What's to Be Done About the Wild Horse Herds of the American West?

They're tearing up rangeland and riparian areas—and also our ideas about wildness

By Heather Hansman

Photos by Melissa Farlow

June 12, 2023

A man in a cowboy hat crouches down behind a rugged fence, watching a low-flying helicopter corral three horses.

While some horse advocates believe BLM roundups are inhumane, they are currently the principal way of keeping wild-horse numbers in check.

I AM WATCHING 35 young geldings weave through a muddy arena off the highway south of Grand Junction, Colorado, wondering what a wild horse is supposed to look like.

The mustangs are mainly black and bay, and some are that ruddy reddish color that western riders call sorrel. They have dished noses and delicate legs, and they each have a red rope with a number around their neck. Five to a pen, they school like fish, heads moving in the same direction at once, tracking threats or any minor change in their surroundings. They're nervy, noses and ears up, like they're onto something I'm not smart enough to understand. There's a five-foot gap between the pens and the area where people can observe, so I can't go up to the fence to try to lure the horses by putting out the flat of my hand. They look alert and wise, and they're fat enough to be shiny.

Four brown horses and one gray horse run across a desert hill, kicking up dust.

In Nevada, there are more wild horses than all game animals combined.

It's day one of a Bureau of Land Management wild-horse auction. This November morning followed the first real snowstorm of the season, and all the passes into Grand Junction have been sketchy. Still, the lot is full of trailers. People who have driven over the Rockies from Cheyenne, Wyoming, or up from New Mexico are rocking from boot to boot in the bitter cold, trying to follow the patches of sun that sift through the roof. Wild-horse advocacy groups and equine trainers have set up tents around the arena, and potential buyers, many of them teenage girls and their families, circle the pens, looking for connection.

Today, we're watching. Tomorrow, auction day, there will be a list in front of every horse pen. You write your name down, and if you have $125 and meet a few requirements, like having adequate fencing on your property, you can be in the running to take home up to four mustangs—the BLM's yearly limit.

The horse girls, many of whom already have multiple mustangs, say the animals are magic. They say the wild horses are smarter, tougher, and more loyal than domestic horses. Mustangs get a freeze brand on the left side of their neck when they come off the range so that the BLM can identify them, and the girls have sweatshirts and lockets with their horse's brand on them. It's proof of their love—and a symbol of the romantic place that mustangs hold in the American imagination.

The magic and myth of the mustangs seem to collide with the realities of landscape management, policy tussles, and laws that haven't been meaningfully updated since the 1970s.

But romance is rarely simple, and even the name of this animal is tied up in complex stories. Mustangs, the colloquial term for wild horses, technically refers to the descendants of horses brought to North America by the Spanish that eventually got loose and spread over much of the continent. Mustang comes from the Spanish word mesteño, meaning a "stray" or "ownerless beast." By now, the honorific mustang has come to mean just about any free-roaming horse. Some people prefer another term: feral horses, a way of communicating that the animals aren't native to the American landscape and that, in many places, they have become something of a pest.

According to a study in the Journal of Wildlife Management, there are some 225,000 free-roaming horses and burros in the United States today. Most of these are spread across the West, from the piñon-juniper woodland of the Four Corners region, to the high desert of the Great Basin, to the sagebrush steppe on the leeward side of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Range. About 83,000 of those horses and burros are on lands managed by the BLM, the federal agency that has formal oversight of the animals. The rest are found on Native American nations and other public lands where the BLM has no jurisdiction. In Nevada, there are more wild horses than all game animals combined.

A herd of multicolored horses. A brown horse and white horse are fighting, the brown one baring its teeth. __________

Wild horses in Utah carry the genes of horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish.

The number of horses—along with all the cattle grazing on public lands—has led to a calamity on the rangeland. Wild horses are reproducing at unsustainable rates; between 2007 and 2021, their numbers more than tripled. In their search for forage, wild horses are tearing up high-desert vegetation, degrading riparian areas, and trampling fragile native plants. Free-roaming horses and burros are a major cause of the destruction of biocrust—the top layer of desert soils, which has been shown to be an anchor of desert biodiversity. As climate change makes the West hotter and drier, the animals are struggling to find water too. In some places, horses have been known to die of starvation and dehydration.

Wild-horse advocates, cattle ranchers, range ecologists, and federal officials have struggled for decades to agree on a solution. Roundups for slaughter are off the table—as a matter of both humane treatment and US law. Birth-control programs have shown promise, but they are difficult to carry out and are opposed by some horse advocates who express worries about horse health, genetic diversity, and unintentional sterilization. Some horse advocates complain that the BLM's annual roundups can be inhumane.

