Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved plaid shirt, and dusty blue jeans with a massive star-shaped belt buckle, 56-year-old Jess Dancer is a cowboy straight out of central casting, complete with weathered hands, graying hair, and a Ford F-350. Half sitting, half leaning on a sawhorse in the shade of a toolshed at Alturas Ranches, where he works as a farm and ranch manager, he expresses his concern about what’s happening on the range around him.
“Somebody will be shot, or horses will be shot,” he says. “Something will happen.”
For some 15 years, the U.S. Forest Service allowed Alturas Ranches to turn out roughly 380 cattle on a part of northeastern California’s Modoc National Forest known as Emigrant Springs. The permits, covering land under both Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service jurisdictions, allowed Dancer’s cattle to spend around five months basking in the sunshine and eating wild grasses before being rounded up in late October and moved to lower-altitude, warmer pastures for the winter, prior to their eventual slaughter for meat.
But Emigrant Springs is home to more than just cattle from Alturas Ranches, and that’s what fuels Dancer’s concerns.
The allotment’s shallow eponymous springs provide a critical resource in this otherwise arid landscape. Deer and pronghorn visit to slake their thirst, frogs and salamanders make a home there, and waterfowl and other migratory birds use the wetlands as a rest stop on their long journeys. While cattle are allowed to graze in some of these areas, the ducks and geese don’t seem to mind. Some even prefer nesting in grasses that have been nibbled down.
But then there are the wild mustangs of the Devil’s Garden herd. Back in 2011, when he was first hired by Alturas, Dancer saw just a few horses moving through his permit area. “But then, in the spring of 2012, there was a major influx of wild horses,” he says. He isn’t sure why the horses seem to enjoy spending time around Emigrant Springs, but he suspects conditions there are milder than in other parts of the national forest. “The weather doesn’t get quite as severe; the snow is not as deep. So the winter die-off is not as prevalent. They can survive the winters better.”
And the number of wild horses is increasing. While a determined mountain lion or wolf can probably take down a foal, there’s not much on the range that can kill a fully grown horse. That’s thanks in part to their towering height, the muscles powering their long legs, and the fact that they can work in teams to drive potential predators away. As a result, horse herds in the American West are generally increasing by 15 to 25 percent each year, with births far outnumbering deaths. In the spring of 2016, the entire Devil’s Garden herd, named for the lava rock–studded plateau on which they live within Modoc National Forest, was counted by helicopter and estimated at close to 2,500.
By 2018, the herd had swelled to some 4,000 horses; a thousand of them could routinely be found in the Emigrant Springs area alone, Dancer says.
Given a finite amount of forage and a growing number of horses, the size of Dancer’s cattle-grazing permit has been dramatically reduced. In 2017, he was granted permission to turn out just 49 cows, about 12 percent of his usual allowance.
The numbers no longer worked for Dancer. Alturas Ranches was forced to sell off half its 500-head herd so it could afford to pay private landowners for permission to graze the other half. The sale represents a potential revenue loss of more than a quarter of a million dollars, which means Dancer hasn’t been able to hire as many ranch hands as usual.
And that’s some of the fallout from the problem on Dancer’s mind: too much competition for land among ranchers like him, the feral horses protected by the government, and native wildlife. Something has to give.
The soft-spoken Dancer does not advocate violence, but he is concerned about other folks who may find themselves in a position similar to his. In a 2001 incident in nearby Siskiyou County, water-deprived farmers broke into an irrigation canal with crowbars and blowtorches and were met by armed federal marshals. It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether a similar standoff could result from conflicts over horses. “Somebody is gonna pull the plug one day,” he says, “and it’s not going to be fun.”
Wild horses have become synonymous with the American West, with the adventure and danger and opportunity of life on the frontier. Manifest destiny drove European colonization through North America by rail and wagon and horse from sea to shining sea. The western frontier, of course, doesn’t really exist anymore. But the horses sure do, nearly 72,000 of them, scattered across 10 western states. And some are causing trouble.
About a third of the nearly 90 million acres of public land on which free-roaming horses reside, as well as the horses themselves, are under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, though some horses, including the Devil’s Garden herd, fall under the management of the U.S. Forest Service.
