The romance of the West figures heavily in Bureau of Land Management advertisements for wild horse adoptions in Eastern states, where people line up to adopt mustangs rounded up from Western rangelands.
Utah's wild horses don't tend to be the prettiest mustangs in the corral. They are usually small and kind of a drab brown color, and sometimes they're left unadopted after Bureau of Land Management wranglers remove them from their herds.Local efforts to improve the horses' looks - and their adoption potential - are part of the Utah wild horse management plan. But these efforts could be thwarted by a new federal policy.
Up to now, part of the Utah wild horse management plan has been to immediately return the most attractive horses captured in BLM roundups to the wild herds to improve the breeding stock. Others would go to different states for public "adopt-a-horse" programs.
Older and relatively unattractive "unadoptables" caught in the roundups could be sent to sanctuaries in South Dakota and Oklahoma, or could be taken to prisons where inmates would halter-break them to make them more adoptable in the future.
But the prison programs have come under fire, and the sanctuaries will close this year because they are full.
The sanctuaries' imminent closure has led the bureau's Washington, D.C., command center to issue a new directive telling local bureaus only to remove the more adoptable young horses - those under 10 years of age - from the herd, and to leave older horses on the range to live out their lives.
The new policy creates a dilemma for Utah's wild horse managers, said Larry Maxfield, the Bureau of Land Management resource manager in charge of Utah's wild horses.
"Down the road, what that may do to us is change the age structure of our herd," Maxfield said. And that could ultimately worsen the herds' quality and the horses' chances for adoption.
The horses are put up for adoption in the first place because the BLM has determined they have overpopulated the rangelands, which must also support big game and cattle grazing. Wild horses are protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
A General Accounting Office report released last year suggested the BLM revamp its herd management strategies to include sterilization.
Maxfield said gelding the males wouldn't do much to solve either the overpopulation or the herd quality problems. But the BLM has contracted with the National Academy of Sciences to look for a way to either sterilize mares or inoculate them with a temporary contraceptive. That could possibly even out the disparity between the number of animals the BLM may cull each year and the natural birth rate.
This year, Utah has enough federal funding for its wild horse program to round up 350 horses. The horses will be removed from herds in the east-central and West Desert sections of the state.
Because none may be sent to sanctuaries, it is likely they will all be prime animals - yearlings to 6-year-olds, plus mare and colt pairs, Maxfield said.