And once the animals are taken from the wild, there's the question of how to house them all. Not every horse finds a girl who loves it, and adoption rates are low. Last year, 20,193 horses were rounded up in the United States; just 6,669 of those were adopted. The rest went to off-range holding ranches, where they joined the approximately 62,000 horses already there.

Trying to keep wild-horse numbers at the status quo, much less reduce them, is expensive. This year, the BLM's wild-horse and burro program will cost taxpayers $153 million—$15 million more than in 2022. It costs the government roughly $27,500 to care for each wild horse and burro over its lifetime in a holding ranch. That cost is expected to increase by nearly a third this year, due to the rising price of feed.

Three people stand on a low hill overlooking corrals of wild horses.

After being rounded up, free-roaming horses are put up for adoption. Those that aren't adopted are sent to long-term holding ranches, which care for some 62,000 animals.

One thing that horse people and ecologists agree on is that this situation is a mess. The system is so broken that Congress has called it a "national crisis." Here, amid the icy mud of the wild-horse auction in Grand Junction, the magic and myth of the mustangs seem to collide with the realities of landscape management, policy tussles, and laws that haven't been meaningfully updated since the 1970s.

The auctions are insufficient, yet they're one of the only tools the BLM has for managing the horse numbers on the range. Brittany Sprout, a public affairs specialist for the BLM's Colorado office, is standing at the edge of the corrals in an oversize brown parka, fielding questions. She knows the roundups that bring horses to these auctions are controversial—that no one really likes them—but she says the agency is obligated to keep the number of horses on the range to a federally mandated maximum. "We are required by law to gather horses, and this adoption helps us," she says. "It supports healthy horses on healthy rangelands."

Healthy horses on healthy landscapes—that's what everyone who is connected to wild horses says they want. But how can we reach that goal? Especially in the era of climate chaos, especially with an animal that sparks such intense emotions.

That question echoes other land-management controversies in the United States today. The story of wild horses is also the story of water and space and the ideal of wildness—the hope that the American West is still big enough for everyone who wants a slice and that last century's laws are adequate for 21st-century complexities. But on the range today, there is not enough to go around, and our ideas about wildness must be constrained by reality. How can we know what the reality is when we've been operating on stories for so long?

SPEAKING OF STORIES, I should admit that I'm one of those horse girls. I was seven the first time I sat up on a fat, ornery pony. I got bucked almost immediately, but from then on, I was in love. I slipped under the electric fence behind the local barn and tried to lure horses with handfuls of grass. I tried to see how fast I could go on a straight-line gallop, to find the balance between risk and control, wildness and grace. I inhaled the idea that if I was special and patient and brave, and if I broke the rules just a little bit, that a wild thing would recognize some of itself in me. That narrative wove itself into my malleable kid brain and kept going. In high school, I drove hours through suburban Massachusetts to muck stalls in exchange for riding lessons because smelling like shit felt like a fair trade for learning to control something bigger than myself.

I'm not alone. Yale social scientist Stephen Kellert, who studied the role of animals in human society, found that horses are the second-most-valued animal in the United States, right behind dogs, even though dogs are much more integrated into our domestic lives. Horses are treated differently because they are different, physiologically and historically. They are perceived to have high emotional and social intelligence, which is why they're often used as therapy animals. And horses in general and mustangs in particular were pivotal in the country's history—which is an argument many horse protectors lean on for their defense.

Plus, they're beautiful. When Eadweard Muybridge shot the first moving pictures of horses, he found that they float when they run. At a gallop, there's a moment when they're fully suspended in air, no hooves touching the earth. Horses do sort of seem magical. And mustangs, with their innate independence, seem even more so.

Because of all that, the auction splits me. Part of my brain logically says, "Yes, this is an overpopulation problem." Another part of me is pushing up against the fence, trying to make eye contact with a wild thing.

I am part of the problem—I love wild horses while not knowing what kind of wildness is realistic or fair. In theory, I'd love to adopt a herd of mustangs. In reality, I live in a neighborhood not zoned for horses, in a place with a lousy chain-link fence. I drive a hatchback. That rub between romance and reality is where horses get tricky.