In response to public outcry over the decline of horse herds in the first half of the 20th century, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971. (While feral horses can be found on public lands administered by the Department of Defense, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service, as well as on tribal lands, only those horses found on BLM or forest service lands are subject to the 1971 act, with the majority of herds residing on BLM rangelands.) Practically overnight, the BLM became responsible for protecting and managing these animals because they were “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West”—even though their ancestors hailed from Europe.
The first equids—the family of animals that includes horses, asses, and zebras, along with their fossilized ancestors—evolved around 55 million years ago. The genus Equus, of which the modern domestic horse is a member, emerged in North America in the Pleistocene epoch. Equids spread into Eurasia and Africa, where they continued to evolve, while their relatives in North America died out around 10,000 years ago.
It wasn’t until 500 years ago that the hoofbeats of horses were heard again in the Americas. Brought by European explorers, colonists, and conquerors, these animals were the descendants of horses likely domesticated around 3500 BC in Kazakhstan. The new arrivals, mostly of Iberian stock—mixes of colonial Spanish breeds, including the famous Andalusian and the North African barb—were tools of agriculture and of war.
So how did the workhorses and warhorses of European colonization become living symbols of the American West’s pioneer spirit? Where did the stereotyped image of a horse galloping across the vast grasslands and deserts of the American West, wind blowing through its mane, its muscles rippling beneath the warm sun, even come from?
Blame the Industrial Revolution. Once tractors and other agricultural machines became easily available to farmers, they had little use for most of their saddle and draft horses and were unable to justify spending money to care for them. So the horses were turned out into the wilderness, left to fend for themselves—until 1971’s act of Congress.
“[Government agencies] set appropriate management levels using the scientific information related to rangeland ecosystems and rangeland health, ideally trying to find a way to sustain those rangelands in a healthy way,” says Keith Norris, director of wildlife policy and programs for the Wildlife Society, a U.S. nonprofit that promotes science-based wildlife management practices. Those appropriate management levels (AMLs) indicate the number of horses that a given region can sustain—while also allowing for all the other land uses that the BLM supports. “So there is a balancing act between livestock grazing, feral horses, and native wildlife, the three primary users of the forage and water out there,” Norris says.
The AML for the Devil’s Garden herd is set between 206 and 402, but best estimates suggest the herd may now be at 10 times the upper limit. Similarly, though the total AML for all horse and burro herds throughout the American West is set at 26,690 animals, as of March 1, 2019, the official BLM estimate for the entire population under its watch across the West was over 88,000. By 2021, there could be as many as 140,000 horses and burros grazing the American West if nothing slows their population growth.
As the horse population has exploded, hunters, wildlife conservationists, and even water- and soil-quality advocates have found themselves aligned with cattle ranchers opposite horse advocacy groups. The ranchers—especially those who rely on government-subsidized public land grazing—represent an obvious foil for horse advocates, who sometimes cite the caricature of the villainous 19th-century cattle baron to garner public support.
In reality, many of the folks affected by the presence of the wild horses, at least in Modoc County, are from small, family-owned ranches. “These families have had those permits for two or three generations; they’ve been grazing that land for 50 years,” says ecologist Laura Snell, natural resource adviser for Modoc County through the University of California Cooperative Extension. “And now they’re being told they can’t graze anymore because of the horses, and we don’t have any [alternative] land for them to go to instead.”
The BLM is required to achieve a “thriving natural ecological balance” in order to support a wide range of land uses: biodiversity conservation, hunting, fishing, livestock grazing, recreation, maintaining water and soil quality, and protecting horses. The problem is that 12 months of horse grazing and 5 concurrent months of livestock grazing each year simply isn’t sustainable in a place like Modoc National Forest’s Emigrant Springs, with its gently gurgling creeks, haphazardly scattered lava rocks, and gnarled junipers—especially if there is to be any food and water left over for all the deer, elk, pronghorn, ducks, geese, frogs, snakes, rabbits, fish, and everything else that must make a living in the wild.
