While coyote hunting in the open federal lands of central Wyoming, Chuck Reed recently made an ugly discovery.
The officer for the Rawlins, Wyo., division of the Bureau of Land Management spotted a mound of brown against the white snow. As he drew nearer, he realized he was looking at the corpses of three recently shot wild horses.
Reed says it's not uncommon to find single corpses of horses that have been sickly and then shot out of mercy. But as he inspected the two young mares and one stallion, he concluded they could not have been killed with any good intention.
"The animals were fat and healthy," recalls Reed. "There was no point in looking for a noble motive. It was obvious they'd been murdered."
Graceful and Contested
Reed's discovery raised the total number of wild horse killings in Wyoming to 37 since December. And while the spate of killings has inspired outrage and disgust among all kinds of groups, it also highlights a continuing source of tension between animal-rights activists and ranchers: how to manage the estimated 49,000 wild horses that roam free in Western states.
Horses originally rambled across North America more than a million years ago during the Pleistocene era before reaching extinction. Spanish explorers reintroduced the animals to the continent in the late 15th century and Indians helped spread them throughout the West.
To people like Andrea Alococo, director of Wyoming's Fund For Animals, ranchers and the government should do everything possible to allow these graceful animals to run free and wild. To ranchers like Leonard Hay, president of Wyoming's Rock Springs Grazing Association, the horses nibble the grasses that are vital to livestock, and need to be controlled.
"We like wild horses and it's wrong to be shooting them," says Hay. "But if these horses aren't kept in low enough numbers, soon there won't be anything left but wild horses on this land."
Both Alococo's group and Hay's association have offered up thousands of dollars to fund a $30,000 reward for the shooters responsible for the killings. Such an alliance between the two groups is rare, but the groups are also unwittingly allied in one more way — both think current government management of wild horse populations does not work.
"The program has produced one problem after another," says Alococo about the Bureau of Land Management's wild horse management program.
Managed to Extinction?
In compliance with the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, the BLM manages flourishing wild horse populations by keeping tabs on their numbers and regularly gathering hundreds of wild horses using helicopters, fences and wranglers. The horses are taken to temporary holding pens, where they're fattened up with rich grains and then sold for adoption.
Environmental groups say the bureau collects too many horses from the wild each year. This year the bureau hopes to round up 13,000 horses and over the next five years the plan is to reduce populations from about 49,000 to 27,000.
"Our purpose is to balance the use of the land for many animals," says Mary Knapp, of BLM's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "The wild horses share the land with livestock and other wildlife."