First, there's the complicated question of whether wild horses belong in the United States at all. Fossil horse DNA has been found on Clovis points in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, so there is proof that horses lived in what we now call North America as recently as 13,000 years ago. Then, about 10,000 years ago, they disappeared, one more casualty in what's called the megafaunal extinction. There were no horses in the Americas in 1491, and there hadn't been for millennia. The first widespread release of horses was likely during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, when Indigenous peoples in the Rio Grande Valley of present-day New Mexico briefly overthrew Spanish rule. In their hasty retreat, the Spanish left behind about 1,500 horses.

Those horses and their descendants were perfectly adapted to the dry, open expanse of the western parts of the continent. They thrived and spread. Native societies from the Great Plains to the Southwest eventually tamed the offspring of the Spanish horses. The horse became central to many Native societies—a form of transportation and portage, a hunting vehicle, a tool of warfare, a status symbol, and a revered icon.

"The rights of a wild horse are a lot like the rights of citizenship. A lot of it depends only on where you were born," David Philipps writes in his book Wild Horse Country. Wild horses are, in other words, immigrants. They're the best symbol of Americans' mythic idea of ourselves—scrappy, beautiful, free. And, as it has been for many immigrants, their time here has been fraught.

By the early 20th century, there were millions of wild horses scattered across the western United States. With the rise of the automobile, working horses weren't as necessary anymore, and many domestic horses were shot or sent to slaughter. Others were abandoned, putting more free-roaming horses onto the land and diluting the mustang genetics. As populations increased, wild horses were thought of as vermin, which set off decades of dramatic animal abuse, driven by capitalism.

A 1920 tourism ad in Popular Mechanics encouraged tourists to travel to the West to shoot horses for sport. In 1922, Ken-L Ration started using wild-horse meat for dog food, because it was abundant and considered low value. During the next two decades, nearly 2 million mustangs went to slaughterhouses, where their meat became dog chow and their hides were used for making baseballs. Across the West, bounty-hunting cowboys known as "mustangers" indiscriminately rounded up wild horses and sent them to slaughterhouses.

Those roundups continued until the 1950s, when there were only about 20,000 horses left in the wild. That's when Velma Bronn Johnston, a Nevada rancher nicknamed Wild Horse Annie, changed the image of wild horses and turned them from a source of fresh meat into a national icon. She was horrified by how mustangers were treating horses, and she kicked off a powerful campaign to tell the story of how wild horses were being killed and abused, and how mustangs should be saved.

Now, in a time when we can harass our elected officials over Twitter, it's hard to overstate how elaborate and effective Johnston's campaign was. She enlisted young children, socialites, and schoolteachers to write thousands of letters to elected officials in favor of protecting wild horses. During the 86th Congress of 1959-61, wild-horse protection was among the most popular issues that elected officials heard about.

In 1959, Congress passed the Wild Horse Protection Act, which banned the hunting of feral horses from aircraft and motorized vehicles on federal land. More expansive protections followed. Wild horses became federally protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which gave the BLM power to manage horses in specific herd-management areas, enmeshing the animal in the BLM's maxim of multiple use. With the new regulations in place, wild-horse numbers quickly increased, so Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, allowing helicopter roundups. Two years later, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act created the adopt-a-horse auctions and required the BLM to set specific population levels for each herd-management area, which led to additional roundups and long-term holding on private ranches as the approved way we get horses off the range.

This string of national laws put free-roaming horses into a class of their own: Horses are the only species, besides bald eagles, that are specifically protected from hunting and commercial slaughter by federal law. We kill feral hogs and cattle and euthanize overpopulated dogs and cats. Many people hunt deer and elk. Even grizzly bears and wolves that are federally protected can be killed in some situations. Yet we round up horses and hold them in storage for perpetuity, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Celeste Carlisle, a biologist with the advocacy group Return to Freedom who also serves on the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, said we're mired in a system that doesn't really work for the horses, the people who love them, or the landscapes they inhabit. "To pull out any species and just manage for that species—that's not healthy ecosystem management," she told me. "Biodiversity matters. You want to consider the songbirds and lizards and plants and horses. And on public lands, the law states that you consider that and all the multiple uses occurring there."

THE HORSES AT the Grand Junction auction had been gathered from the Piceance–East Douglas herd, which roams across 190,000 acres of hilly Colorado piñon-juniper and sage. In July 2022, range managers from the BLM's White River Field Office, along with the local volunteer group Piceance Mustangs, gathered a total of 864 horses. They pulled 771 off the range for good; the rest were sent back to the wild, all of the mares dosed with birth control.

