"It really flies in the face of what the protection law was all about," he said. "They were supposed to be living symbols of the pioneer West, but now you've got as many in holding facilities as there are on the range. It's bad philosophically and economically."
Controversy surrounds the management of these horses, how to control the population and when horses should be sold for slaughter. An amendment to the 1971 law permits the slaughter of horses that have been in holding for 10 years or have not been sold at auction after three attempts, de Steiguer said.
On the grazing lands, the philosophical battles are between horse protectionists and big-game hunters and cattle ranchers.
"Horses protectionist groups philosophies range from those who see a need for humane management, including some removals and fertility control on the remaining herd, to those who want the horses to be truly free with no restrictions, like real wild animals," de Steiguer wrote in an email about the issue.
"In contrast, cattlemen and big-game hunters generally want to see them removed; they feel the horses pose a potential threat to their use of federal lands for grazing and hunting."
Now that his research is complete, de Steiguer has drawn his own conclusions. He favors a policy similar to that advocated by the Humane Society of the United States, in which horses are removed periodically in a humane, non-threatening manner. He doesn't want to see any horses sent to slaughter and wishes efforts to have the horses adopted could be stepped up and fertility control used regularly.
For de Steiguer, the chance to see horses in the wild has been a thrill.
One of his favorite memories is of encountering a wild stallion, with mares and foals in tow, in the Needle Mountains of southwestern Utah. De Steiguer and his wife were camping there, and the two didn't speak long after the stallion, unsure and snorting loudly, turned with his band and ran off.
The sound of their hoofbeats faded slowly.
"Words were not necessary," de Steiguer wrote.
"It was absolutely one of the most magical moments we have ever experienced in nature."
"Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America's Mustangs," $24.95, is published by the University of Arizona Press. Other books by Ed de Steiguer include "Age of Environmentalism" and "Origins of Modern Environmental Thought."
Excerpts from "Wild horses of the West": Very few Americans will ever have the opportunity to see a wild mustang: busy schedules simply do not permit this, and furthermore, these shy animals are very difficult to locate. In fact, I have joked with my camera club colleagues, "You'd have better luck trying to photograph lions in Africa!" Yet despite the fact that city folks may never have the opportunity to see one, Americans nevertheless care very much about their wild horses. Wild horses are part of our heritage and in our blood. They represent America as much as the bald eagle, the bison, or even the stars and stripes. It is my hope that this book will serve to heighten interest in the plight of Annie's "wild ones" and thereby ensure that their hoofbeats will still thunder across the Western range a thousand years from now.
-- -- --
Several years ago, my wife and I attended a federally sponsored mustang adoption in Arizona. A woman we stood next to had just adopted a bay filly yearling. Beaming like a proud parent, she had already named the horse "Shadow." We watched as wranglers singled out the animal for transfer to the woman's horse trailer. They ran the filly from the holding pens into a squeeze-chute, where she was held and fitted with a pink halter. "Here you go, girl, you'll look pretty in this," said a government cowboy to the straining filly, her eyes wild with fear and big as saucers. Shadow was next headed quickly out of the chute directly into the waiting trailer. As the loaded trailer pulled away, the filly let go with a series of lung-bursting whinnies signaling her utter panic and despair. After all, she was a wild horse, just weeks off of the range and almost completely unaccustomed to humans.
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