Wild Horses: DIA Exhibit Celebrates Embattled Mustangs

There are some unavoidable ironies in Facing the Wind, the large-scale photographic exhibit looming over passengers at Denver International Airport this holiday season. Trudging between interminable security lines and packed airplanes, the weary traveler can gaze upon splashy color images of wild mustangs at play in the vast open spaces of the American West and dream of a bucolic, unbridled life of adventure. But behind our tendency to romanticize this iconic animal is a less pretty story about a struggle for survival, amid dwindling habitat and misfiring government policy. 

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is tasked with protecting and  "managing" the herds of wild horses and burros on public lands under a 1971 law. But over the years the BLM's approach to management has turned increasingly to roundups and other ways of thinning out herds — even taking steps last fall to "zero out" one of Colorado's few remaining herds in order "to establish, maintain and preserve a thriving ecological balance." But critics of that approach have vigorously disputed the BLM's assertions about overpopulation, starving horses and environmental damage, while lawmakers have questioned the cost of removal. Activist groups maintain that ranchers, who also use BLM land for livestock, and energy interests are behind the push to remove more horses.

Since the number of horses captured far exceeds the demands for adoption, there are now nearly as many horses in government-financed holding pens and leased pastures as there are in the wild. A long-running scandal over the BLM selling truckloads of horses to a Colorado man, who then shipped them to slaughterhouses across the border at a tidy profit, highlighted the agency's shoddy oversight but failed to produce meaningful changes or prosecutions. 

All of which makes the display at DIA an opportunity to ponder how the mythology of the West often is at odds with the ways we have "tamed" it. Put together by the Larkspur-based WindDancer Foundation, the exhibit features images of wild horses and burros from eighteen photographers: Katie Simpson, Yva Monatiuk and John Eastcott, John Wagner, Pat Brennan, Gail deMonet, Bristol Mac Donald, Mark Terrell, Lynne Pomeranz, Tony Stromberg, Lee Mitchelson, Tamara Rymer, Barbara and Marty Wheeler, Kimerlee Curyl, Lisa Dearing, Tamara Gooch and Joe Tosh. The idea seems to be to present the horses in their natural (albeit somewhat idealized) setting — as opposed to, say, fleeing helicopters — with the aim of inspiring viewers to learn more about the challenges to their preservation and what to do about it.

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And what can be done? The exhibit doesn't offer answers, of course. But a number of horse-advocacy groups have proposed a range of alternatives to the roundups, and there has been success in some areas, including western Colorado, with humane forms of fertility control. Yet the roundups continue; more than 70 percent of BLM's wild horse management budget is now spent rounding up the animals and keeping them in places far from wild.

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