It was the first roundup at the Piceance–East Douglas Herd Management Area since 2011, and in the space of a decade, the herd had grown by thousands; horse populations increase about 20 percent each year without fertility management. Local volunteers had been darting the horses with GonaCon, a two-phase birth-control method, but their efforts hadn't been enough to keep the numbers down. Although the herd was reproducing, the animals also showed signs of suffering. BLM officials said they saw very few yearlings in the roundup—a possible sign that young, vulnerable horses weren't making it through the winter, when forage is scarce.

By law, the BLM is supposed to establish what's called an "appropriate management level," or AML, for each herd—the number of horses a given area of land can sustain. The AMLs guide land-management decisions, and they are often contested, as environmental groups complain that the BLM routinely overestimates the carrying capacity of the land, which results in overgrazing and habitat destruction. The maximum AML for the Piceance–East Douglas herd is 235 horses. Kathy Degonia, president of Piceance Mustangs, says that even after the 2022 roundup, there were still probably 1,000 horses in that area—more than the land could support, especially with cattle in the mix. In recent years, her volunteer group, along with the BLM, has been hauling water to the animals from June to November, part of the unending work it does to try to keep the horses, and the landscape, cared for.

"People, who first of all don't know there are wild horses in Colorado, think all wild horses should remain free, but they don't know the complications," Degonia says. "Yeah, we would love to have them all wild and free too. But that's not an option with how much they have to reproduce. They'll die of starvation first, and no one wants that."

The Piceance–East Douglas herd provides a glimpse into those complications. In the weeks leading up to last summer's roundup—the BLM prefers to use the term gather—BLM officials received threatening calls and emails from opponents. Misinformation ran wild. "A story went out about our auction that a four-wheeler was used to rope a foal and drag that foal to a pen," says Bill Mills, field manager of the BLM's White River field office. "It happened—but in Nevada."

Across the West, a constellation of groups—the Cloud Foundation, American Wild Horse Campaign, Cana Foundation, Wild Horse Education—routinely protest the roundups, which they say are antithetical to the spirit of wild horses. They also criticize placing the horses in long-term holding on private ranches, some of which have been shown to mistreat the animals. The horse advocates' overarching complaint is that the BLM prioritizes the interests of cattle ranchers over the welfare of free-roaming horses.

"The BLM says they have to remove horses because they say they're overpopulated, but they set the AML," says Grace Kuhn, communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign. "The National Cattlemen's Beef Association lobbies every year for wild-horse removal, to keep public-lands ranching going. Every single year, the BLM sends in low-flying helicopters to round up horses and then ships them off to holding pens for the remainder of their lives. It's unsustainable."

The BLM says that 26,785 is the appropriate number of mustangs and wild burros on BLM lands, but many people (and not just wild-horse advocates) say the official numbers are half-baked. A 2013 report from the National Research Council criticized the BLM for faulty math and said the agency's estimates for the population sizes of wild horses and burros "cannot be considered scientifically rigorous." The Sierra Club's formal policy on wild-horse management also criticizes the BLM for overinflating the AML and recommends that "managers should reestablish the conditions necessary to support native wildlife and protect native ecosystems"—including eliminating cattle from wild-horse areas to avoid overgrazing and other environmental degradation.

Regardless of what the exact appropriate management level of wild horses is, the fact remains that we've never gotten the numbers down to that level. In 2007, the number of mustangs on the range was nearly at the nationwide AML. Then the Great Recession diminished adoptions, and the BLM reduced the pace of roundups. The wild-horse population soon shot back up.

No one likes putting the horses into long-term holding. "It's getting to the point where you're warehousing all these really revered animals, and there's distrust between all of the stakeholders," Carlisle says. In an effort to increase the adoption of horses gathered from the wild, in 2019 the BLM created the Adoption Incentive Program, which gave buyers $1,000. But it's been rife with abuses. Horses with BLM freeze brands started showing up at slaughterhouses, and some animals were shipped to Canada and Mexico. The American Wild Horse Campaign says it identified one family that had received $82,000 of taxpayer money though the program, far beyond the legal limit, and that many of the horses the family had adopted were on their way to slaughter when they were rescued. "Horses are going to slaughter, and BLM refuses to acknowledge that," Kuhn says. (Indeed, the BLM denies culpability for the horses that have ended up at slaughterhouses.)

