The Captivating Story Of The West’s Wild Horses
This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Ashley Ahearn, was originally published by Boise State Public Radio.
Wild mustangs are an icon of the American West, conjuring a romantic vision of horses galloping free on an open prairie. But in reality, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says the sensitive Western ecosystem can’t handle the existing population of horses.
There are about 80,000 wild horses in the American West, a number that grows about 10-20% each year. The BLM says the fragile, arid rangelands the horses occupy can only support a third of that number before they overgraze habitats critical for other species. This has led to controversial roundups to get wild horses off the open range.
Science and environment reporter Ashley Ahearn dove deep into the history, symbolism, and ecological impact of the West’s mustangs for the new podcast Mustang. She even adopted a wild horse, named Boo, from the federal government for $125. Ashley speaks with guest host Flora Lichtman about her boots-on-the-ground reporting, and what she learned from how tribal nations manage mustangs.
Ashley Ahearn is a science and environment reporter and host of the “Mustang” podcast. She’s based in Okanogan County, Washington.
FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman. And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.
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FLORA LICHTMAN: Local science stories of national significance. Wild horses are an icon of the American West. I bet you can picture it, a herd of mustangs galloping free on an open prairie.
But as romantic as that may sound, the Bureau of Land Management says there’s a problem. The ecosystem can’t handle all of them. There are 80,000 wild horses roaming around, but the land can only support about a third of that herd.
So what to do? That’s the subject of a new podcast from Boise State Public Radio. Joining me now is my guest, Ashley Ahearn Science and Environment Reporter and host of the podcast Mustang. She’s based in Okanogan County, Washington. Welcome to Science Friday.
ASHLEY AHEARN: Thanks for having me.
FLORA LICHTMAN: OK, 80,000 Mustangs trotting around the West, what’s the problem?
ASHLEY AHEARN: Well, just like having too many of any kind of livestock in an area, that land can be heavily impacted. And so what we’ve seen in the West and there are more than 80,000 horses and burros, I should say, across 11 Western states. The BLM Bureau of Land Management manages these herds, assesses the landscape, looks at the forage, how the grasses are growing, the soil health every year and makes estimates, sets goals for how many horses would be a healthy amount on the landscape.
And keep in mind they’re also managing how many cows are allowed to graze on the landscape. So it’s a very tenuous balancing act, but what the BLM scientists and many, many other scientists who I spoke with, I should be clear about that, who don’t work for the BLM are saying is that the numbers of horses have increased steadily ever since we passed the Wild Horse and Burro Act in 1971. And now we’re at a point where some scientists are sounding the alarm that we’re facing an ecological and ecosystem collapse, especially in places like Nevada.
So I traveled to Nevada, of course, because I wanted to see what this looked like firsthand and I met up with this– he’s been working for the Nevada Department of Wildlife for 30 years as a biologist. His name is Mike Cox and he is one of the folks who have been vocal about what he’s seeing on the ground, and he took me out into the Stillwater Range in Northwestern Nevada. And I mean, just walking around out there, Flora, you can see manure everywhere.
There’s not a lick of grass. It’s kind of like scraggly sagebrush with nothing around it that any animal would want to eat, whether that’s Mule deer, Pronghorn, elk, or cows, or horses for that matter. And Nevada is the driest state in the US and these parts of the world are so harsh that when you then add this many animals on the landscape, you can see firsthand what it does to habitat that many other species rely on.
– I don’t have answers for you today.
– You got a lot of anger, though.
– I have a lot of frustration, pent up frustration.
– And the ecosystem is going to collapse. I would give parts of Nevada a decade is all it’s got left.
– With this number of horses on it?
– Yeah. And then there’s not going to be anything for anyone or any animal.
FLORA LICHTMAN: A decade. So what’s the federal government doing? How are they managing the horses currently?
ASHLEY AHEARN: I got to say the Bureau of Land Management is caught between a rock and a hard place. They do roundups and they use helicopters, which are incredibly controversial, and frankly the videos are hard to watch. And they basically corral horses, run them over the landscape into traps, chutes that then close the gate behind them and ship them off to long-term holding facilities where they may or may not be adopted. But they’ve also adopted other methods.
Bait trapping is one that I think is becoming more popular, but it’s not as effective in gathering large numbers of horses. So what they’ll do is they’ll set up hay and put feed out in a herd management area and the horses will become acclimated to going and eating there. And then they’ll close the gates around them so that you can catch maybe five horses, 10 horses at a time, but you’re not getting 20, 40, 100 horses in when you use helicopters.
And I’m not saying that I’m a proponent of helicopter gathers by any means, but when you look at the numbers, some of these herd management areas have thousands more horses than the science says the landscape can support. So bait trapping may not get the BLM to their target numbers fast enough as helicopters maybe could.
