A symbol of freedom stirs controversy
PHOTOGRAPHY Elissa Kline
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LEFT When this rogue horse fled the herd during the roundup, a BLM helicopter hovered close for upwards of ten minutes to drive it to the corral, according to photographer Elissa Kline. MIDDLE LEFT The mare seen here in the wild in 2005 was featured on the cover of Sun Valley Magazine’s Winter 2007 issue. BOTTOM RIGHT The same mare in the holding corrals just days after the July 2009 roundup. MIDDLE RIGHT The stallion seen here in the wild in 2006 displayed a far different body language in BLM holding corrals (TOP RIGHT) in July 2009.
A Brief Horse History
People who grow up around horses have it in their blood for the remainder of their days. The smell of a horse is like bottled nostalgia. For others, the mustang is an undying symbol of a free America.
But wild horses are not endemic to the American West. They did not evolve with the present-day ecosystem, and their likely ancestors went extinct in North America more than 10,000 years ago.
In southwest Idaho, the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument memorializes the highest concentrations of prehistoric horse fossils in North America. The park includes 550 fossil sites where more than 200 Hagerman horse fossils were unearthed.
Despite its name, Idaho’s ancient horse is probably more closely related to the zebra, writes the Hagerman Monument’s paleontologist Greg McDonald in his paper, Hagerman “Horse”–Equus simplicidens. It’s commonly accepted science that the Hagerman horse, the closest ancestor to the modern horse, went extinct in North America, but that some of the animals may have migrated to Asia before dying out on our own continent. Idaho was a vastly different place during the height of the Hagerman horse’s inhabitation, the late Pliocene. The fossil record at Hagerman shows a savannah-like environment that may have received 20 inches of rain a year—double today’s average.
Challis’ wild horses did not evolve with the sagebrush steppe ecosystem that now dominates Idaho’s high desert. It was tens of thousands of years after Idaho’s prehistoric horse went extinct that its possible progeny—modern horses—returned to the continent carrying European explorers on their backs.
Today, the Challis herd is Idaho’s largest and numbered as high as 660 prior to 1978, when the BLM won a court battle to whittle the population down to 250, according to Lisa Dines, author of The American Mustang Guidebook. The population continues to fluctuate from year to year as roundups, which the government calls “gathers,” continue. Challis’s drama is an isolated chapter in a saga being written throughout the American West.
In the 1950s, Nevada animal rights activist Velma Johnston brought the issue onto the national stage. After learning of the ruthless methods used to gather wild horses (to then sell for meat for dog food or human consumption in Europe), Johnston led a grassroots campaign comprised mostly of school children. News of the roundups and slaughters outraged the public, and in 1959 Congress passed a law forbidding the hunting of wild horses from motorized vehicles and airplanes, but it fell short of the protections Johnston envisioned.
In December 1971, with public outcry unabated, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, a law that called for more thorough “management, protection and control” of the animals. The law also established an adoption program for willing citizens and a euthanasia program for old and sick animals.
The law said, “Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.” The law prohibits their capture, branding, harassment or killing. They are to be considered an “integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”
The law addressed the public’s concerns and, in the process, created a new set of problems. With the new protections in place—and no natural predators—wild horse populations climbed. The law was amended, and government roundups—complete with low-flying chase helicopters and terrified horses fleeing them in full-gallop—became more frequent. Today, the decades’-old issue is again a lightning rod for animal activists and public land managers alike. >>>