TOOELE – From behind the wheel of a gray Jeep Wrangler, Rob Hammer scans a high-desert landscape in search of an elusive American icon.
An amateur photographer, he’s come here looking for the nearly 600-strong Onaqui mountain herd of wild horses. It’s a rugged two-hour drive west of Salt Lake City and Hammer’s Jeep lurches over big rocks and deep tire ruts.
“I know it seems bad right now but it’ll get worse,” he said about the road.
Hammer’s Jeep crests over a hill flushed green with spring, where he spots a group of about 50 grazing mustangs. As he pulls over the vehicle and gets out, a couple of foals kick and play with each other. He doesn’t take pictures right away, however. He just stands there, soaking it all in.
“It’s very peaceful,” he said. “They’re a part of the landscape out here and you can just join right in with them and just be.”
But this is a scene Hammer fears may disappear soon.
The Bureau of Land Management is planning to remove more than half of the wild horses living near the Onaqui mountains this summer. The upcoming roundup is part of a broader effort to get a handle on the explosive growth of the animals across the American West in recent years.
“I’ll be devastated,” Hammer said, watching the mustangs. “It’ll be so difficult to find the horses and it will just eliminate this area as an ecotourism destination.”
For advocates like Hammer, wild horses are a living symbol of the American West. The Onaqui herd, for example, descended from animals that escaped the wagon trains and cavalry regiments that plodded across the western desert more than 150 years ago.
But as wild horse populations hit record numbers in the Mountain West, another American icon — the rancher — is left grappling with the population boom.
“They do not have any natural predators,” said Mark Wintch, president of the Utah Cattlemen’s Association. “They have no other way to be regulated except by us. To continue to let numbers climb and destroy the natural resource that is there is absolutely foolish.”
Wintch contends that the exponential growth of wild horses is a threat to ranchers’ livelihoods. Cattle and sheep often share public lands with the animals, competing for critical food sources like grass.
“Ranchers have paid for that grass,” Wintch said. “We use it. We have a right to it.”
Wild horses are federally protected by the 1971 Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which included mandated population limits. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management estimates wild horse numbers across the American West are currently hovering around 70,000 — nearly three times above the prescribed federal limit.
Controlling wild horse populations, however, is contentious. It’s illegal to hunt the animals and the federal government can’t sell them directly to slaughter. Instead, the BLM holds roundups like the one planned in the Onaquis. Horses are corralled using bait or helicopters, contained in holding facilities and then put up for adoption.
But adoption is slow and many of the holding facilities have become full. The BLM recently began offering $1,000 incentives to potential adopters in an effort to help free up space in holding facilities.
Still, advocates are critical of the roundups and argue that some adopted horses end up at Mexican or Canadian slaughterhouses due to a loophole in the law. Groups such as the American Wild Horse Campaign have also said that the roundups themselves are dangerous.
“In every roundup, terrified horses are separated from their family groups, loaded onto trailers and trucked to holding,” the advocacy group said on its website. “Anxious mares call out to their foals, and stallions injure themselves trying to defend or reunite with their families. Some horses are killed or injured in the roundups.”
There is, however, one solution that ranchers and advocates appear to agree on: contraceptives.
Back near Utah’s Onaqui Mountains, Hammer leaves the mustangs on the hill and drives down to where a couple of trucks are huddled in the wind. Three volunteers, each trained by the BLM, are there preparing to administer fertility control vaccines, called porcine zona pellucida, to a group of horses nearby. The drug is derived from pig ovaries and it prevents mares from being able to foal.
One of the volunteers, Tim Clark, a former law enforcement officer with the U.S. Forest Service, is shaking a vial.
“You just mix it all together, put it in a dart, and then shoot the horses with it,” he said.
Clark loads the dart into an air gun and walks slowly towards a young mare. He waits until she’s broadside, aims, and fires. The mare hops up in the air and kicks her legs out as the rest of the herd spooks away. The dart falls out of the now-vaccinated animal and lands in the dirt.
Clark and the other volunteers hope to administer contraceptives to at least 10 horses on this day. The process is tedious — they sometimes miss the animals and bad weather conditions can put a hamper on operations — but they hope it will eventually slow the growth of the Onaqui mountain herd.
Contraceptives have worked to help stabilize herds across the Mountain West, according to the American Wild Horse Campaign. But it isn’t a silver bullet.
Shooters need to get within 25 to 50 yards of a mare. Lisa Reid, a BLM spokeswoman, said it often only works with horses that aren’t skittish with humans. While some of the horses near the Onaqui mountains are friendly towards tourists and photographers, many others are skittish.
“You’re not able to approach those animals and effectively take photographs, let alone administer birth control of any sort,” Reid said.
This is why, in addition to administering contraceptives, the BLM still plans to round up more than 300 wild horses near the Onaqui mountains this year. Reid said the agency won’t target the horse groups that were already vaccinated or are popular with tourists and photographers. Still, advocate Hammer isn’t pleased with the move. He believes the the agency is siding with ranchers’ financial interests.
“If we continue to make everything about whether there’s a financial benefit or not we’re going to end up with nothing in the long run,” he said. “I consider these horses part of the landscape and I consider the landscape to be precious. Precious beyond expression.”
But Clark said he understands where the BLM is coming from. By utilizing contraceptives in addition to the roundup, the agency is trying to strike a delicate balance between ranchers, wild-horse advocates and management objectives, he said. With a subject as politically fraught as any in America these days that balance isn’t easy.
“They’re kind of strapped between a rock and a hard place,” he said.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.