in our toolbox to be able to manage the horses. And, you know, that's why we're using the fertility control. That's why we're trying the bait trap. That's why we still will probably use the helicopter. But if we're we're trying to use everything to be effective. And, you know, we're, also, at the same time, trying to explore new ideas and new ways to be able to manage the horses.
And if we can manage the horses effectively and still work with the public and do things that the public finds less controversial or less traumatic, then, you know, it can end up being a win win for both of us. At the end of the day, we still have to manage the wild horses at their appropriate numbers.
Are wild horses a native return species?
Congress designated them in 1971 as an unbranded, free roaming animal. And so I don't get into whether they're native or nonnative, I just know that Congress has asked us to manage them and to take care of them, make sure that they're preserved for generations to be able to come out and observe wild horses on healthy landscapes.
And I don't know whether it matters if they're native or not. I don't think that it changes what they are, whether they're native to the area or whether they're introduced. You know, Congress thought it was important enough to protect them, and so that's what we do, is we manage them.
Founder of Wild Love Preserve, Andrea started WLP in 2010 in Challis, Idaho. The preserve currently holds 136 wild horses near the range where they were born.
This interview was conducted by Sauni Symonds in the Spring of 2017.
Describe what Wild Love Preserve is all about?
So what we're doing here in Challis, Idaho, with Wild Love Preserve, is we've created a new model in managing wild horses on and off our public lands. And in doing that, we've brought together the various stakeholders that have a vested interest in our public lands in this area. So we have the Bureau of Land Management, with have cattle ranchers, we have wild horse advocates, environmentalists, wildlife biologists. We've brought everyone together to open up lines of communication and discuss how can we manage wild horses in conjunction with this ecosystem as a whole, as a balanced whole.
What is your approach to managing wild horses on and off the preserve?
So there is quite a history of controversy with wild horses on our public lands. There's quite a bit of animosity between stakeholders. So my belief has always been if you go in fighting, you're going to get a fight back. So my approach, instead, has been to introduce myself and offer a new way of approaching wild horse management with the stakeholders, which include the cattle ranchers that graze on our public lands, environmentalists who want to see the environment protected as it is. We have the wildlife biologist youth employment programs.
And so my goal has been in bringing them together to open up fluid lines of communication so that we can come to agreement on managing wild horses. But as that relates to the balance of this indigenous ecosystem as a whole, versus pulling one species out of the ecosystem and addressing that solely.
So it really is important to note that Wild Love Preserve is about managing the ecosystem as an interconnected and balanced whole in its entirety.
What makes WLP a viable option for wild horse management?
So Wild Love Preserve is a legacy project. The wild horses of America are an American icon. And the way in which we are working to create a wild expanse right here on their native turf is in a lasting manner. So this will continue on for future generations to equally nurture and treasure.
What's really key about what we're doing is we're working to take care of the population right here in their native turf, rather than have wild horses shipped out to long term holding facilities in other states. One of my goals has been to turn wild horses into an asset for the community. And how do we do that? How can we turn wild horses into an asset where the community really sees benefit, and they are also engaged in the process?
How did you acquire the horses at WLP?
So in 2012 as part of our project, when I say that we're addressing the wild horse population on and off our public lands in their home territory, what I mean by that is that on the range we're working with the Bureau of Land Management, collaboratively, to manage population, with PZP, for example, which is a fertility vaccine. And then from the 2012 roundup, we ended up gathering together horse advocates, donors, and adopters to adopt every wild horse that the BLM made available from the 2012 roundup.
So to make a long story short, we have 136 wild horses, Idaho wild horses, that we have pulled out of the taxpayer system, and we are working we are working to raise money for our land trust so that we can purchase, identify the lands that we have our eye on that will be our permanent wild expanse. In the meantime, we have leased ranch land from three different ranchers. And the horses are happy. They are able to run and be free.
What is your goal for WLP?
