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Our dealings with the species have been complicated, practically and philosophically, by the question "Is wild horse a zoological oxymoron?" In a generic sense few things are wilder than a free-ranging mustang. But the prevailing scientific opinion has it that truly native horses have not existed on the North American continent for eons and the progenitors of what we now call wild horses were domesticated animals that arrived on this continent only 500 or so years ago in Spanish galleons. Therefore opinions vary about whether they should be treated as good native American beasts or as strayed domestics—trashy interlopers comparable to feral pigs, dogs, cats and pigeons.
Because of this confusion, wild horses were traditionally managed as the people who lived nearest to them saw fit. On the grounds that they ate food that would otherwise support cattle, sheep and trophy game, wild horses were frequently killed as varmints or driven into poor forage areas. On the other hand, the wild herds provided free-for-the-taking remounts to anyone who could catch and break them.
But as the livestock industry and military were mechanized, and rangeland became much sought after by ranchers and developers, wild horses became valuable principally as pet food on the hoof. In the period following World War II, the methods of commercial horse hunters who supplied the pet-food market began to outrage people concerned with the humane treatment of animals. The animals became so besieged that in 1971 Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. It prohibited private parties from killing, catching or otherwise molesting these animals.
Since then the U.S. population of wild horses, which have no significant predators other than humans, has increased from an estimated 17,000 to about 58,000. Most of the horses are found in or immediately to the north and west of the Great Basin country, with the largest number, upwards of 30,000 head, living in Nevada, and another 4,000 or so in Wyoming.
Because most of the wild horses currently inhabit tracts under the administrative jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), that federal agency has become largely responsible for them. As far as the BLM is concerned, the animals have prospered a bit too much since the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. The BLM is required by law not only to protect wild horses but also to maintain an ecological balance in the areas where livestock and wild horses and burros share the land. As the horses—hardy, reproductively vigorous creatures—multiplied, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the balance of various eaters and owners of grasslands.
It was relatively simple for BLM wranglers to round up and remove horses from areas where they had become too numerous and were overgrazing the land, but what to do with the animals then was not so simple. The number of places where wild horses can live or, more important politically, where people want them to live is very limited.
Caught between a biological rock and a legal hard place, the BLM came up with the idea of selling surplus horses (currently for $125 each) to anyone who wanted to keep and cherish a mustang in circumstances that the agency certified as humane and healthful. This became widely known as the Adopt-A-Horse program, and it has been very successful. At the rate of 4,500 to 5,000 horses a year, the BLM has found approved homes, many in the eastern part of the country, for more than 100,000 formerly wild mustangs.
Unfortunately, there is a glitch in this system. Among the horses rounded up each year there are always several hundred that nobody wants to adopt because they are too old, too infirm, too ugly or too pugnacious. Legally obliged to keep these rejects, the BLM contracted with private feedlot operators to hold the animals in cattle pens. This proved to be expensive—an estimated $14 million a year. There were several instances of maltreatment of horses that enraged animal-rights groups (SI, April 25, 1988), but just the thought of incarcerating born-free animals in small corrals was enough to cause concern.
Until 2½ years ago the BLM was continually whipsawed by the costs of feedlot maintenance on the one hand and by charges of inhumanity on the other. Then, like a deus ex machina—at least from the standpoint of the beset agency—a man named Dayton Hyde appeared with what he said was a cheap, attractive solution for the unwanted horses.
Hyde, 66, stands 6'5" and is built along the lines of a retired NFL tight end. Still, his interests and ideas are notably larger than his stature. As a boy on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he roamed the bush, responding, he says, to the energies emanating from rocks and trees, communicating with animals and being generally preoccupied with the intricate relationships that connect animate and inanimate natural phenomena. When he was 11, he went to live with and work for an uncle who owned a cattle ranch in central Oregon. In 1958, when he became the owner of the property, Hyde devised a profitable system for the integrated management of the people, livestock, water, soils, wild flora and fauna that were on his own 5,000-acre property as well as for another 85,000 acres he leased. Not given to mealymouthed modesty, Hyde says the spread is now "one of the world's great ranches, economically and ecologically."