MUSTANG TALES: Bringing the Reader to the Range, "Counting Mustangs"

MUSTANG TALES:  Bringing the Reader to the Range

© Kathryn Wilder


They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this instance the absence of photographs might say more.

            We’re driving. And we keep driving, farther, longer, TJ navigating as we pass through the folds of Wyoming. In Lander we get gas, and our bearings. Sort of. We know where we’re headed but aren’t sure how to get there.00

            We drive on. We’re in aspens, driving south through the winter-white trunks, through snow clinging to the north slopes of the Wind River Range. Higher than 7,000 feet, the aspens are barely beginning to bud. It’s April, almost May. We top the final pass and start down toward another mustang desert: the Great Divide Basin.

            We choose our entry. There are signs of BLM but no BLM signs that say anything about the herd management area for which we search. We guess that a cattleguard marks a boundary and stop for bare minutes to examine the map, trying to locate ourselves in the bigness of off-highway Wyoming. Off-asphalt and blacktop Wyoming. We’re on Wyoming dirt, as in dirt road, but where? Oil and gas roads crisscross before us. We take a poorly marked road leading into—we hope—the herd management area from which my mustang Maka was removed in 2011. It has become my obsession to see his birthland and his relations.

            Onward along graveled miles followed by washouts, TJ now driving, we scan the broad valley bottoms and distant rising hills. We spot two mustangs in afternoon shadow—a stallion and a mare grazing at the base of a hill. We’re not close enough for photos or to see colors other than dark, even through binoculars—bay, dark gray, black? We watch for a moment, not guessing that this is the closest we’ll get to horses within this HMA.

            Pronghorns by the dozens stir the views but for a long while the only additional activity we sense is the change in the slant of sunlight and the Subaru moving along the dirt road. Even stud piles are scarce. After another rough patch we sight a band of horses far across the dry valley floor. Maybe two bands.

            I want out of the car. I want to venture closer. I want to see horses—Maka’s distant relatives—up close. I want to walk. I want TJ’s photos. I want a lot.

            “There’s not enough light,” TJ says.

            It’s true, I know. But I want to see horses. We’ve driven a long way for this, I think.        

            “And we don’t know how far we have to go before we hit pavement,” she says. Also true, well over an hour already on this rough road that we think maybe we see on the map, and if we’re correct there’s more unimproved road in front of us than behind us. We have lots of fuel and a spare donut tire, just not enough daylight as the sun continues its slow slide west.         

            My eyes strain through binoculars. Even counting these distant horses is difficult. Seven, I think, including one foal.  I give. “Okay,” I say, and TJ resumes the Subaru’s crawl across the desert.            

            Before we leave what we think is still the herd management area, we see another small, hazy band. Dusk competes with distance—even if we walked and got close we would not see these mustangs well enough to photograph or identify.           

            “That makes 15 horses,” I say. “Total.”           

            We recount mustangs in our minds and figure out the mileage as we move on through the descending darkness toward the speeding lights of Interstate 80—the first lights, or signs of other vehicles, we’ve seen in three hours. Eighty miles of dirt road, 70 miles of which was within Divide Basin Herd Management Area. Three hours, 70 miles, 15 horses.          

            What we don’t understand, what we will talk about for days and weeks into months, is how this huge herd management area (778,915 acres, 562,702 acres of which are BLM public lands; the remainder of these “checkerboard” lands are “private” or state), a range that “can support between 415 and 600 head of wild horses,” according to BLM, has “too many.” The official 2016 count indicated that 272 of the 542 wild horses within Divide Basin HMA were on checkerboard lands, despite the 2014 roundup and removal of 527 horses, which left just 91 horses in Divide Basin Herd Management Area (again according to BLM), well below the allotted number. And now, two years later, BLM says it needs to remove more.       

            Ninety-one mustangs left after the 2014 roundup explains our low sighting. It explains no photographs. But it does not explain the jump to too many mustangs running wild—from 91 to 542 in two years? We saw 15 distant horses in 70 miles of the “the big empty,” as people call the Red Desert that holds Great Divide Basin and the Divide Basin HMA. It certainly felt empty to us. Full of sky and pronghorns and sagebrush and space, empty of horses.


Kathryn Wilder ( ) lives among mustangs in southwestern Colorado.