This project is really about giving them an opportunity to just be wild horses. We're not looking to saddle them. We're not looking to adopt them out. This is about wild horses pulled from this range, continuing to exist right here at home, becoming an asset to the community, not just by dollars that we put into the community with our leases, for example, or buying equipment, supplies, this sort of thing, but our ecotourism element.
And folks that we have come into town, but there's a trickle down effect of how that benefits everybody. And that's really important for this project in particular, because we really want to have this be an asset in a way that continues on. That it is a legacy project. We want to see this continue for future generations to equally nurture and treasure.
And we also have an education program that's really key so that we're able to actually teach folks of all ages not just about what we're doing, but about wild horses, about the history, about the fact that horses are a native species; that's a big controversy.
Some horse advocates claim that horses are a return species. What is the significance when it comes to mustangs?
Wild horses have come to fully develop right here on the North American continent. And so, yes, they are a return species; they returned via boat with European settlers and so forth. But at the end of the day, wild horses did come to fully develop right here on this North American continent. In Idaho, we have the Hagerman Horse, which is a nice added benefit to what we're doing right here at home.
And so under that umbrella, in actuality it's impossible for horses, for example, to be feral on their home lands. And we are very open to listening to stakeholders and listening to family stories. All of that is a part of respecting everyone that's involved in this area and in this project.
But I do like to take that overall umbrella sort of view when it comes to the fact that wild horses did come to fully develop right here. And we have the Hagerman Horse of Idaho, which is also the state fossil. And so it's really a beautiful tie in to what we're doing. It's benefitting the region. It's benefitting the state. It's benefitting the wild horses. And that's what I want to continue to do in our efforts to create preservation programs for the wild horses and their native habitats as an interconnected whole. All of the wildlife species, riparian land, everything. This is an all inclusive program.
People might call WLP a passion project. How do you respond to that?
Well, I would like to comment on passion. So my belief is that as humans, as two leggeds, we have a responsibility to care for the whole. This project is a responsibility project, it's an accountability project. For me, it's not a passion project. This is about two legged accountability. The Wild Horse and Burro Program, the Bureau of Land Management will admit that it's flawed, and it's high controversy. I mean big, big fights and animosity and this sort of thing. And I come from a place as a self employed individual, as an artist, an art director, a project manager, to delve in and look for solutions versus band aids. And so that's where I've come from. And, in essence, this is where it's led me.
I'm really adamant about integrity and follow through; it's really key. And I've made promises to the horses, but I also have different stakeholders that are involved, and that responsibility is on my shoulders, and I need to follow through. I'm not somebody who when the going gets tough I sort of walk away. Or if it's taking too long or something like that, for something to come to fruition, if I believe in it, which I believe in this project because this is not a me project, this is a we project. This is about all of us. This is a reflection of our humanity. For that reason, this is a critical project. This is also what makes it a legacy project.
The fact that the horses do lead the way to protecting the whole, that is really important. We aren't just a fenced, wild horse sanctuary. That is a wonderful and fantastic thing, but that's not what we're doing. And that's why we are called, you know, a wildlife preserve, is because we are addressing the balance of the whole ecosystem. And there are people that kind of struggle to grasp that sometimes. But that is our goal.
My belief in life, in general, is that all things are interconnected. And I'm a firm believer in cause and effect and being very aware of that, and acting in ways that are very responsible. And so that's you know, that has led me here.
You worked as a full-time artist before starting WLP. Describe how you now work your art into this project?
So my father's a sculptor, so I grew up in art, hard core, Blue Chip visual arts. And I have a 30 year career, myself, as a contemporary visual artist. And so over the years, time and again, I have used my artwork, my photography, my art to as a tool of awareness for things I believe in, such as the Arctic Refuge in Alaska, wild horses, and Wild Love Preserve. And so I come from that place, and so it is immediately where I land when it comes to what can I do to help spread awareness and support this project? In what ways can I address that now?
