One year ago today, Ranger and forty-seven other horses were driven into a trap by a low-flying helicopter. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), tasked with reducing feral horse herds in the west to levels that the land can support, rounded up a total of 424 horses over six days from the Fish Creek Herd Management Area in central Nevada’s Eureka County. According to records given to me when I adopted him, Ranger came in on the third day of the operation. They estimated that he was about ten months old.
In the three months that I’ve had Ranger, I’ve imagined the scenario often: horses streaming down a dusty mountain pass, between rocks and sagebrush, their manes and tails floating romantically around their bay, roan, buckskin, or palomino bodies. But the horses are likely thin; life can be difficult on the Nevada range. There isn’t much to eat, and water can be scare. The helicopters appear behind them, the rhythmic thumping of the rotors echoing across the range. The horses are funneled into a corral; the gate is shut. They circle the corral, looking for an escape, foals whinnying for their mothers, stallions rearing and nipping, trying to keep their mares together. Somewhere in the dust is my Ranger. He’s probably confused as he tries to keep up with his mother or perhaps the other yearling colts, tossing his dark head and snorting. I imagine that he hides behind other horses, the way he hid behind Rosie, our other adopted mustang, when they shared a pen.
Similar roundups, called “gathers,” occur periodically in the ten western states that contain, collectively, 270 Herd Management Areas—swaths of public lands managed, in part, for free-roaming horses. Of course, the gathers are controversial, just like everything else to do with wild horses/feral horses/mustangs (even what you call these creatures can cause a stir). Some folks think wild horses should never be rounded up, culled, adopted out, or managed in any way, but should be allowed to live “wild” and unfettered. Some folks question the BLM’s estimates of wild horse numbers—some say their counts are too low, others say they’re too high. Some claim that the “Appropriate Management Level,” or the number of horses scientists say that the land can support, is arbitrary or incorrect. On the other hand, some people believe that all free-roaming horses should be removed from public lands. Or that their numbers should be drastically reduced. Folks in this group may include wildlife advocates (although some wild-horse supporters claim to be advocates for wildlife, too, as long as feral horses are included as “wildlife”) and cattle and sheep ranchers who graze their livestock on public lands. And of course some people question the practice of chasing horses with helicopters.
I didn’t know it at the time that I adopted him, but Ranger’s particular gather was subject to controversy, too. While the BLM’s plan for the roundup included the permanent removal of most of the horses that they’d gathered, they also planned to release some of the horses back to the range. However, before the BLM could release the horses, a local rancher, along with commissioners from Eureka County, took legal action to prevent the horses from returning to the Fish Creek Herd Management Area. The rancher, whose livestock shared the same parcel of land with the wild horses, claimed that the BLM had recently reduced the number of livestock he was allowed to graze in that area. In an interview with the Associated Press, the rancher said that, “We (ranchers) have a right to be here and we don’t want them to turn out the horses. By turning out the horses now they’re not accomplishing anything. It’s asinine and doesn’t make sense.” A month or so later, a judge denied the appeal, and on April 7, 2015, 162 of the 424 gathered horses were released back to the range.
I found pictures online of these horses being released, galloping back to freedom. They’re beautiful, of course, and if horses feel joy, that’s what they must have felt in those moments—returning to the land they’d memorized, the land where they’d lived free since (probably, at least) the 1800s. It’s difficult to look at images of wild horses, running, and not feel an emotional pull.
Why wasn’t Ranger released back to the wild? I assume, in part, it’s because of his age; younger horses are often thought to adapt more quickly to life in captivity, and adopters often prefer young horses. Scrolling through pictures of the Fish Creek horses returning to freedom, I felt sad for my Ranger. He will never again know “free” life outside a fence. His friends, his family, were spilling back onto the rocky earth and sage, to rejoin each other and reestablish their societies, beyond halters and saddles and round pens.
I catch myself falling into this romance, though—certainly, I don’t lament the fact that my beagle will never gallop freely through the fields with a pack of feral dogs. And, if I’m honest, I don’t like the trap-neuter-release programs sometimes implemented to deal with feral cats. I’m kind of horrified by feral cats, in fact, and the damage they cause to each other and to native wildlife. Why are horses different? Are they different? Why the romance? Maybe the rancher who tried to stop the horses’ release had a point. But are free-roaming cattle much different from free-roaming horses? Why is either group roaming free on lands owned by every citizen of the United States? What role does heritage—tradition—play in all this? Trying to carve out answers to these questions is fascinating. And frustrating.
Anyway. Instead of returning to Nevada’s Fish Creek Herd Management Area, the colt that would become my Ranger was shipped to Palomino Valley, the site of the largest wild horse preparation and adoption facility in the US. He was gelded (castrated) there and a few weeks later shipped to the Indian Lakes Maintenance Facility (near the town of Fallon, coincidently). Indian Lakes can hold 3,200 horses awaiting public adoption. I think that Ranger remained there from late March until October, when he was shipped east for a weekend adoption event in Kentucky. He wasn’t adopted, and from there he went to the holding facility in Ewing, Illinois. In early November, Ranger and I made eye contact over a trough of alfalfa, and the next thing he knew, he was in a trailer with a filly he’d never met before, rolling east across the mountains to West Virginia.
It was quite a year for Ranger. Traumatic, I think. But he will never be hungry or thirsty again, and while I know I can’t replace his wild family, I hope we will come to love each other. He’s very shy, and other than his muzzle, he doesn’t let me touch him. Yet. But he lets me get close. I will give him time. For him, I think, the dust is still settling.