In the name of freedom

Managing wild horses in the once wild West


Carol Walker of Longmont can tell a wild horse by the look in its eyes, an expression of the untamed vastness of the once wild West. For Walker, the author of Galloping to Freedom, a photographic documentation of the plight of wild horses in Wyoming, there is a sense of sadness in that recognition. While she knows wild when she sees it, she also knows that it is tenuous and fleeting.

“In this day and age we are taking more and more of our wild places away to develop, frack and graze the land, all of which is destroying it,” Walker says. “People don’t always realize that there is an impact on human beings that is terrible because we need those wild places as a part of our souls — as a part of our lives and our wellbeing and our planet. People talk about wild horses as a symbol of the West but really they are a part of our land, a part of our planet and a part of our wildlife.”

No longer an open frontier, the West is a patchwork of private and public land that cannot support growing horse populations in tandem with cattle grazing and other industrial uses. Wild horse populations grow at 20 percent a year due to natural reproduction and the release of feral horses onto public lands. When there are too many horses, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) removes them in roundup events, using helicopters to corral herds into long-term holding facilities.

Walker’s book, sponsored by Cana Projects, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring the sustainable use of western land and resources through advocacy programs, documents the Checkerboard Roundup of 2014 and follows the journey of a few horses that end up in a Wyoming sanctuary against all odds. Their rescue is due to the fight by a dedicated group of wild horse advocates, including Walker and her organization the Wild Horse Freedom Federation.

But the story of these horses really begins 64 years before the roundup, in 1945, with the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act that established the BLM as the administrator of public lands. For more than three decades, the BLM existed as a land management department, a link between corporate cattle interests and the federal inventory of land, providing below market rate grazing leases to ranchers.

By the 1970s wild horse populations declined due to competition with livestock. In response to public outcry and activism, Congress passed the Wild and

Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHBA) in 1971, charging the BLM with the responsibility of studying, managing and protecting the wild horse and burro populations.

This role pits the BLM against itself — asking the agency to both lease the land to ranchers and to protect the wild animals that already roamed on it. Since WFRHBA went into effect, the BLM has struggled to maintain a balance between these roles.

In January 2011, the Rocks Springs Grazing Association (RSGA), a southern Wyoming livestock group, filed an injunction to force the BLM to remove wild horses from private grazing lands adjacent to federal horse management areas.

In accordance with RSGA requests, in April 2013 the BLM signed a consent decree calling for the removal of all horses within that area to be removed, not just from private lands, but from public lands, too. Termed the Checkerboard Roundup, the event would have huge implications for the management of public lands in the West. Not only did it call into question the BLM’s ability to steward the horses they are charged with protecting, but it set a new precedent for the removal of horses from public land.

In order to stop the roundup, Walker and the Cana Projects filed a temporary restraining order and emergency injunction that was denied by the courts. Walker felt powerless to protest the roundup. Unable to stop what was about to happen, she readied herself to do what she could; photograph and document the imminent loss of freedom and life in hope of increasing awareness. 

“I first saw the horses in the book before they were rounded up,” Walker says. “They were just spending time in their families grazing, playing and doing what wild horses do, totally unaware of what was going to happen to them. It broke my heart because I knew what it is like in captivity. I knew that they would lose their wildness.”

Over the next week of the roundup, the BLM used helicopters and automobiles to remove 1,263 wild horses from the Great Divide Basin, Salt Wells Creek and Adobe Town Management Areas in Wyoming. Fourteen horses were killed in the process.

Walker followed the horses as they traveled from Wyoming to their temporary holding facility in Cañon City, Colorado.

The horses were supposed to be ready for adoption a few weeks after the roundup, but because the facility was understaffed the horses were not turned around for sale until February 2015 — more than four months after they entered captivity.

By March, 76 of the Checkerboard Roundup horses had died in captivity. Some of the remaining horses were sold, but most remain in holding facilities like that in Cañon City. As of April 2015, there were approximately 48,000 confined wild horses and burros held and managed by the BLM across the country.

But Walker secured a home for 22 horses from the Checkerboard Roundup — an 11,000-acre sanctuary in Wyoming. Her book tells the story of the return of these horses to their natural habitat and points to the broken system that perpetuates the loss of wildness.

Last month, Walker, along with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, Return to Freedom, the Cloud Foundation, Ginger Kathrens and Kimmerlee Curyl, filed a lawsuit challenging the Checkerboard Roundup — arguing that the BLM and RSGA illegally removed horses from public land and did not allow for a sufficient public opinion process. The suit is filed with the 10th District Court of Appeals and will likely be heard in Denver in 2016.

With 49,209 horses and burros currently roaming 31 million acres of public lands, barely outnumbering those in captivity, this case not only draws attention to the magnitude of the problem, but to the cost and methodology used to mitigate wild horse populations.

Keeping horses in captivity is expensive — Walker says that the BLM uses almost half of its budget on keeping the horses in captivity. There is no question that it would be less expensive to control the population than to confine them, but there is political pressure to get the horses off of the land now.

In order to address the high costs of long-term holding facilities, the BLM recently commissioned several research studies looking into the sterilization of horses by way of spaying mares. While this may be an effective and low-cost alternative, the process comes at great risk to the horses. The chances of sickness and death after the invasive surgery is high as horses are unguarded against infection in the wild.

The Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP), a contraceptive vaccine, is considered to be a humane alternative to sterilization by many wild horse advocates. In March 2015, Walker met with BLM Director Neil Kornze to discuss logistical pathways to pursue the use of PZP. But according to Walker, he was disinterested, citing the amount of field work required to vaccinate the mares every two years.

“I’m really happy that the horses in the book are back together and that they are at the sanctuary, but, as you can see, this is only a solution for some horses,” Walker says. “There are not enough sanctuaries to take them all. There just aren’t. We need to be able to keep them out on the land. Something big needs to change for that to happen — new land agreements, new methodologies for controlling population size — I don’t know how that is going to happen, but I am determined to hang in there and do what I can.”

Correction: In the original text, this story listed Cana Projects as a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the Checkerboard Roundup and as Walker’s organization that was responsible for rescuing some of the horses. Our apologies for any inconvenience. 

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