Fertility control is also controversial. BLM officials complain that it's a complicated and time-consuming tactic. "It's easy to say the solution is to go and do fertility control on horses, but the average mare is pregnant nine days after she gives birth, so it's not a big window," says Mills of the BLM. Wild-horse advocates say it's often done ineffectively, mostly because the BLM hasn't prioritized it. "Less than 1 percent of [the BLM] budget is spent on meaningful fertility treatment," Kuhn says.

Terry Messmer, a professor of wildland resources at Utah State University's agricultural extension service who focuses on wild horses, says that to avoid conflict and inhumane practices, we must stop pretending that past practices are working and that we can manage horses based on outdated myths of wildness. "We can't keep asking for things that aren't in the realm of reality," he says.

In 2017, Messmer helped form the Free Roaming Equids and Ecosystem Sustainability Network (FREES) to promote dialogue among the various factions. In October 2022, the group hosted a summit that brought in 70 historically opposed groups, including cattle ranchers who lease public lands, biologists, BLM range managers, and wild-horse advocates. He says it was tense at first, but eventually the various stakeholders found some resonance.

They realized that they had to rethink the idea of "wild" horses—hence "free roaming." They also found that fertility control was more broadly accepted than it had been in the past. There was consensus, at least in principle, that everyone wanted ecologically diverse rangeland as well as humane treatment of horses.

But there were intractable tensions about what that meant and how to get there. Advocacy groups like American Wild Horse Campaign continued to argue that horse welfare is in conflict with cattle grazing, because the BLM's dictum of multiple use prioritizes livestock. Ranchers kept saying that overpopulated herds of horses were trampling pastures, contaminating water sources, and harming other species. Federal range managers argued that they were undersupported, that enacting fertility treatment took time and expertise they didn't have, and that it was more important to get the numbers down quickly.

"The answer lies in multiple-tiered management, scaling up simultaneously," says Carlisle. She says that getting horse populations to a healthy point will take a combination of continued roundups and ramped-up fertility treatments; safe and healthy storage; and, eventually, new land-management practices that work for the whole ecosystem, which could include reducing grazing and increasing predators to keep populations down. "Doing all that at once is very difficult and expensive, but we have to do these uncomfortable parts."

Until we reach that healthy point, the open landscapes of the West will remain a battleground. A gruesome episode last fall reveals what's at stake. In October 2022, the remains of dozens of free-roaming horses were discovered in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in northeastern Arizona. The horses had been shot through the head or the chest, their bodies left scattered. A Forest Service criminal investigation is underway.

TO UNDERSTAND HOW it might be possible to sustain a healthy population of horses, I head out to the mesas of southwestern Colorado, to a place where local landscape stewards seem to have found a successful balance between management and wildness: Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area.

Spring Creek Basin is in the heart of Disappointment Valley, a sparsely populated desert valley cut by the Dolores River. The valley is bleached buff and gray by winter, and the high peaks of Utah's La Sal Mountains hang in the distance. When I pull up at the lone cabin on the road into the valley, TJ Holmes is already striding out to meet me.

Holmes, who lives at the cabin in this big, open valley, keeps an eye on all the horses that reside in the area, and she's a big part of why this particular herd is healthy and thriving. She works for a nonprofit that owns the land she lives on and manages the site as a horse sanctuary. Her work involves collaborating closely with the local BLM office. She routinely administers fertility control to the Spring Creek Basin herd, darting the mares with PZP, a protein that blocks conception. Her dedication and skills are part of what keeps the herd healthy. "Between you and me, you might have noticed that horse people are crazy," Holmes tells me, laughing. "Wild-horse people take it out of the stratosphere."

Holmes has been involved with these horses for more than 15 years. In 2007, after coming to a BLM roundup here as a journalist, she started documenting the horses—taking pictures and paying attention. She began administering PZP to this herd in 2011 after being trained how to do so and eventually moved to the ranch permanently. These days, she darts between 20 and 25 horses a season. Last summer, she helped the BLM build a water-catchment system to ensure that the horses have water, which is becoming scarce in the aridifying West.

In the driveway, I pull on down pants and a face mask to fight the cold. I don my ski helmet and goggles and jump on the back of Holmes's mud-covered red ATV, and we begin to jangle over dirt roads into Disappointment Valley, where Spring Creek slices a groove in the rimrock. As we pass the water catchments, she points out the mountains that mark the edges of the herd-management area. Then she says, "Look—over there!" On the horizon, I can see shadowy shapes. She pulls the binoculars from around her neck and identifies each horse by name.