To limit the impact on the landscape from livestock, the BLM imposes constraints on the number of animals that ranchers can turn out, as well as on the length of time those animals can graze. The bureau can also gather and remove horses in excess of the limit set by the 1971 legislation. That’s a high-wire balancing act, though, given the iconic status that wild horses maintain in the American psyche, to say nothing of their often remote and rugged habitats. “What they told us is basically, we can control you, the cattlemen. But we can’t control the wild horses,” Dancer says.
So, where possible, the BLM gathers horses into what are called short-term holding facilities, where staffers work to get them adopted. But there’s a three-strikes rule: if a horse can’t be adopted after three attempts, then the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act directs the BLM to sell the animal “without limitation,” even for processing into meat products—which the American public is generally unwilling to tolerate.
However, advocacy groups have successfully lobbied Congress to include clauses preventing the agency from selling horses to slaughter in nearly every appropriations bill going back at least to 1994. “So for the past  years, they haven’t been legally allowed to do that, even though the act says they can,” says Gillian Lyons, who oversees wild horse advocacy for the Humane Society of the United States.
With its hands tied, the BLM has had no choice but to transfer unadoptable horses into long-term holding pastures or corrals. And those facilities, often owned by private landowners on contract with the government to care for the horses, are full.
At last count, the approximately 46,000 horses and burros in long-term holding were eating up more than 60 percent of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program budget. Put another way, American taxpayers spend about $50 million each year to keep and care for the wild horses until they die of illness or old age—$50,000 per horse over its lifetime.
With long-term facilities at capacity, the BLM can remove from public lands only as many horses each year as can be adopted. The average number of horses adopted annually from 2008 to 2017 was only 2,783. “I think everybody would agree that removing only horses that have a chance for adoption”—and leaving the rest of the excess horses on the range rather than transferring them into captivity—“is the way to go,” says Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Cloud Foundation, a wild horse advocacy group.
Several years ago, the BLM asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to put together a committee to review its wild horse and burro management program. The volunteer committee, composed mostly of academic biologists and ecologists, concluded that if the growth of the feral horse population is not controlled, the main limitation on their survival will be the availability of food. Scores—perhaps even hundreds or thousands—of horses will die of starvation, to say nothing of the impact on the other creatures in their environs that rely on those resources. “If we did no management, horses would eat themselves out of house and home,” Norris says, “to the detriment of everything else that uses the range, to the detriment of livestock grazing, to the detriment of water quality and soil quality and native vegetation.”
RIGHT SOLUTION, WRONG ENVIRONMENT
While people do not want to see horses sent to slaughter, they also find the thought of thousands of starving horses unpalatable. As an alternative to killing or selling these excess horses, Kathrens and Lyons both advocate for intensive management through the use of contraceptive vaccines.
Contraception has proved useful in other places in the United States with wild horse populations. The feral horses overseen by the National Park Service on the islands of North Carolina’s Shackleford Banks, for instance, have been successfully managed using a contraceptive vaccine called PZP. The required multiple treatments and annual boosters are relatively simple to administer on these islands, where every last animal can easily be found and darted. But that doesn’t always work on the open range, says Cheryl Asa, director of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Reproductive Management Center.
In places like the sprawling, lava rock–strewn Devil’s Garden, barely navigable by truck and besieged by the invasive juniper trees, the BLM must be allowed to use alternative strategies, says Norris, who recently served as cochair of the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, a policy advocacy group made up of representatives from a variety of hunting, public lands, wildlife, and ranching advocacy organizations.
And even if contraception were practical everywhere, there’s just not enough to go around, says U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Erik Beever, who served on the NAS committee. “If we combine every single manufacturer of PZP in the country and have them max out their production, there are simply not enough doses to dart every animal.”
One option, Norris suggests, is to give the BLM millions more dollars each year to care for more animals in long-term holding, so it can continue to remove horses from public rangelands. A 2013 estimate published in the journal Science projected a cost of $1.1 billion through 2030 were the BLM to continue its practice of caring for horses in captivity at the current numbers.
The most obvious alternative, which would require congressional action, is one that many would rather avoid: relieving the BLM of the obligation to care for horses in captivity following their removal from the range. That would free up some $50 million each year that could instead be used to directly manage the on-range feral population, says Norris. The BLM could then euthanize the captive horses or sell them—including for processing into meat products to be sold overseas, in countries where horsemeat consumption is not taboo.
