Pat O'Toole's grazing allotments (an allotment is an area of BLM land leased to stockmen) overlap with HMAs in south-central Wyoming and northwestern Colorado, and he has the measured calm and authority of a man who has learned his priorities the hard way. "When the wild horses were regularly harvested by ranchers," he said, "they couldn't take the range down. Then the wild horse was protected, and the ability to control their numbers was taken out of the ranchers' hands—and now there's just too many of them." He thought for a moment. "We've had a ten-year drought. Then add to that, oil and gas development is putting inconceivable pressure on the public land, and then consider that the wild horses have already taken the grassland to nothing. It's hard on everyone—the wild horses, the ranchers, the wildlife, everyone." But even as O'Toole spoke about his frustration at wild horses' appetites, he defended their right to exist as a symbol. "Wild horses have their place on the range," he said, "but when they've eaten themselves onto bare dirt, it's hard to feel that they're being appropriately managed."
Jay Kirkpatrick of ZooMontana agreed that wild horses "can exceed carrying capacity in places and cause problems not only for livestock and wildlife but for themselves. But," he said, "the key to understanding why wild horses are the scapegoat for poor land management and worse politics is that, unlike huntable wildlife and livestock, they have no economic value."
So the argument about wild horses and the resources they use comes down to this question: Do we have the landscape—physical and emotional—for them? While horse advocates and stockmen often argue the relative merits and demerits of the mustang on more emotional grounds, scientists are arguing on the basis of a fundamental fact: If the horses can be classified as native to North America, they have a right to the use of the land. If they're not native, they don't.
"Free-roaming horses are a feral, exotic species," said Joel Berger, a wildlife biologist based in Teton Valley, Idaho. "They're in direct competition for habitat with native wildlife." Berger suggested that the BLM's budget for wild horses might be better spent on the study and protection of native species. But Kirkpatrick and his sometime collaborator Patricia Fazio, an environmental writer, have long asserted that the wild horse is a native species and should be regarded as such by state and federal agencies. "Modern horses evolved on this continent 1.6 million years ago, only to later disappear," Kirkpatrick told me. "The two key elements for classifying an animal as a native species are where it originated and whether it coevolved with its habitat. The horse can lay claim to doing both in North America."