CAÑON CITY, Colo. — The herd of wild horses clopped cautiously toward the strangers in their pen. A chestnut mustang leaned in for a closer look, sniffing and snorting curiously. Another inched backward, her black eyes flashing with fear.
For many, this would be their first human contact, beyond the workers who feed them at this 80-acre holding center, 100 miles southwest of Denver.
“They have all their needs met here. Except their freedom,” said Fran Ackley, who oversees the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program in Colorado. “I can’t say if they want it or not.”
Long a totem of the American frontier, the tens of thousands of wild horses who roam across forgotten stretches of the rural West are at the heart of an increasingly tense dispute over their fate. The bureau says their numbers continue to grow at an unmanageable rate, despite years of removing wild horses from the range to enclosed pastures so that wildlife and livestock can share the land.
Horse advocates contend that the government’s approach has not only failed, but is also needlessly cruel. And they say the horses should be able live out their lives freely.
Despite deep differences on how the animals should be managed, both sides agree on one thing: The situation has reached a tipping point.
These days, the temporary holding pens and long-term pastures where many wild horses end up are nearing capacity or full. And the cost of caring for them has ballooned over the past decade.
“We’re looking at critical mass,” said Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the bureau. “The fact is we can’t be in a position of gathering horses that we can’t take care of. The capacity issue is staring us in the face.”
The question of what to do with the animals — descendants of United States Cavalry horses, workhorses and horses brought here by Spanish settlers — has confounded the federal government for decades.
In an effort to maintain a stable population, while also preserving public land, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, allowing the bureau to remove “excess” wild horses from the range.
But with virtually no natural predators, herds typically double every four years. Currently, about 37,300 wild horses and burros roam across federal rangeland in 10 Western states, about 11,000 more than what the bureau deems manageable.
Each year, the bureau conducts roundups to thin the population. Low-flying helicopters drive the animals into traps before they are taken to holding pens and permanent pastures.
The roundups have long been criticized as inhumane and dangerous.
“Their entire approach is wrong. The B.L.M. puts all its emphasis on removing and stockpiling horses as opposed to managing them on the range,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. “There needs to be a more humane way, a more cost-effective way of managing these animals.”
Photos taken by advocates of a recent roundup in northern Nevada appear to show several confused horses stumbling into a barbed wire fence. Another shows a wrangler with a foal slung across his saddle. Advocates said the animal collapsed after being stampeded for miles.
While acknowledging that a small number of horses get hurt or die during the roundups, the bureau defends the approach as the only option given the circumstances. Mr. Gorey said that the agency does everything it can to minimize injuries.
But the bureau concedes that gathering more horses is not a panacea. Nearly 50,000 wild horses and burros are already housed at temporary holding pens or pastures, more than triple the number from a decade ago.
“People need to realize that we’ve done more than what was envisioned under the Wild Horses Act, which is why we’re in the situation we are today,” said Mr. Ackley, the head of the bureau’s Colorado program.
He noted that horses at the Cañon City facility are well cared for, whereas drought and wintry conditions can make life on the range especially harsh. A prison inmate training program at the center will also ready some of the mustangs for adoption.
But advocates say that the trauma of being separated from their families and the range leaves the horses dispirited and stressed.
This month, a strange illness sickened horses at Cañon City, and 19 died or were euthanized. Mr. Ackley said he had never seen anything like it.
read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/us/wil...ted=1&_r=0