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‘Ecosanctuary’ Plans for Wild Horses Add Tourism to the Mix

‘Ecosanctuary’ Plans for Wild Horses Add Tourism to the Mix

This was prime horse country once, in the old Western working way of bridles, bits and sweat. Leather tack from those days still hangs, cracked and preserved in the arid dust, on the wall of the 1906 vintage hay loft at the Wilson place.

Little other evidence is left, though. Horsepower on the ranch went under the hood and was called four-wheel drive. Horsehair rifle sights, once supplied to the United States Army from the Centennial Valley here in southeastern Wyoming, were supplanted by newer technologies. Horses became gentle, recreational and costly to keep.

Now the rougher version is about to return.

Wild horses — feral descendants of the workaday animals that once toiled for the farms, the Indian tribes and the Army — could soon be running the fields of Rich and Jana Wilson’s 4,700-acre spread.

This “ecosanctuary” project, announced last month by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees most of the nation’s wild horse population, could be the first of many if it works, federal officials said.

And part of the novelty is a reconnection of equine life and economic growth, making horses more than just a financial burden or a charity case. Sheltering a herd of 250 wild horses on Deerwood Ranch, replacing the cattle that the Wilsons once raised, is intended to be at least partly self-sufficient, through tourist visits, and to be a stabilizing factor in an area where working agriculture is increasingly threatened.

“It’s new territory; we’re still figuring it out,” said Ms. Wilson, 49, who has lived here since her parents bought the ranch in the 1980s.

The effort, which is still under review but could start as early as September with the first horses, is coinciding with other developments that collectively add up to a new chapter in a strange and tangled tale that helped define the West. Animals that broke from the human yoke to run wild became a symbol of the unfenced, unbridled spirit, not least in Wyoming, where a bucking bronco graces every license plate. What to do with those horses and their descendants, though — their numbers estimated at 45,000 or more — has never been easy.

A contraceptive that can be administered remotely to mares, with darts, was approved for wider use last month by federal regulators; that will make wild horse numbers more controllable, but also, critics say, more artificial, their wildness further ceded to an accounting ledger in Washington.

A proposed partnership on public and private lands in Nevada that would shelter horses in larger numbers than the Wilsons ever could in Wyoming is also under consideration, but the inclusion of public lands is requiring more regulatory scrutiny. Federal officials say that greater public involvement — open areas for viewing, less than three hours from Denver International Airport — is a significant departure in itself from the past pattern of closed holding areas or remote open ranges.

“Our hope is that this would be some kind of boon to the local economy,” said Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management.

Federal policies on the wild horse front have pleased almost no one over the years. Animal enthusiasts say the creatures have essentially been treated as a problem — harried and harassed through roundups for population control, and never regarded as a truly wild species, the way that, say, bear or elk might be. Cattle ranchers who compete for grazing rights on public lands complain that managers have bowed the other way, letting populations get out of control, to the detriment of agriculture.

A lawsuit in California could upend the entire system. The suit, now before a federal judge, contends that federal officials, using intensive measures to regulate herds and their impact on public land, have violated a law passed by Congress in the 1970s that requires management of wild horses and burros to be at a “minimal feasible level.”

“Our argument is that the law was put in place to protect these wild animals and keep them wild,” said Rachel Fazio, the lawyer in the case. If the suit is successful, she said, holding horses and burros in confined settings — whether ecosanctuaries or holding pens — would stop.

Meanwhile, a seemingly obscure biological debate is raising the stakes, and the uncertainty, further still. Should the West’s wild horses be thought of as European transplants, descended from stock brought by the Spanish and later settlers? Or are they ultimately native, descended from a now-extinct horse species that evolved in North America thousands of years ago, before crossing over from Alaska to Asia to populate the Old World? The answer has profound implications for where horses, currently designated by federal managers as historical transplants rather than native wildlife, might go from here.

“The modern species of horse did evolve in North America, so it did exist as a native species at one time,” said E. Gus Cothran, a professor of biomedical sciences at Texas A&M University’s college of veterinary medicine, who has conducted horse research for the federal bureau. “But it also became extinct here, and the animal that returned to this continent was the domestic horse, and a lot of genetic changes accompanied domestication.”

Does the trajectory after that — wild, then domesticated, then wild again — make them similar to their ancestors, or changed too much? Dr. Cothran said he thinks the evidence supports the idea of the horse as reintroduced immigrant, rather than native, but the fight goes on.

“We assume that horses in the wild are behaving as their ancestors did, but we can’t be certain,” he said.

That awkwardly straddled line of wild and not-wild will be felt here on the Wilson place. The horses will all be geldings. And the question of what should happen if an animal gets sick is unclear, too, Mr. Wilson said, with the terms of the federal contract yet unfinished.

“Do we treat a sick animal, or does nature take its course?” he said. “We’re not sure yet.”

Critics of smaller-scale sanctuaries like this say the government is simply giving a new name to an old solution: storage.

“They’re just taking horses, rounding them up at great cost to the taxpayer and putting them there and paying another rancher,” said Madeleine Pickens, the wife of the billionaire oil investor T. Boone Pickens.

Ms. Pickens, who has a foundation called Saving America’s Mustangs, is a proponent of a large-scale public-private sanctuary in Nevada — under consideration by the Bureau of Land Management — that she said could take in thousands of horses.

Mr. Wilson, though, said the idea of seeing horses live out their lives on his land, never saddled or broken, will complete, for him, a circle of where this part of the West once was and will be again, but recast in a way the old-timers could never have imagined. “When I die, I want to come back as a horse,” he said.

Source: The New York Times

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