After years of observing the horses, Holmes has a mental catalog of their family bands, habits, and histories. Such knowledge is key for the fertility program. She darts the mares when they're two years old, then lets them have at least one foal. She works with the BLM to determine which mares to dart the next year. That method helps with genetic diversity, and it's a crucial piece of keeping this horse population sustainable, which in turn keeps the landscape healthy. But it requires that she know each individual well, and it takes a ton of work.

We gain the ridge close to the herd and hop off the ATV. We head toward the horses, walking slowly across ice patches, trying to be quiet and calm. They are grays, bays, buckskins, and sorrels. Holmes points out a gray stallion named Skywalker, pale and shaggy against the brown of desert winter and the red peaks in the background. I hold my breath and shuffle closer.

We get within 50 yards before they prick their ears and pull away. Holmes says that to shoot the PZP dart, she has to get within 35 yards—even closer if it's windy. They recognize her because she's around all the time, but sometimes it's hard to get close.

As we walk across the mesa, I ask Holmes about the idea of wildness, and she gets uncharacteristically quiet. She says she thinks of the horses as wild animals, but she knows they need management too. She's trying to hold the tension by keeping them at a certain distance, close enough to dart but far enough away that their lives are their own.

Holmes says the horses in Spring Creek Basin are lucky. The herd is relatively small and easy to access, and one of the things that makes wild-horse management tricky—cattle grazing—isn't in play here. But the real key to having a healthy wild herd is communication and partnership among everyone who cares about, or is responsible for, the horses. "It's people who get along, who realize we're all after the same things, and I don't know how to replicate that secret ingredient," she says.

Of course, not every herd has a TJ Holmes. And even with Holmes doing so much of the legwork, horses are only one piece of the ecosystem. To see what it takes to keep a place like Spring Creek Basin sustainable, I call Michael Jensen, the local BLM range manager. Jensen says that to take care of the horses, you have to take care of way more than the horses.

"The ecology, the resources, that's the bottom of that pyramid," he tells me. "To have a healthy wild-horse herd, you've got to maintain your soils and your vegetation diversity. You've got to have the habitat to protect them. I'm managing horses, but really, I'm managing the base of that triangle."

Managing ecosystem diversity takes ongoing flexibility. At Spring Creek Basin, for instance, Holmes and the BLM were able to bring the maximum AML in the basin from 65 to 80 adult animals. In order to raise that number, Jensen had to do an extensive, multiyear soil and forage study to make sure there was enough perennial grass and palatable shrubs for the horses as well as other wildlife.

Jensen uses the word management a lot. In his view, we're going to have to manage all of the landscape—forever, in careful balance, holistically and flexibly—if we want to hold on to any of it. That's contradictory to the ideal of wildness, but I think he's right that a serious level of care is necessary. We've isolated horses through laws and stories, but they're just one part of an ever-changing ecosystem. And right now, by sticking to our old stories and keeping horses isolated, we're damaging the thing everyone says they want: healthy horses on healthy landscapes. The horses in the Spring Creek Basin appear to be doing fine, but it remains unclear whether the landscape there is healthy enough to support native flora and wildlife. A 2020 BLM assessment found that vegetation in the area is in good ecological condition, but that hasn't been independently verified.

No matter what, the situation is going to remain ugly for a while. The roundups are unpopular, but they are also the quickest way to get populations down. And once the population of free-roaming herds is reduced, we'll have to start employing the most proven tools at a scale that hasn't been done before. "Doing things like scaling up fertility control at each opportunity doesn't take an act of Congress," Carlisle says. "It's doable; it just takes a big shift."

We may have to eventually consider other options. Humane slaughter may be one—though animal welfare groups (and probably much of the public) would no doubt object. Another is reintroducing predators like mountains lions, which are known to prey on foals and colts. "Imagine if BLM reallocated resources for things like protecting predators," Kuhn says. Rewilding proponents would love it, but the ranching lobby would almost certainly resist. The fighting would continue.

Just about any horse-management strategy will make someone uncomfortable, in part because all the strategies run counter to the narrative that mustangs can just be wild and free. We say we want "ecosystem balance," but our thumbs are already on the scale, and we should be realistic about that.

I think back to the Piceance horses in the BLM auction, the way I couldn't quite tell if they were still wild once they were in the pens. These days, that wildness is a bit of an illusion: It depends on context and probably also what your definition of management is. To be a wild-horse girl today requires holding various opposing ideas in the mind at once. If we want to see some horses running free on the range, we need more constraints on how we let them go.

This article has been modified and updated since its original publication.