FLORA LICHTMAN: In the course of your reporting, did you talk to any Indigenous communities, people in Indigenous communities about horses in the area?
ASHLEY AHEARN: I did. That was a priority for me because of course, Indigenous nations in the American West are some of the most incredible horse people in the world. And it was fascinating to learn because of course, there are more than 80,000 wild horses on public lands, government-owned public lands, but there are potentially far more than that on Native American reservations.
And as sovereign nations, they can manage those horses in whatever way they see fit. In one episode, I traveled to the Spokane Indian Reservation which is not far from where I live in Okanogan County in Washington State and learned about how they manage their horses, which is by rounding them up on horseback. And some of those horses do end up, unfortunately, going to slaughter. Some of them are adopted into homes and used as riding horses. But it was just really powerful to hear their historical and cultural connection to the horse as a relative is the term that they used when they talked about the horses there.
FLORA LICHTMAN: I want to get to one of the most amazing parts of your podcast to me, which is your own jaunt in this muddy corral. You adopted your very own wild horse from the federal government. Please tell me more.
ASHLEY AHEARN: Yeah, so this was part of my education process. Talk about life imitating art, or art imitating life. I’m not sure how you want to phrase that. But I really wanted to immerse myself in this story. And I grew up riding horses and I have a horse already, a domestic horse that I’d been riding for years now, and I had kind of myself fallen in love with the mystique of the Mustang and then was happy to find out that you can get one from the federal government for about $125. You have to pass– they require certain things about your property, of course, before you can take one home.
But yeah, so I brought home a Mustang from Oregon a year and a half ago. He was wild for the first two years of his life. And then he was gathered up– they used the bait trapping, actually.
So he wasn’t helicopter gathered, he was trapped and then brought in. And I brought him home, and we’ve been figuring each other out ever since. We test each other, and we push each other, but he’s an amazing partner. And yeah, I cherish him. His name is Boo.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Has he changed the way you thought about this story and the controversy? Do you think about the controversy around wild horses differently because of Boo?
ASHLEY AHEARN: I do. It hurts me to think about him being taken away from his family. I do think about that. He was roaming– he was roaming the wild Oregon sagebrush desert for two years and horses do live in family bands. So that is a hard thing.
But now that I’ve seen that landscape up close and I’ve seen what happens when too many horses are out there, my brain fast forwards to where that’s headed if we don’t do something about it, if we don’t try to manage these populations. We have a gift. We have amazing animals in this country roaming free and we have an opportunity, I think, to form these deep relationships with them if we choose to and potentially take a small bite out of a very big ecological problem in the process.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Where did these Mustangs come from? How did they get to the West?
ASHLEY AHEARN: So the dominant Western science narrative for many, many, many years has been that horses evolved in North America millions of years ago to Equus roaming the vast grasslands and rainforests of what is now the American West. But they went extinct, according to Western science, in the last Ice Age. So 10,000, 13,000 years ago.
And they didn’t come back until the conquistadors brought them from Europe to Central and South America about 500 years ago. And then from there, they were traded, or some would say stolen, I don’t like to use that terminology, with the Native American peoples who then, through trade routes, brought the horses up through the middle of the country into the North American West.
I have been intrigued by another narrative that’s emerging with scientists like Dr. Yvette Running Horse Collin, who are challenging that, or questioning that accepted wisdom that the horse went extinct, and wondering and positing that rather it was here all along in pockets, survived the last I’m Age with the Indigenous peoples of North America, and has been a part of their culture for millennia in fact, and that it was not bestowed upon the natives by the colonialists when they arrived. And so Yvette Running Horse Collin has some really powerful thoughts on that. She is the executive director of the Global Institute for Judicial Sciences and she’s a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. So I visited her in the Black Hills of South Dakota and I’d love to play you a cut from her.
– The mainstream narrative just continues to get pushed, and pushed, and pushed, and an entire body of knowledge is ignored, passed by, purposefully pushed away. So that is something that we could not have happen if we were truly trying to understand the history of the horse and the Americas. Because whether they like it or not, we were the ones here.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Powerful. Listening to your podcast, I felt like horses and their history are really wrapped up with all of these huge American narratives, good and bad. It just feels like they’re saddled with so much symbolism. But I wanted your take on that.
ASHLEY AHEARN: Oh, I– yeah, no. I couldn’t have said it better. I think that we all have some kind of a connection. Even if it’s just growing up reading books about them as a little kid, there is a mystique, and there’s a power to them. And it was a wonderful experience to gather all of those perspectives and to be surprised by those perspectives.
FLORA LICHTMAN: That’s all the time we have for now. I’d like to thank my guest, Ashley Ahearn, Science and Environment Reporter and host of the podcast Mustang. She’s based in Okanogan County, Washington. Thank you for joining us.
ASHLEY AHEARN: Thanks for having me.