ELK CREEK, Calif. — The sun was beginning to angle behind the hills when a pack of wild horses swept through a gap in the terrain, turned and watched as a second band galloped into view.
One mustang called out in the golden light. Another threw back its head and whinnied during a call and exchange lasting several seconds.
Then the herd of perhaps 80 horses blended together and ran off, their manes flying against a blur of rich brown in a scene straight off the rangelands of the storied American West.
"They're part of our heritage," says Sonoma Valley wine producer Ellie Phipps-Price, who rescued the horses from certain slaughter. "They're not a commodity. Just because something doesn't make you money doesn't mean it's not worth having."
Phipps-Price bought the 2,000-acre ranch west of Willows as a refuge for 170 mustangs she purchased at a July 2010 government auction, outbidding buyers who wanted to butcher the horses for their meat.
The sale marked her public entry into the emotion-filled debate over these icons of the American West. Over the last three years, Phipps-Price has leapt full-force into the fray over federal management of wild mustang herds, whose <NO1><NO>50,000<NO1><NO> members in captivity now outnumber those left on the wild by a margin of nearly 5-to-3.
With her backing of several lawsuits seeking increased protection of mustang grazing lands, a film in the works to raise public awareness of the issues, and a commitment to help change federal policies on wild horses, Phipps-Price is, she says, "all in."
"This is a problem that needs to get solved," Phipps-Price said. "If we can't come up with a humane, sustainable way to manage them on the range, they'll be lost. They'll be gone."
<NO1><NO>A mother of two and soon-to-be "empty-nester," Phipps-Price, 52, had a lifelong love of horses when she came to her new mission in late 2009. The instruments of her conversion were a<NO1><NO> 2006 Vanity Fair story titled "Galloping Scared," along with a book about the American mustang that had long lain on a shelf before she felt compelled to read it.
Phipps-Price was jolted by what she glimpsed of the mustangs' plight. Chris Towt, her partner in life, wine and horses, said Phipps-Price's decision to dedicate herself to the cause seemed to crystallize overnight.
"I remember you distinctly waking up one morning and saying, 'I'm going to do something,'" Towt recalled during a tour of the Glenn County ranch.
What Phipps-Price has done — in addition to studying the issues, conquering the history and coordinating with key players in the campaign to stop mustang round-ups — is produce a 70-minute, 3-D film slated for release this fall to spread the word about the state of the mustang.
In the back of her mind, she said, was "The Cove," a powerful 2009 Oscar-winning documentary about the secret slaughter of bottlenose dolphins in a tiny Japanese town.
But "American Mustang" is a less-graphic hybrid of documentary and narrative, she said. It features character-driven scenes introducing viewers to the mustangs' saga.
"The public needs to know what's happening," Phipps-Price said. "We need to create a sense of outrage."
The outlines of Phipps-Price's life wouldn't suggest her eventual alliance with a cause loathed by much of ranching industry.