Mustangs occupy a unique position in the nation's history and culture, evoking visions of untamed, open space and sturdy steeds that helped settle the West.
But their reality has long been compromised by human interests — their tale one of changing priorities, political pressures and shifting policy.
Though now wild, these majestic herds trace their roots to domesticated horses first brought to America by Spanish settlers in the 1500s. For centuries, their descendents roamed across the valleys and hills that would one day make up the Great Plains and the western United States.
“I think that these animals have a rightful place in the wild, on the range,” said Sonoma Valley wine producer Ellie Phipps-Price, who has joined a campaign to stop the federal government from rounding up wild horses.
But despite 1971 legislation calling for their protection, some 301,000 horses and burros have been removed from public lands over the past four decades. Today, about 31,500 horses — 37,300 if one includes burros — still run wild, living across 10 western states, though more than half are in Nevada.
But federal regulators say the area cannot support even that many. The Bureau of Land Management, which is tasked with managing the long-term health and productivity of the land, believes the range can only support about 26,500.
One of the agency's mandates is to maintain limits on mustang populations by removing “excess” animals from public lands, using helicopters to drive them into temporary corrals. Most are transferred to long-term holding pastures, primarily in Kansas and Oklahoma, where they will live until they die.
But the government is running out of space to store the animals.
The BLM currently has 50,000 mustangs in holding areas, at a cost of $43 million to American taxpayers last year. It managed to place more than 2,500 horses and burros through its adoption program, but there just isn't enough demand to keep pace with those taken from the land.