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In the ten Western states where wild horses are found, the federal agency in the unenviable position of overseeing the interests competing for public lands—livestock and minerals, trees and the people who hug them, hikers and wildlife, wild horses and water­sheds—is the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM is required to manage its 258 million acres (more than any other federal agency) for an ever changing West and for "multiple use." In theory there should be enough room for everything, but in reality, from the moment pioneers settled here, resources have been extracted with little patience for anything that got in the way of a silver dollar. These are not—and never were—lands managed for all things equally, but for the priorities of the age.

Historically the priority has been livestock, and in 2006 cattle and sheep consumed 20 times as much forage on BLM land as wild horses and burros. But in the past 30 years the tone of the culture has been changing. Ranchers in many parts of the West have been losing their dominant place, and the loudest voice is now coming from oil companies. With intensifying pressure to make the United States more energy independent, the BLM has leased 44 million acres of land for oil and gas, nearly five million of that in areas set aside for wild horses. It's an indelible use of the land: Even when capped, the wells don't go away.

"The energy is where you find it," said Tom Gorey, PR officer for the BLM's wild horse program. He sounded profoundly reconciled to that fact.

Gorey's agency oversees some 30,000 wild horses, which are confined to 29 million acres of disconnected BLM herd management areas (HMAs). Under the 1971 act the BLM must keep the herds at what it decides are appropriate management levels (AMLs). Some horse advocates believe the AMLs are arbitrarily low, threatening the genetic viability of the herds; ranchers say they're unrealistically high, threatening vital grazing.

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