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."
While setting up the Oregon place, Hyde—who has a degree in English with a minor in zoology from the University of California—traveled extensively, more or less in the role of a freelance writer and endangered-species expert. In 1974, while surveying whooping crane breeding grounds in the wilderness south of Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories, he was lost for three weeks. Without food supplies or gear, he roamed the taiga and muskeg happily, he recalls, eating snails and wrapping himself in sphagnum moss for protection against biting insects. Over 21 years he has written a dozen books: novels, nonfiction and children's books. In his spare time he was active in various conservation organizations, and he served as a member of the board of the Defenders of Wildlife from 1976 to '84.
In Oregon, Hyde had learned to ride and to work cattle with the mustangs he caught and broke. Later, when he sometimes found starving horses on poor public lands, he moved them to better pastures on his ranch. By the mid-'80s he was speaking before various organizations, trying to prompt action on the wild horse situation. But his interest in these animals was fairly casual until the spring of 1988. Then, while attending a conservation meeting, he was asked about the BLM horses being held in feedlots.
"I hadn't thought much about it before," says Hyde. "But some of my best ideas have come on the spur of the moment. As we were talking, I could see how this could be handled—that it was something worth doing. I said what was obviously needed was a private sanctuary. The animals and the public would do better if somebody other than the feds managed them in feedlots."
Hyde is a ferocious environmental libertarian. He is convinced that enlightened private-land owners are better stewards of natural resources than government bureaucrats, who are mainly responsive to political, not ecological, realities. With that philosophy driving him, over the next two years Hyde accomplished the following:
•He organized the Institute of Range and the American Mustang (IRAM).
•While making aerial surveys of several western states, he came across two land parcels suitable for mustang refuges in South Dakota. One was a 14,000-acre site in the Black Hills west of Hot Springs. The other was a 35,000-acre site about 150 miles to the east of the Hot Springs site.
•He raised money to get the 14,000-acre site and then persuaded a group of private investors to acquire the other property for about $1¾ million and allow IRAM to use it.
•He spent considerable time in Washington, D.C., seeking congressional support for the project.
•He reached an agreement with the BLM under which 2,000 wild horses would be placed on the two South Dakota sanctuaries. Hyde agreed to maintain the horses—providing supplemental feed and veterinarian care as necessary—and give BLM inspectors free access to the land and animals. In return, the feds promised to pay IRAM $1.00 a day for each of their horses on the sanctuary (now raised to $1.34). Previously, feedlot operators received as much as $2.64 per day, per head.
•He agreed that the nonprofit program would be self-sufficient by August 1991. That means he needs an endowment of about $6 million to cover operating expenses and interest and mortgage obligations. To that end, Hyde opened the 14,000-acre Hot Springs site to tourists in 1990, charging from $7.50 to $25 per person for specially guided tours.
In the fall of '89 Hyde moved into a prefab cabin on the sanctuary, the equivalent of a cowboy line camp, to oversee refencing and to otherwise get the place in order. The Oregon ranch is now operated by his wife, Gerda, and one of his three sons.
"A neighbor of mine back in Oregon suggested that what I was doing—coming out here to take care of a bunch of decrepit horses—did not appear to be the action of a rational man," says Hyde. "Maybe so, but I believe that if your comforts and conveniences become so important that you can't or won't act on your passions, then it's probably time to pack it in. I hope I will if it comes to that."
When the BLM horses began arriving from feedlots in 1989, many of them were in only fair condition or worse. Still, their psychic state was a more immediate concern to Hyde. He was particularly worried that if the horses were suddenly turned loose on the land, the confused, panicky animals, those that had spent months confined in cattle pens, would stampede and injure themselves on fences. "They only knew closed-in pens. They didn't understand our kind of fencing," says Hyde.
Therefore horses were first released into small pastures, where Hyde and a group of volunteers could patrol the fences. Generally the mere presence of humans was enough to upset the horses, who, with good reason, probably have a low opinion of people. Gradually, more gates and pastures were opened to the horses. After about four weeks of acclimation, a horse is given more or less free access. Now there are about 1,800 mustangs on the two sites.
As they became more composed, the refugee mustangs, which had originally been taken on widely separated ranges, began to organize themselves into bands of 10 to 14 animals, coalescing, as they do in the wild, around dominant mares. Because the sanctuaries are meant to be a kind of limited-occupancy retirement community rather than a breeding farm, all stallions are gelded before arriving. The success of the IRAM model has encouraged the BLM to give its support to a second nonprofit, private wild horse refuge in Oklahoma, which opened in September of 1989.
But in the past few months, things have soured for IRAM. The BLM says that Hyde has not raised sufficient funds to fulfill the requirements of his charter. After August, when his original agreement expires, BLM officials say they will no longer support his operation. Hyde says that he has received assurances that a compromise will be negotiated and that at least the smaller Black Hills sanctuary may continue to operate. In the meantime, there is no way to determine what the horses think.
Slipping and sliding across the rough, roadless pastures in a battered pickup on a winter day, Dayton Hyde has no need to mention the obvious—that this is The World's Great Wild Horse Sanctuary. But a visitor riding with him remarks that it is not only that but also one of the Greater Places he has seen.
Basically the land is an undulating plateau above which rise sharp, tortured buttes. The flats are scored with narrow, serpentine ravines and canyons gouged out by spring-fed streams. Dark, dense stands of pine grow on the slopes of the canyons and buttes. There are signs of deer, turkeys, coyotes and cougars. Above, against the slate-gray sky, hawks and eagles soar. Without horses it is an uncommonly beautiful and interesting place. But when 50 mustangs—blacks, whites, grays, pintos, buckskins and sorrels—appear, loping out of a ravine, long manes flying, condensed breath rising like smoke, the emotional impact of the scene is powerfully enhanced.
"They look happy," Hyde says, and that would seem to be accurate. "Sometimes out here I imagine that I am running with them, feeling what they feel."
Unfortunately, the entrepreneurial activities on which the sanctuary and horses are dependent leave Hyde little time to spend alone on the land. His immediate concern is persuading the BLM to extend his operations after August and, always, he is scrapping to raise funds to cover daily expenses (he says that the money the BLM pays is about $40,000 a year less than it costs to operate the sanctuary). He spends about three weeks each month traveling, talking to potential corporate, foundation and private donors.
Because of the advanced age and infirmities of some of the horses, both the BLM and Hyde had estimated that by this spring 150 to 200 of the horses would have died. However, they have thrived so well that fewer than 60 have died or needed to be put down.
On this day Hyde is looking for the oldest of the herd, a 35-year-old mare. By and by, her band appears and trots toward the truck, having learned that Hyde sometimes dispenses horse treats—handfuls of sweetened grain mash—on his visits. The mare comes up late, slow and a bit stiff but apparently fit.
"In a way," Hyde remarks, "this is why I'm spending so much of the life left to me on planes and in airports, how I justify it to myself. If I don't do this, there isn't any other place where she and the rest of them can live in a dignified way until they have lived long enough."
The horses have virtually free run of a 14,000-acre sanctuary in South Dakota's Black Hills.
Hyde, a rancher, author and conservationist, is the force behind the relocation project.
The sanctuary's most senior citizen is a 35-year-old mare.
The herding instinct of horses is recognized as a major element in the rehabilitation effort.