THE COWBOY CONSERVATIONIST
GREG HENDRICKS has been hunkered down, silent, amid Nevada desert scrub for hours. Now, finally, the latter-day cowboy’s quarry is near. He stealthily shoulders his rifle, adjusts its sights and shoots a wild mustang mare. And the people who love these horses love him for doing it.
That’s because he’s firing darts filled with the birth control substance PZP.
See, the Southwest is home to some 95,000 feral horses and burros descended from those brought to the Americas by the Spanish 500 years ago. And as much as there’s no better symbol of unbridled freedom than wild horses, they also graze for 16 hours a day and reproduce prolifically, straining scant desert resources and riling cattle ranchers on both private and public lands.
For five decades, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has used low-flying helicopters to round up mustangs into pens, which regularly causes stampedes and grisly deaths. Even so, wild herd numbers often increase after a roundup.
“It’s a sad, gruesome thing to see,” says Hendricks, director of field operations for the American Wild Horse Campaign.
PZP is a cheap, safe and humane way to keep herd sizes sustainable. The tough part is getting close enough to a feral horse to dart it, requiring frigid mornings in rugged terrain, plenty of lukewarm coffee and damn good aim. The greatest hazard can be crossing paths with ranchers who harbor a sizable distrust of interlopers, be they animal or human.
Hendricks remains steadfast, building a team that’s darted 1,300 mares with permission on private lands. The next step is to broaden the program onto public lands overseen by the Bureau, which still relies on mass herding.
“These horses are a part of our history,” he says. “They’ve survived for hundreds of years out here, and they’re still surviving. They’ve earned it.”
THE TOUGH PART IS GETTING CLOSE ENOUGH TO A FERAL HORSE TO DART IT.