I have some 6 foot wild horse pieces, some portraits I did and framed. I'm a person that in the studio I do all that work myself; I don't farm it out. So it's always a love project. And those pieces have traveled in exhibitions. And I'm actually working to sell that installation, there's seven of them. So I'm working to sell those right now to support the project, to help support the project and offset expenses when donations are a bit slow, grants aren't necessarily coming in in a timely fashion. I need to still meet financial requirements, which is a tricky business.
And if I might add, going back to the artwork, a couple years ago I was struggling with sort of feeling a disconnect because I had been out of my studio for so long so sacrifice isn't just financial my life has taken quite a right turn, and my studio awaits. But I realized that, wait a second, Wild Love Preserve is actually a living, breathing installation piece of mine. Wild Love Preserve is everything that my artwork as always been about.
And when I came to that conclusion, which now seems so obvious, it was earth shattering for me, because I was really struggling with that disconnect and thinking, what have I done? Who am I? I haven't been in the studio, you know, for three years or something. And that was hard for me; that's my career, my livelihood.
And so when I did come to that realization, and I came to terms with the thought of, okay, I'm literally walking my talk right now; I'm walking within my art, conceptually speaking. And I've got these living, moving, breathing elements, and, wow. I mean, that really excites me. That whole concept excites me. A project that continues on that is about our whole, that is about the environment, that is about the education, the respect, the cause and effect, the preservation, all of that, and that is continuing on. You know, when I cross over, and I'm floating around in some other dimension, this continues on. And, again, this is a legacy project.
How hard is it to raise money to keep WLP going?
So, yes, we have some fantastic donors, wonderful donors, repeat donors, but we have not yet reached the point of sustainability. And what I've found, through experience, is it's a Catch 22 because in order to get the attention of funders, grants, donations, you have to have a project that's successful that's doing something that matters. And so there's a constant play on, you know, having the funding to get far enough along to get in front of certain foundations, for example, that don't accept solicitations.
Even when things are challenging financially one still has to keep moving forward and making it happen. It's really that simply. And so I have ended up I have my dad, we have sacrificed a lot for this project.
Where do you see WLP in five years?
When I look forward five years, we are in our permanent location, we have our programs well under way with the youth employment program that we're partnered with, we have our education programs in place, we have our ecotourism elements in place, and we have our horses running free and wild on their home turf, but on our own permanent wild expanse, that it will be protected in perpetuity with our land trust.
What keeps you going?
I have not given up because I made a commitment. I made a commitment to these horses. And the fact that we've adopted horses and pulled them out of the taxpayer system means that I can't easily just step away. I was not looking to have our project adopt horses, originally; this was just about working collaboratively on the range. But then our project became a two part project. And creating this wild expanse at home with our adopted horses is key to addressing everything right here at home on their native turf.
Wild horses, or mustangs, come with a lot of controversy these days. The agency charged with their management is caught in the middle of a political and public affairs crisis as the current administration moves to cut the BLM wild horse budget. If this happens, the fate of up to nearly 50,000 horses and burros currently fed by the government in holding corrals or off-range pastures is uncertain. Advocates fight for solutions that won't lead to euthanasia or possibly slaughter, but their voices compete with nearly $50 million taxpayer dollars spent on maintaining the horses.
Currently, about 75,000 horses and burros roam free on designated grazing areas around the West; these are called HMAs (Herd Management Areas). That's about three times the number originally set forth by Congress in 1971 under the Wild Horse and Burro Act, designed to protect the herds from abuse and extinction. The Act came about after Velma Bronn Johnston, a horse lover from Nevada, spent nearly twenty years campaigning to gain protections for mustangs after she had witnessed horrible abuses of the animals in gathering practices across the state by profiteers who then sold the animals for slaughter.
