CANON CITY, Colo. The herd of wild horses clopped cautiously toward the strangers in their pen. A chestnut mustang leaned in for a closer look, sniffing and snorting curiously. Another inched backward, her black eyes flashing with fear.
For many, this would be their first outside human contact, beyond the workers who feed them at this 80-acre holding facility 100 miles southwest of Denver.
They have all their needs met here. Except their freedom, said Fran Ackley, who oversees the Bureau of Land Managements Wild Horse and Burro Program in Colorado. I cant say if they want it or not.
Long an iconic totem of the American frontier, the tens of thousands of wild horses who roam across forgotten stretches of the rural West are at the heart of an increasingly tense dispute over their fate.
The bureau says their numbers continue to grow at an unmanageable rate, despite years of removing wild horses so that wildlife and livestock can share the land.
Horse advocates contend that the governments approach has not only failed, but is also needlessly cruel.
Despite deep differences on how the animals should be managed, both sides agree on one thing: The situation has reached a tipping point.
Were looking at critical mass, said Tom Gorey, a spokesman for bureau. The fact is we cant be in a position of gathering horses that we cant take care of. The capacity issue is staring us in the face.
The question of what to do with the animals has confounded the federal government for decades.
In an effort to maintain a stable population, while also preserving public land, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, allowing the bureau to remove excess wild horses from the range.
But with virtually no natural predators, herds typically double every four years. Currently, about 37,300 wild horses and burros roam across federal rangeland in 10 Western states, about 11,000 more than what the bureau deems manageable.
Each year, the bureau conducts roundups to thin the population. Low-flying helicopters drive the animals into traps before they are taken to holding facilities and permanent pastures.
The roundups have long been criticized by horse advocates as inhumane and dangerous.
Their entire approach is wrong. The BLM puts all its emphasis on removing and stockpiling horses as opposed to managing them on the range, said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
But the bureau concedes that gathering more horses is not a panacea. Nearly 50,000 wild horses and burros are already housed at temporary holding facilities or pastures, more than triple the number from a decade ago.
People need to realize that weve done more than what was envisioned under the Wild Horses Act, which is why were in the situation we are today, said Ackley, the head of the bureaus Colorado program.
He noted that horses at the Canon City facility are well cared for, whereas drought can make life on the range especially harsh.
But advocates say that the trauma of being separated from their families and the range leaves the horses dispirited and stressed.
Arguments about whether the holding facilities or long-term pastures are acceptable homes may be moot. With a steep decline in adoptions, and waning interest from buyers there is little room to care for any more.
This is one of the most difficult and vexing problems that we face in managing public lands, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. It is one that does not have an easy answer.