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Whether you consider wild horses common farm animals or a symbol of freedom in the west, they've been protected by federal law since the Wild Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. The law also says they must be managed. But the federal government faces a significant challenge in doing that . . . mainly that the 39 thousand beasts roaming 10 western states are reproducing at rate of 20 percent a year. Lets saddled up to see how the management program is faring in Southern Nevada:
BILLY YOUNG: Yes we have some rescues that come in . . .
PLASKON: Billy Young, President of the National Wild Horse Association is on the phone and standing in the mud at the base of the snow-covered sheer cliffs of the Spring Mountains. She's one of many tireless volunteers trying to find homes for wild horses, like the ones in a Bureau of Land Management pen nearby. This time she's getting an offer for free horse food.
YOUNG: Sorry here's another call.
PLASKON: Tomorrow the Association will hold an all volunteer-organized auction to assist in the adoption of 19 wild horses. They go for just $125 a head - a small price for this symbol of western freedom. But it can take weeks to go through the process of adopting. Young says it's worth it. We walk through the gate of the pen and she points out Romeo, who's chomping on grass.
YOUNG: He just has a wonderful disposition, he is really flexible. He can bend and twist and turn. He is very agile, he is going to do very well in whatever discipline his new owner chooses.
PLASKON: They look a little scrappy
YOUNG: It just rained and they rolled. So they are a little muddy yes.
PLASKON: Over the centuries on their own, wild horses have evolved less complex dietary needs, and that's just one of the things that makes them different from domestic horses.
YOUNG: The wild horse depends on its family for survival so once you make the connection with the wild horse, it takes you as part of its family and it gives you its heart and soul and it gives you a connection unlike any domestic you would ever find.
PLASKON: Living in the wild has made them loyal, but confident and hardy she says.
YOUNG: And they are very smart. You know they have had to learn quickly for their survival so when you teach them something you can walk away and the horse is going to be right where you left them.
PLASKON: In past auctions volunteers held horse shows to prove how smart wild horses really are.
ANNOUNCER: Riders walk your horses . . . walk your horses. Riders canter your horses . . . riders canter your horses. This show is to demonstrate what a wild horse can do once you gain it's trust and they are pretty impressive.
PLASKON: But they aren't always so impressive. Overpopulation combined with drought, encroaching development and lack of food in Southern Nevada have contributed to the demise of the Red Rock wild horse population. Young describes how they found these horses in the herd.
YOUNG: They were walking dead, they were nothing but skin and bone, all of these horses have recovered. We did not loose any of our red-rock horses.
PLASKON: Without these horses the red-rock herd has been reduced to just 25 - not enough to sustain it's genetic viability Young says. Initially they were gathered to bring them back to health and then re-introduce them back to the herd. When they got healthy they also got pregnant. One mare gave birth this week.
YOUNG: Oh Gosh, cute! Ha, ha, ha, how's that. A buckskin pinto, just cute as a button, happy, healthy, was prancing around earlier doing fine.
PLASKON: But both the Wild Horse Association and the BLM have agreed this foal and the other horses can't go back to their family in Red Rock because there isn't enough food on the range and without enough food they would simply die also. Without importing a stud to sustain the herd's genetic viability, tomorrow's auction may be the last for the red rock horses. Despite the horses demise in Red Rock. . . in the rest of the west, wild horses are reproducing at an alarming rate - 20 percent per year. Adoptions like this play a key role in figuring out what to do with so many protected animals every year according to Dean Bolstead, BLM Natural Resource Washington Specialist on Wild Horses and Burros.
BOLSTEAD: Herds will double every four years and the rangelands have limited capacity to support them and then we begin to have impacts on wildlife habitat, impacts to rangeland health and impacts to other users of the public lands and it is pretty obvious too many animals are not good for anything, nor themselves, we must, we need to bring them to appropriate levels for the good of public lands and the users of those lands.
PLASKON: To reach the appropriate level the BLM needs to remove and promote adoption for 14 thousand horses in addition to 7,800 because of newborns every year. But the demand for adoption is only about 6,000 annually. If the BLM can meet its goal of reducing the number of wild horses to 25 thousand nation-wide the number available for adoption would be about 5,000, balancing supply and demand. The BLM is steadily getting closer to that goal. In Nevada, which holds 60 percent of the nation's wild horses, populations have been reduced from 25 thousand three years ago to 18 thousand today. Now the BLM needs only to remove 3 thousand more to reach its ideal management level. But BLM Public Affairs Officer Maxine Shane says the agency is reaching its limit.
SHANE: Well, it's not quite that easy because we aren't going to be able to gather until after foaling season and we are going to have 20 percent more here in a few months so it is a direct relationship and you have to have a place to put those three thousand if you are going to take them off.
PLASKON: Officials say holding facilities are near capacity with 24 thousand un adopted wild horses that each cost one dollar and twenty cents a day to care for. And because of a lack of facility space and funds it's had to cut back on its average annual horse gathering from 10,000 annually to just 3,400 this year - that means more horses are out there reproducing and threatening the gains BLM has made in reducing the population. Part of the reason is that federal funding for wild horse management has dropped from 35 million dollars in 2001 to 29 million this year. This week the BLM did release a new proposed budget. In it is a 10.5 million dollar increase for monitoring, counting and fertility control of wild horses. Some of the money is for Nevada but none specifically for what Nevada officials say is the most important aspect - the adoption programs.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9, KNPR