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"The reason we gathered was there were more horses than the range could support," says Mary Apple, a BLM spokesperson in Billings. "We've done quite a bit of monitoring...and it showed the range was in a degraded condition in many areas. The only way to help it recover is to remove some of the horses."
The BLM wants to further reduce the herd to 120, a number they say is the upper limit for that range.
"This will always be an issue because the advocates don't want horses removed and we feel we have to remove horses so the range can improve," Apple says. "Our goal is to manage for healthy horses on a healthy range."
Writer and wild horse advocate Deanne Stillman says she is not against the management of wild horses. Stillman, who contributes to, among other publications, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Rolling Stone, agrees that wild horses populate fast due to lack of predation. But she claims in her book, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, that the BLM doesn't follow the wild horse law correctly.
"The problem is that due to budget problems and bureaucracy, a lot of the studies that are supposed to be carried out according to the 1971 law aren't carried out," she says in an interview with the Independent. "Or the numbers that determine how many horses are in each herd area are out of date or are, often, planted in favor of the cow lobby."
According to documents Stillman acquired, two scientists in the Department of the Interior resigned in 2005 after claiming that they were pressured by the Bush administration to fix the findings of a grazing study by saying wild horses had the most negative impact regarding range degradation.
"Lets stop having the fox guarding the henhouse," Stillman says. "The Bureau of Land Management...is a multi-use agency in charge of a lot of resources on public land, including timber, minerals and oil, and it refers to wild horses as natural resources. Well, a wild horse is not a natural resource. It's not a cash crop. Some people think that wild horses should be managed by a different agency and, in fact, an agency that doesn't have so many competing interests."
Despite her acknowledgment of the need for management, Stillman calls for a moratorium on all roundups pending a congressional investigation of management practices. She wants to see all studies up to date on every herd and every herd management area before the BLM proceeds with roundups.
"Yes, there does have to be management," she says. "But not right now. What needs to be managed at this point is policy. Study after government study shows that on the range it's really cattle doing most of the damage, not wild horses. The big question I'm asking is, 'Why are we, a cowboy nation, destroying the horse we rode in on?'"
University of Montana history professor Dan Flores equates management issues involving the wild mustang to those dealing with bison. "We tend to kill off the things we love," he says. But Flores also believes our romance with wild horses has become an inextricable part of our identity.
"I think nobody felt romantic about horses, including mustangs, until the early 20th century," he says. "Horses were a source of revenue, like any other resource of the West—nothing more than staples in the economy. After that, though, we had what historians call 'frontier anxiety' where Americans suddenly realize the frontier is gone and they're anxious about not having a place to recreate themselves. And it's that wave of nostalgia for the old West where suddenly you start looking for horses like mustangs and they become these romantic symbols. It's a 20th century phenomenon."
Wild Horse Island was once home to a homestead and, besides the corral and the hollowed out farmhouse, there's an orchard that still bears apples and pears. Bennetts leads me down to the grove and offers me a pear before realizing they're all gone, even from the ground. But one tree still holds apples and he shakes it, and 10 or so thump to the ground. Almost instantly, at the edge of the orchard, large horns appear and a fat, shiny-coated mule deer steps out of the shadow of the timbers and into the light. He sees us, but he's zeroed in on the apple tree, and we step back as he gallops toward the tree, halts, and begins gnawing on the fruit.