December 2008
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December 2008

Vanishing symbol of the West: A new book shows the mustang's plight

By Connie Gotsch

Carol Walker started photographing Wyoming’s wild horses five years ago after an encounter with a gray stallion on a cold April morning. But the veteran wildlife photographer had no idea where the adventure would take her.

“Little did I know I would end up writing a book about them!” Her hearty laugh booms down the phone line from her Longmont, Colo., home.

That book, “Wild Hoofbeats America’s Vanishing Wild Horses,” came about because of what she saw as the plight of mustangs across the West.

Over 2 million of them roamed the range at the turn of the 20th Century. Today, fewer than 23,000 remain, mostly on BLM land. The number has declined drastically over the past decade, as farmers, cattle ranchers, and oil and gas drillers pressure the agency to remove the animals and the BLM complies.

In her book, Walker examines the issue with text and photos of Wyoming’s Adobe Town herd. One of the largest in the United States, it takes its name from a red-rock formation in the dramatic and desolate high desert just over the border from Craig, Colo.

“Something I’ve really been concerned about recently is that there are currently 33,000 wild horses in long-term holding in various states such as Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas,” she says. “Recently the BLM has started considering euthanizing the horses to save money.”

Wild-horse advocates want the animals relocated and protected. “Wild Hoofbeats” pleads that case by taking an intimate look at the several bands making up the Adobe Town herd, and the consequences of a BLM round up.

Walker began with the pictures and later added text. “Wild Hoofbeats” contains 206 images, including a telephoto shot of a black stallion, and a series of a white mare and her growing brown colt.

Walker tried to select inspiring photos that told a story. “And, of course, in the roundup section there were those [photos] that were just downright upsetting. I felt those had to be in there as well.”

Over her five years studying the herd, she visited it so often that the bands recognized her. Stallions walked within 10 feet of the camera. She got to know family groups, watched foals grow, and saw fillies leave their birth bands to find mates.

“Something I really enjoyed doing was following the bands over time,” Walker states. “I really got to have a relationship with them.”

But it wasn’t all fun. Photographing offered obstacles, particularly during sub-zero winters. “I was always concerned. Am I gong to break down? What’s going to happen?”

She changed a tire in a blizzard. A road grader towed her out of mud. Cell-phone service came in handy several times.

The adventure ended when the BLM rounded up the Adobe Town herd in what is known as a “gather,” to capture animals for adoption and reduce the size of the herd. Walker witnessed the event. Stallions screamed for mares, and mares whinnied after colts as the bands were scattered.

“What was so heartbreaking was to see these mares and stallions that had probably been together for 10, maybe even 15, years getting split up,” she says. “I could see how attached they were to each other. It must have been so wrenching.”

Returning to Adobe Town after the roundup, she spotted only one stallion she recognized. He had a new family.

Walker grew up with horses, and believes they represent a large part of American history. They originated in North America many millennia ago, but later migrated across a land bridge to Europe. Their descendants returned to the New World with the Spanish.

American wild herds have close genetic ties with with the animals the Conquistadors brought. Were they to vanish, part of the West’s landscape and heritage would disappear with them.

Some wild horses can get a second chance after a BLM roundup, if they are put up for adoption. Unfortunately, in the present economy the adoption market is decreasing. Hence many animals remain in longterm holding facilities.

In “Wild Hoofbeats,” Walker examines alternative ways to care for these horses. For instance, the BLM might pay ranchers to let horses graze on leased land, a less-expensive proposition than penning them.

Equine veterinarians are studying various forms of birth control for mares and castration for stallions, but Walker doesn’t think that’s the answer. Wholesale reduction of herds to less than 150 animals decreases genetic viability, resulting in birth defects and unhealthy stock.

She’d rather see more careful management of the horses and their habitats. For example, areas that support wild horses also sustain mountain lions, a good check for the horse population. “The focus of the problem is that the BLM is trying to serve a lot of interests. The horses are being sold short.”

Walker has enjoyed a very favorable response to “Wild Hoofbeats,” which she brought out herself because her original publisher lost interest in the project. A 2009 calendar accompanies the book.

For people interested in wild-horse issues she suggests the web site www.wildhorsepreservation.org. It offers information on the history of wild horses on BLM land, round-up alerts, and information on legislation concerning the animals.

“One of the best things about horses is they are so forgiving. I can do something wrong, or say something wrong, or screw up and they come right back. They have this wonderful patience. I’m hard pressed to find that in people.”


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