The wild herd of horses that I have followed and photographed in the desert mountains for the last two years are gone. Over three hundred of these magnificent mustangs have been removed from their home in the high desert. Only a few will be returned. The future of the others is uncertain at best.
The Bureau of Land Management cited that herd overpopulation and the resulting impact on other wildlife, the environment and reduction of forage available to range cattle required the elimination of most of the mustangs.
The status of free-ranging wild horses is unique. They grew extinct over 10,000 years ago. (Many believe that they were hunted to extinction by prehistoric man). Yet, with the escape or release of horses that came with Spanish explorers to the New World in the 1500's, the animals reverted back to a wild state. Many generations of wild horses have roamed the West over the past several hundred years without interference of men, mostly because they lived in remote areas considered hostile and undesirable by early settlers.
As the more desirable valleys near the lakes and streams filled with settlement, ranchers moved ever farther into the arid lands to the west, turning out cattle to graze on the meager forage. At that point, the wild horses were considered mavericks; if you could catch one, (a difficult task) it was yours. But, with no real value to the ranching community, they were considered pests and many were simply shot. In recent years, the mustangs were driven into corrals, specially designed to fool the wary wild horses. After being force-loaded into trucks, they were shipped to slaughterhouses to become pet food and other less dignified products. (I grew up in a rural area on a ranch myself, and remember as a young boy when my father and uncle caught and sold wild horses in the 1960's.)
In the early 1970's, the inhumane treatment of mustangs caught the attention of the American public and laws were passed for the protection of mustangs. Under the new legislation, the BLM agency of the federal government took on the task of wild horse herd management. With very limited resources and huge areas to oversee, the BLM's job of mustang protection and population control is not easy. And a growing number of wild horse activists are pressing for changes in mustang management. Some say that the wild horses should be left alone, that there is plenty of range for cattle, wild horses and wildlife. Then, there is the question of what to do with the surplus animals that are not taken by the public in the BLM adoption program, many of the older and/or less-than-beautiful horses will not be adopted. I have read that there as many wild horses in holding facilities in the West as there are in the wild.
Sad as it is, I have visited the wild horse holding area and taken photos of the once-free horses. The are being fed and well cared for. Some of the very sick, crippled and old horses have already been put down, as expected. In the next few weeks, I will post before and after images of some of my favorite horses. And I look forward to seeing those few lucky horses that will be released back out into the desert when that time comes.