Wild Horses Rounded Up in American West

Gerlach, Nev., a sleepy little town an hour and a half north of Reno, turns into the third-largest city in the state once a year when a colorful crowd descends upon the nearby Burning Man Festival.

This is not the season for Burning Man, and yet Gerlach has been a very busy place in the last few weeks. Media, activists and at least one billionaire have descended on the town to witness one of the largest wild horse roundups in the nation's history.

VIDEO: Mustangs are Being Rounded UpPlay

The goal for the government is to gather just over 11,000 wild horses nationwide before the end of the year. More than half of the horses are located in Nevada, right around Gerlach.

The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) oversees the roundups for the federal government. When it comes to wild horses, the government has been clear about its goal: The horses are overpopulated and starving because there are too many of them for the land to sustain, so they need to be removed.

"The evidence is stark," said Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. "You see horses that essentially have nothing but bones and ribs on them, horses that are simply starving out there on the range."

SLIDESHOW: Wild Horses Captured Across the West

The BLM says it is doing these roundups to protect the horses and to "manage" their population.

Activists are crying foul, saying the government's census numbers on the horses are inaccurate. They argue the horses are not overpopulated or starving, and the roundups hurt the horses. They want the horses to remain wild.

Many activists claim the government is doing this to benefit cattle ranchers who are a powerful lobbying group.

"They are zeroing out too many of the legal herds," said Craig Downer, a wild horse advocate. "Their so-called appropriate management levels that have been set are not viable in the long term, so they're setting up these horses to a crippling low number that's not adaptable."

The day before the scheduled media tour, the scene was quiet at Bruno's Country Club, the little saloon, motel and restaurant that has become the unofficial headquarters of the BLM. The sun was just starting to set and Bruno's was glowing under the purple clouds in the light.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a man in a tuxedo and a horse-head mask bicycled by the dusty parking lot. One of the local rangers didn't even blink at the sight, saying he's probably a "burner."

"Burners" are a group of eccentric people who live in Gerlach year round and organize the annual festival.

Billionaire's Wife Wants to Purchase Land for Horses

As he bicycled away, choppers appeared in the sky. A few people from the town gathered in front of the saloon as two helicopters floated closer and closer to Bruno's and eventually just landed right there in the field in front of the gas station.

Doors opened and out popped Madeleine Pickens, the blonde and perfectly-coiffed wife of billionaire oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

Wearing a tan shall and Ralph Lauren cowboy boots, she pushed her 18-year-old blind dog Ollie in a baby stroller across the field and made her way to her room at Bruno's where she would spend the night.

Following her was her entourage: two assistants, her twin sister, two horse consultants, her photographer and three helicopter pilots. Pickens arrived to watch the horse-gathering process and to take a look at the land where she hopes one day to build a horse refuge.

"They're in holding areas right now," she said of the horses. "So let's take them out and put them on the range where they can roam freely as natural to them, and then allow the American public to come and visit them just as they would in any national park."

Pickens is upset about the horse roundups and wishes they would stop, but she's putting her energy and money into what happens to the horses after they get gathered.

"I made a proposal to the Bureau of Land Management, and I said, 'Let me create an eco-sanctuary. I will purchase the land,'" said Pickens. "Initially, they loved it. Then they changed their mind, and there was a change in the government. But you know, really Republican or Democrat, they've never been good on horse issues. It's a cattleman's issue, and it's a very difficult issue to fight."

The problem is, she needs the Department of Interior to agree to her plan in order to buy the property and place the horses in Nevada, but the department so far has refused.

"I think her proposal is one that needs to be looked at in conjunction with other proposals," Salazar said. "We are proposing the creation of three additional wild horse preserves in places that have better forage [than Nevada] to be able to deal with what is essentially an 11,000-horse problem."

The problem is where to house these horses after they have been gathered. Tough economic times mean people are not adopting horses as often, so most of the horses end up in long-term horse-holding shelters funded by taxpayers' money. The government calls the holding areas "preserves," but the activists call them "concentration camps."

The emotions run high when it comes to wild horses.

'Let Them Go': Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow Against Roundups

Prominent figures like the singers Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow have spoken out against the roundups, even accusing the government of leading the wild horses to eventual slaughter.

"I'm speaking for the horse here," Nelson said. "I think he's getting the worst deal here. There's a lot of land out there. The horses are penned up. Let them go until we decide what to do with them. In the meantime, let's take care of them. Don't slaughter them."

The slaughter of horses is illegal in the United States, but the activists claim the horses get shipped to Mexico or Canada, where it is allowed.

The day of the roundup featured a clear, blue sky. The BLM led a caravan of 12 cars carrying media representatives and horse advocates towards Solider Meadows field where cowboys had worked all morning to set up traps and locate the horses.

The drive took two hours from Gerlach on a muddy road, which caused two flat tires on the journey. When the caravan of media and BLM representatives arrived, there was an announcement that a set of helicopters operated by the contractor was on a recon mission trying to spot some mustangs in the high hills surrounding the trap site.

In Nevada, more than 600 horses have been rounded up since Dec. 29. A handful of them were standing around inside of a holding pen near the trap site. Mares, colts and male horses were divided into separate pens.

"They should be 100 pounds, maybe 200 pounds heavier than what they are," said Alan Shepherd of BLM, pointing to the horses in the pen. "Going into the winter, we don't want horses in this condition. We want to get the horses before they really start declining."

After a roundup, the animals were loaded onto trucks and driven out to Fallon, Nev. to be put in a short-term holding area with the rest of the horses. On a successful day, the BLM rounds up about 50-100 horses.

After several hours of waiting, with only a couple of hours of sunlight left, the recon helicopter spotted a band. Visitors who came to watch the roundups quickly drove over to the "trap" area to sit on the side of a dusty hill and wait.

After about 45 minutes, a helicopter appeared in the distance. It got louder and louder as its rotors appeared over the edge of the hill.

The helicopter popped out from behind the slope, large, loud and close. In front of the chopper, a long band of horses galloped toward the enclosure. Despite their speed, the mustangs seemed almost quiet and slow compared to the loud buzzing of the helicopter that hovered above them.

Helicopters Round Up Horses

The horses ran in a straight, long line until they were caught.

The scene was dramatic as the cowboys on either side of the traps corralled the horses and directed them over to the loading truck. The horses whinnied and jumped on top of each other and banged against the fences.

For these mustangs, their time in the wild has come to an end.

The activists had horrified looks on their faces. One of them wanted to go down to the trap and monitor the horses' breathing, but the BLM representative didn't let her.

There were another two roundups, and each time the helicopter flew low over a long line of running horses and directed them from the distant hills into the traps. The plan was to continue the process until a total of 3,000 horses were rounded up from the area.

The government insists wild horses won't ever disappear entirely because they reproduce quickly and often. The activists say all this is going to lead wild horses to extinction.

The sun was setting as Pickens jumped back into her helicopter to survey the golden, brush-covered hills below that were hiding small bands of the remaining free, wild horses -- and the land she hopes one day to put them on.