It’s an unseasonably warm November day in Wyoming, and a small group of Bureau of Land Management employees is out in the Checkerboard, just east of Rock Springs. Like a lot of Wyoming, it’s arid with wide open spaces. They’re looking for wild horses. Leading the way is Jay D’Ewart, who works with wild horses for the Rock Springs field office.
“Besides the paperwork,” says D’Ewart. “I’m the eyes and ears for the wild horses out here on the range.”
A few times a week, D’Ewart will come out here to make sure the animals are healthy, but it’s not always easy.
“They can cover a lot of country fast, I mean, they can be here one minute and ten minutes, they could be a couple miles away,” D’Ewart says.
Pretty soon, the group spots a band of a dozen or so horses about a hundred yards away. Most of them begin to move in the other direction. One—a tall, brown mustang—stays still, with a steady eye on the group.
There are no fences in sight, so from where they’re standing it’s hard to tell whether the mustang is on private or public land. Land ownership here alternates every other square mile, and is what gives the Checkerboard its name. It has also led to a lot of conflicts. Most recently, this October the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that the BLM broke the law when they rounded up wild horses on public lands in 2014.
Ginger Kathrens is the Executive Director of the Cloud Foundation, a wild horse advocacy group. She became a wild horse advocate back in the 90s, while working on a documentary about a herd in the Pryor Mountains of Montana.
“I really appreciate and respect the way they live and understand their uniqueness,” says Kathrens. “I don’t think most people do appreciate or understand what it’s like to live wild in a family.”
At any given moment there could be as many as 1,900 wild horses roaming in and out of the Checkerboard, and both ranchers and the BLM agree that is too many. The BLM determines population limits based on the amount of land and food needed to support the horses and other wildlife.
But Kathrens says the Checkerboard can support this many horses, and they’re better off here than in holding pins in the Midwest.
“On the range management means that the animals are not removed and warehoused at tax payer expense somewhere, but they’re allowed to live their lives on the range,” says Kathrens.
She believes if left to their own devices, wild horse populations will balance themselves out.
“And if that isn’t equaling out based on natural causes of extreme weather or predation,” Kathrens adds. “Then we enter the equation as the predators and we try to keep foals from being born.”
The BLM says it is researching how much fertility treatment would cost, but even that won’t fix the problem as fast as some ranchers, like Bill Taliaferro, would like it to.
“If it were up to me, well, I guess get rid of them,” says Taliaferro. “Apparently they can’t handle them. They’re going to run out of money here pretty quick; you can’t have that many horses just sitting around.”
In his view the problem goes all the way back to 1971, when Congress passed the Wild Horse and Burro Act, which gave the BLM the responsibility of managing and protecting wild horses. But Taliaferro says they haven’t done that job.
“The BLM wouldn’t allow us to devastate their grounds with cattle or sheep like they’re allowing the horses to destroy our ground,” Taliaferro says.
He’s worried that Wyoming will soon experience the same issues as other western states.
“I mean, look at Nevada,” Taliaferro says. “They’ve got huge problems of overgrazing by wild horses. I mean the horses are dying on the range now because there’s no feed.”
Back on the Checkerboard, the mustang that once stood on look-out has trotted away to reunite with the other horses. BLM supervisor Spencer Allred says being caught in the middle of opposite views is just part of the job.
“That’s our goal, is to find a balanced approach,” he says. “It often tends to be that when finding a balanced approach, both extremes are not happy, but it is part of our duty and what we do.”
The BLM hopes to have another chance to get it right as they draft a new management plan next summer.