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.

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."

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.

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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.

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