It is horse versus helicopter here in the high desert. On one side are nearly 40,000 horses spread over 10 states, whose presence on the range is a last vestige of the Old West.
On the other is a group of crusty cowboys whose chosen method of roundup involves rotors more than wrangling, using high-tech helicopters to drive galloping mustangs into low-tech traps.
“When they get in here, they know something’s going on,” said Dave Cattoor, 68, a straight-talking roundup expert who has been herding horses since he was 12. “The chips are down.”
Over the last month, Mr. Cattoor and his feral quarry have been doing battle under the dry, horizon-to-horizon skies of northeastern California and a neighboring Nevada county, with humans the inevitable victor.
More than 1,200 horses have been captured during the current roundup, much to the chagrin of people like Simone Netherlands, an animal rights advocate who says that the roundups — part of a nationwide push to take some 12,000 horses off public lands — are cruel, expensive and unnecessary.
“They’re running at full speed for miles and miles for hours, with babies, little babies, and they don’t let up on them,” Ms. Netherlands said. “They’re stressing them out to the max.”
The Bureau of Land Management, which is overseeing the roundup, disputes that, saying that the roundups are humane and that it must reduce the wild horse population to more sustainable levels, both for their health and for that of the other animals that live in this harsh terrain.
“Some advocate groups would like us to leave the horses out there and let nature take its course,” said Bob Abbey, director of the bureau. “We don’t believe that’s a sound option.”
Dollars and dead horses
The debate over roundups dates back decades, to the passage of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, a federal law that protected what was then a faltering wild horse population and made it illegal for cowboys like Mr. Cattoor to round up horses on their own for sport or profit.
“A cowboy really wasn’t a cowboy if you didn’t rope a wild horse,” Mr. Cattoor said. “But they stopped that. They stopped the maintenance, which costs nothing, and turned it into a multimillion-dollar deal. It’s crazy.”
Questions about the roundups have intensified in recent years as costs have mounted, both in dollars and in dead horses.
Seven horses have died in the current operation, and last winter, a roundup in Nevada resulted in over 100 horse deaths, prompting more than 50 members of Congress to ask Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to look for independent analysis of the bureau’s Wild Horse and Burro Program.
Late last month, the bureau did just that, asking the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a technical review of the program.
Horses that are captured are offered for adoption, but with demand for horses low and the cost of feed high, the government often ends up quartering them on large private ranches, primarily in Kansas and Oklahoma.
In 2009, about 70 percent of the entire program’s $40.6 million budget was spent holding 34,500 horses and burros, a system that the Government Accountability Office has concluded will “overwhelm the program” if not controlled.
“They are a symbol of the American West,” said Nathaniel Messer, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri and a former member of the federal Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Committee. “But do we need 35,000 symbols of the American West?”
'What you call a racket'
For critics like Deniz Bolbol, the pattern of roundup, removal and stockpiling is an example of the bureau’s catering to private interests on public lands, namely by favoring livestock ranchers — who pay the government for the right to graze and who can sell their animals — over wild horses, which cannot be sold for slaughter.
“We remove wild horses from the public lands so private livestock can graze, and then we ship the wild horses to private ranchers in the Midwest where we stockpile them and pay private ranchers,” said Ms. Bolbol, a spokeswoman for the group In Defense of Animals, which has sued to stop the roundups. “This is what you call a racket.”
And while Mr. Cattoor calls Ms. Bolbol and other protesters “fanatics,” he does not think the government’s reliance on big, periodic roundups makes much sense either, saying the bureau needs more steady maintenance of the wild herds, which can double in size every four years.
Perhaps the only other thing the two sides can agree on is that the horses — whose estimated populations range from about 120 in New Mexico to more than 17,000 in Nevada — are magnificent.
Art DiGrazia, the operations chief for one of the bureau’s wild horse and burro offices in California, said that some of the mustangs on the range were descended from Army cavalry horses, which were bred for size, speed and strength and left here or given to ranchers.
“They have the intelligence and endurance to work out in this country,” said Mr. DiGrazia, a bearded New Jersey native who speaks in a hoarse whisper. “They’ll know before you know that there’s something out there going on.”
The method of capture is simple: horses are located from helicopters, which have been used in roundups since the mid-1970s, and pushed toward the trap site, essentially a funnel shaped by two netted walls that lead into a temporary corral.
Once the herd runs into the funnel, Mr. Cattoor lets loose a so-called Judas horse, which is trained to lead the rest into the trap, where — uncombed, unshod and often stomping and biting — they slowly settle into their new lives as kept animals.
All of which is more humane than the old days, said Mr. Cattoor, who recalls cowboys using rope and brawn to bring in a herd, often injuring horses and horsemen alike.
“You have to really put the pound on them,” he said. “You’d have to get them sore footed and tired, and there’s a lot of problems with getting them really tired. Today, at this point, this is the best we can do.”
One recent morning, Mr. Cattoor and his team conducted several successful runs — 10 horses in one, a handful in another — before a small herd of four horses, their black manes and wild tails flying, came running full-tilt across the desert. The helicopter was close on their heels, whipping up curlicues of dust in the horses’ wake.
They were headed straight for the trap, when suddenly the herd broke, with three horses escaping across a field, while a single stallion — the leader — galloped in another direction.
The pilot, perhaps 50 feet up, chose to follow the larger group, but horse sense had its way; the three headed into a patch of trees, where helicopters cannot pursue. The stallion, meanwhile, disappeared up a ridge and back into the wild.
Mr. Cattoor watched it all, standing near his Judas horse with a resigned smile, as roundup opponents watched happily from a public viewing station several hundred feet away.
“These wild horse advocates love it when the horse beats the helicopter,” Mr. Cattoor said. “And they do sometimes win.”
This story, headlined "Horse Advocates Pull for Underdog in Roundups," first appeared in The New York Times.