Once the on-range AML was achieved—which would reduce the total number of horses from nearly 72,000 to fewer than 26,690—it would be practical to manage the expected population increase of some 5,000 horses per year through a combination of adoption and contraception, Norris argues.
To say that this is not a popular strategy would be an understatement. Lyons argues that the AML is absurdly small in the first place and that more land and forage should be allocated to horses and less to profit-making ventures like livestock grazing.
And from a political perspective, members of Congress—especially those from eastern states, whose constituents love horses but aren’t directly faced with their ecological and economic impacts—have little reason to support a vote to kill horses.
WHAT IS WILD?
As with so many complicated ecological issues, at the crux of this controversy is a question of values, not of scientific knowledge. At this point, the impacts of horses on western ecosystems are fairly clear: Hungry horses eat grasses down to their roots, which cripples their ability to regrow. Their big, flat hooves compress soil, causing erosion. The one-two punch of lost vegetation and erosion makes critical water sources in the parched American West far less useful as habitat and as nourishment for native wildlife. Even in rocky areas less prone to degradation under horses’ hooves, wildlife suffers. A 2018 analysis conducted in the Utah desert found that mule deer and pronghorn avoid water sources when they’re crowded by horses.
And it’s not as if removing livestock has resulted in a significant benefit for wildlife where wild horses have remained. “We’re kicking the cattle people off,” Snell says, “[and] the wildlife are still being negatively affected.”
But science often does little to sway subjective feelings. In 1980, a pair of researchers funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a survey of Americans’ feelings for a variety of animals. Horses ranked extremely high, second only to domestic dogs. “In America, we see them as companion animals,” Norris says.
Though they are technically feral domesticates, wild horses will not eat a carrot from your hand, nor will they carry you atop their backs. And in places like Modoc National Forest, horses do everything they can to keep their distance from people. Still, it’s our culture’s pervasive love for horses that prevents public land managers from using all the available tools to address the problems they cause. “As public land owners,” Snell says, “we should be outraged.”
Last fall, the U.S. Forest Service orchestrated the removal of 932 horses from the Devil’s Garden herd in an operation called a gather. Because the terrain they inhabit is so difficult to navigate by land, helicopters were used to coax the horses, guided by fences, into temporary holding areas, from which they were transported to permanent corrals.
The approximately 650 horses under 10 years old were routed to a nearby BLM facility for adoption. The rest—older, “retirement-age” horses—were held in a nearby forest service corral until they could be adopted or sold, with many winding up in sanctuaries, on ranches, or in training to become therapy animals.
The forest service isn’t subject to the same legal constraints as the BLM, so under normal circumstances, some of those horses could theoretically have found their way to slaughterhouses. However, various lawsuits by horse advocacy groups were pending, so the forest service could only sell the horses “with limitation,” meaning that buyers were prohibited from processing the animals into commercial products.
Though removing 932 horses from Devil’s Garden isn’t enough to solve the problem—nearly 4,000 remain, since the gather occurred after foaling season, when the herd likely increased to some 4,800 or so—that the gather occurred at all was something of a success, given the intense pushback from horse advocates. Snell expects another gather to take place in the autumn of 2019, with a target of removing perhaps 1,500 horses. “[This] is really where we hope to start to see impacts to the ecosystem. Enough horses removed that plants can start regenerating, the springs can start functioning again. We can do some restoration and make a bigger difference [for native wildlife],” she says.
The broader task, according to an article coauthored by Beever, is to find a way to reconcile the desires of those who see the natural world from a primarily aesthetic, spiritual, Emersonian perspective and those who take a more grounded approach to conservation, one based on sustainable use of natural resources—who believe that American wildlands ought to provide, as U.S. Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot put it, “the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time.”
Back at the Alturas ranch, Dancer leans against his truck and stares into the distance. “We’re not out there with pistols, rifles, pointing the gun down the throat of anybody. That’s not gonna solve anything,” he says. “We would just like to get back out on our permit, with our full numbers, and get along with everybody.”
Jason G. Goldman is an award-winning science journalist, author, and expedition leader based in Los Angeles. He wrote about hunting in Alta, Fall 2018.