Mustang Meadows Ranch

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Their high-pitched whinnies roll across the plains like a tumbleweed- scatteri ng wind. At dusk one of them rears and paws the air, casting a silhouette that is the very image of freedom. These are mustangs, the legendary wild horses of the American West. Two decades ago, mustangs were headed for extinction. Now, at Mustang Meadows Ranch, a 32,000-acre spread near St. Francis, S. Dak., 1,500 of them have found sanctuary and a managed independence that may help assure their survival.

Descended from horses that escaped from Spanish herds, millions of mustangs roamed the prairie at the start of the 19th century. But as the wildness went out of the West and more and more rangeland was plowed for crops or fenced off ( for cattle, the number of mustangs dwindled. By 1970 only 17,000 were left, despite the passage of federal laws that banned the use of airplanes and motor vehicles to round them up for slaughter. In 1971 Congress responded to a massive letter-writing campaign by enacting the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which assigned the federal Bureau of Land Management the responsibility for protecting these "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West."

Under BLM, the mustangs have recovered: 42,000 horses now run free on the range. But their numbers have greatly surpassed the ability of the land to support them. To ease the overpopulation, BLM in 1976 inaugurated a national Adopt-a-Horse program, under which 90,000 wild horses have been sold to private owners. But the mustangs taken off the range annually include many that are too old, crippled, ugly or mean to make good pets. Until two years ago, thousands of unadoptable mustangs were crowded into dusty feeding pens in Nebraska, Nevada and Texas at a cost to taxpayers of $13 million a year.

Enter Dayton Hyde, an Oregon rancher with a reputation for unorthodox management and a deep interest in conservation. "In my travels I kept going by feedlots seeing these poor creatures cooped up," says Hyde, 64. "I thought, That's no way to treat a wild horse. My dream was to get these horses out of the feedlots and running free again."

In 1988 Hyde founded the nonprofit Institute for Range and the American Mustang in order to create sanctuaries -- retirement homes of sorts -- where unadoptable wild horses could once again roam freely. He convinced BLM that with foundation and public funds he could establish a self-sustaining sanctuary within three years. IRAM's first project was a 12,600-acre sanctuary in the Black Hills of South Dakota that opened last year. Tourists pay $15 to view 300 mustangs running on high plateaus of ponderosa pine. The project makes Hyde smile. "The horses are finally getting over their depression," he says. "They got so bored in the feedlots that they didn't know how to run anymore."

Hyde's ambition went beyond his successes at the Black Hills sanctuary. He next sought to establish a larger range that could accommodate thousands of horses. But since IRAM lacked both money and land, Hyde needed the help of a private investor. He turned out to be Alan Day, an owner of cattle ranches in Arizona and Nebraska. Day, says Hyde, "knew how to manage grass and was not afraid of the immensity of my dream."

Day also knew a good business deal when he saw it. "America's gone fat and sloppy, and for someone who's willing to go out there and kick ass, there's a lot of opportunity," he says. In the case of Mustang Meadows, Day and his two partners anticipated earning a $50,000 annual profit from a huge tract they assembled by buying 22,000 acres for $1.4 million and leasing 10,000 adjoining acres from the Sioux Indians. The money would come from IRAM's contract with BLM and the state of South Dakota, which pays the sanctuary an 85 cents-per- day subsidy per horse.

The first mustangs arrived in August 1988. After being cooped up in corrals anywhere from one month to several years, they needed to readjust psychologically to the comparative freedom of the ranch's open pastures. By gradually approaching the wary mustangs in corrals, Day and his wranglers taught them to become comfortable around people. "They have had so much negative training before they get here, they think they are going to suffer if they see a man on horseback," says Day. "We want to show them that we are not the enemy." Out of the corrals, the mustangs are rotated to one of twelve pastures, then moved periodically to allow the grass to regrow. "I'm a grass specialist," Day explains. "Though some people have romantic notions of the operation, I have to look at it as cash flow. It has to make financial sense." This year potential profits evaporated in the worst drought in memory.

Some critics say that being the brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor may have helped Day get the BLM contract. But, scoffs Day, "Sandra doesn't even drive 56 m.p.h. She didn't even know about this until it was a done deal." A more serious complaint about Day's techniques has been lodged by environmentalists who believe that wild horses ought to be just that -- wild. "They're nothing but a big herd of domestic horses," says Donna Ewing, president of the Illinois-based Hooved Animal Humane Society and a former colleague of Hyde's. Mustang Meadows, Ewing charges, is "another ploy by BLM to eliminate the wild horse. Hyde and Day are cattlemen, and who has been the biggest enemy of horses?" According to Ewing, "The horses are harassed. There is a lack of rock to keep their hooves trimmed naturally, so they have to round them up and trim their hooves twice a year. The climate is severe, and there is no natural shelter."

Day scoffs at such criticism. Mustang-management techniques like "herd- behavior modification," he claims, are essential. "Nobody in the world," he boasts, "has ever managed wild horses on this scale."

Day has made a believer out of John Boyles, chief of the Wild Horses and Burros division of BLM. "The situation ((at Mustang Meadows)) is about as close to natural as you can get," says Boyles. "As long as Congress says we can't destroy healthy excess animals, the sanctuary gives us the least-cost alternative to keeping the horses we can't place in private homes." BLM has awarded a contract for a second sanctuary in Oklahoma.

Such sanctuaries could eventually save taxpayers $2.5 million a year. But they will never satisfy everyone with an opinion about wild horses. Animal- rights activists and Old West buffs decry any fettering of the mustangs' ability to roam the plains. Ranchers object that free-running herds pose threats to pastures and water that cattle need. "Most people feel there should be some place in the U.S. for wild horses because they're so important in our past," says Boyles. "But we recognize the range is only going to support so many. The two basic questions are, How many should we have? and What should we do with the excess animals?" Until these questions are answered, sanctuaries can provide mustangs a haven somewhere between unbridled liberty and galloping into extinction.