After decades of protection, the herds have produced more horses than the land can hold. At the same time, BLM-sponsored adoptions have declined dramatically, resulting in over-crowding and what amounts to off-range feedlots for the overflow of horses. With so many sides to this issue, it is incomprehensible to imagine an outcome that will satisfy everyone. Cattle producers want more land for grazing cows; wildlife advocates don't want cows or horses taking up more habitat; and animal advocates think horses deserve more ground.
In Idaho, the Bureau of Land Management currently runs six HMAs across the state. Each HMA has a set amount of horses allowed per acre within the designated area. In 2017, the total number of wild horses in the state hovers around 700 head, spread over 418,000 acres of open land. Two of the HMAs were temporarily closed after the Soda Fire of 2015 raged through the Owyhee rangeland. The horses who survived that fire were gathered and placed in off-range holding corrals. The BLM hopes to return the set amount of horses to those HMAs when the land has recovered enough to provide feed.
Exploring this subject has been both interesting, enlightening, and difficult. From the perspective of an observer, I will say that watching the wild herds up close is impressive and moving. Even though they look like domestic horses, their behavior is most definitely of a wild nature; the studs jockey for dominance, while the mares protect and rear their young in a land that can be harsh and unforgiving. Decades of natural selection have culled the weak and truly made these horses strong and resilient, and yes, proud.
In Wild Horses, the Outdoor Idaho crew visits the herds and talks to the stakeholders as we examine the current state of mustangs in Idaho, and beyond.
Writing and editing this show has been an exercise in patience and adaptability. I easily had enough material for an hour show, but unfortunately, only had a half-hour timeslot. As any producer knows, cutting content can be very painful. After watching Ken Burn's series on the Vietnam War recently, I was feeling very envious of the many hours they were afforded to tell the whole story. I guess the consolation is that we are able to direct viewers to our website for more information, pictures, and links.
As a visual medium we often share stories about the field shoots for Outdoor Idaho or the feats of videography involved - climbing peaks, running rivers, or even crawling through caves. It's exciting and fun to watch, but it's only half the job. Seldom do we talk about the hours and hours of footage that we review and dissect before even attempting to write a script for a show. For me, field producing is the fun and easy part, although sometimes a physical challenge. But digging in and trying to weave a story out of several interviews and miles of video, now that's a true test of imagination and dedication! What to keep, what to let go - and how to bring it all together with narration, sound bites and footage to achieve a cohesive, informative, and entertaining story - and this all has to happen in twenty six minutes and forty six seconds, exactly.
Working with a creative editor is always a plus. Fortunately, we have a few of those here. I was lucky to have Jay Krajic not only shoot much of this show, but also take the editor's seat. Once I hand a script over to him I know that he will work hard to achieve not only my vision, but his own as well. He patiently sat through several script adjustments and re-writes, as any documentary editor must be willing to do, because the first draft is rarely the last draft. And as many people don't realize, the process of putting a show together often takes several weeks of research and writing, and then several more in the edit bay piecing it all together.
The result is a show that introduces the viewer to the Wild Horses of the West - how they came to be and what they went through before gaining protection by Congress almost fifty years ago. It also explains the current situation with herd populations and the options being considered to control their numbers.
You don't necessarily need to be interested in horses to watch this show. It speaks to anyone who cares about the role of our public lands and the stakeholders who value them. So, the next time you drive out through the Owyhee or across the Challis range, and happen see a small band of horses in what seems like the middle of nowhere, you'll realize that you know just a little more about who they are and why they are there - and why Congress continues to protect them as an icon of the American West.
Wild Love Preserve
Wild Horses and the Inmates Who "Gentle" Them
The Hagerman Horse
- Hagerman Horse Quarry
- State Symbols USA - Hagerman Horse Fossil
- National Park Service - Hagerman Fossil Beds
Velma Bronn Johnston - Wild Horse Annie
- Wild Horse Education - Velma Johnston (Wild Horse Annie)
- International Society for the Protection of Mustang and Burros - Wild Horse Annie