I won’t forget the first wild horses I ever saw: flared nostrils, churning hooves and dreadlock manes. I intended to go fly fishing on Green Mountain, but I made a set of mustang memories instead.
The unplanned meeting happened years ago. That doesn’t matter. I can still picture the scruffy but yet majestic animals. Experiences, and our recollections afterward, hold deep seats in our minds. Virginia Woolf considered memory “the seamstress that threads our lives together.” Our memories and the stories we tell about them are what make us people.
After you’ve seen mustangs running, sparring or caring for their foals, they stay in your thoughts. Today, the wild horses I have known make me smile in meetings at the office. They run beside me and lend a bit of grace to my ordinary old-man jog for exercise in the morning. They even lured me to the section of the library dedicated to equine lore and history. There, in the stacks, I learned that the oldest horse fossils on Earth were found in Wyoming.
About a year ago, I uncovered a map on the internet that included a wild horse herd area along the banks of Deer Creek, south of Casper. I also learned that the Bureau of Land Management removed those horses entirely. They no longer exist. At a public meeting, I showed the map to the director of the local BLM office. He looked surprised, even taken aback. He could not remember when the agency decided to eliminate wild horses from the prairie south of my hometown.
Earlier this year, the BLM released a statement on its plan for four of the wild horse ranges in Sweetwater County, near Rock Springs. The agency’s “preferred alternative” would manage three of the four herds for “zero wild horses.” It hopes to reduce the size of the fourth herd by roughly half.
In a discussion of the impact of the agency’s preferred alternative, the BLM states that “opportunities to view wild horses would be reduced” and “there would no longer be any wild horses in the area of the Wild Horse Scenic Loop, a popular place for viewing.”
For decades, the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop has delighted visitors as a reliable place to watch bands of horses born in the wild.
Throughout the report, the agency cites “benefits to livestock grazing” as a desirable impact of the proposed actions. As of 2018, cattle outnumbered mustangs in Wild Horse Herd Management Areas across BLM lands nationwide by a ratio of 28-to-1. In the January 2020 report proposing the elimination of wild horses from three of their ranges in Wyoming, the BLM suggests no reduction in the number of livestock that occupy what may soon become “former” Wild Horse Herd Management Areas.
According to the Wyoming Department of Labor, less than 1.5% of the state’s population works in “agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting.” In Natrona County, where I live, the BLM eliminated all of the wild horses in order to make room for livestock — and agricultural enterprises employ 0.3% of the population.
Few of us own or work on Wyoming ranches, and a shrinking proportion of us consume the state’s agricultural products. The food produced here ships to foreign countries: Japan, Korea and the European Union. In addition, the BLM’s public lands grazing program is costly to American taxpayers. According to public records, in 2018, the BLM spent $34 million on livestock grazing administration and collected $17.3 million in grazing fees as compensation. In other words, the American people paid $16.7 million to allow a small minority to utilize the public lands that we all own together for their private purposes.
The people of Wyoming live in neighborhoods, mostly in places like Casper, Cheyenne and Laramie. We leave home and drive to work in the morning. When we aren’t working, we take advantage of the public lands and wildlife that surround us. But the agencies that manage our lands tend to make choices that favor the few, as opposed to the many. Too often, it’s a narrow set of financial interests that take precedence over interests that match the values of the majority of the state.
Wild horses are beloved. In 1971, the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act passed through both houses of Congress unanimously — with not a single dissenting vote. The act makes it plain: Wild horses are “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West ... they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.”
Today, surveys suggest that 80% of us favor the presence of mustangs on our public lands, and as a majority we are obliged to make our voices heard. In the words of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, “Our duty to the whole ... bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of unborn generations.”
Tourism is the second largest industry in Wyoming, and it is poised to become our most important source of revenue. The viewing and photographing of wild horses hold the potential to eclipse hunting and even bird watching as attractions.
When federal agencies round up and remove our mustangs, it represents a theft of the state’s economic assets, but these actions are more meaningful than that. They amount to a theft of memories. With wild horses missing from the Wyoming landscape, whole generations suffer. In effect, we are stealing life-changing events, even whole chapters from the life stories of young people. Wild horses won’t live in their thoughts as they do in yours or mine.
When we lessen what future generations can experience, we reduce what they can remember and we limit who they might become.
The next time a moment slows to the point where you can ponder, try asking yourself: “Will the Americans of the future judge us as good ancestors?”
How will they remember the generations of today? Will they scoff at the flowerless plains of cheatgrass and cow dung we left behind? Can we protect the scraps of wildness and freedom that remain and pass them on? Will the Americans of the future think of us as wise? Or will they look back and see a generation of thieves, recognized for stealing what could have been memories — the unforgettable components of a life.
Chad Hanson lives in Casper with his wife, Lynn, and their two cats, Skye and Sherpa. He serves as the current president of the Wyoming Mustang Institute. The views expressed here are solely his own.