WINNEMUCCA - The Bureau of Land Management can't win when it comes to wild horses.

They are a powerful symbol of the vast public lands we value and enjoy in the West, running free on what was once unfenced range.Seeing wild horses near the Virginia Range on U.S. 50 when driving between Dayton and Carson City is a Nevada scene that I enjoy.

But appeasing both sides of the wild horse issue is a difficult if not impossible task.

Wild horse advocates, and they are many in number, vocal and passionate about their cause, accuse the BLM of a deliberate campaign of wholesale removal of wild horses from the public range.

Some of the most strident ascribe an ulterior motive to the BLM, charging that the agency has accelerated roundups over the past couple of years at the bidding of ranchers, who can then put more cows on the range without competition for food.

The BLM gets it from the other side if the agency doesn't do anything to rein in the growing wild horse population. Grazing permittees on public land criticize the agency for allowing wild horses to eat up sparse forage and tear up watering spots for cattle.

BLM officials are not allowed to refer to wild horses as "feral," but there is really no better word to describe the nearly 20,000 wild horses and burros on public land in Nevada.

Two years of drought have made life difficult for wild horses this summer, especially in Nevada.

In Nevada, all BLM districts have been hauling water to wild horses. The BLM is trucking 5,000 gallons of water per day, five days a week, to four separate locations throughout the Winnemucca District at a cost of $1,000 per day, according to a Monday news release.

There are about 5,131 wild horses, not counting this year's foals, within the BLM's Winnemucca District. They roam 20 Horse Management Areas and another 26 Horse Areas. Local BLM officials said the appropriate management level for the district on the low side is 1,974 wild horses and 3,233 wild horses on the high side.

So, there's clearly an abundance of wild horses - too many. Yet, there's no easy or immediate answers to resolving the wild horse issue to everyone's satisfaction.

The BLM received some criticism for how it manages wild horses and burros in a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences in June. The BLM requested the report and, from all indications, sincerely plans to review it and improve the program.

The report indicated that wild horse populations are growing by 15 to 20 percent annually, an obviously unsustainable level. Adoptions of wild horses are not keeping pace with roundups, forcing the BLM and taxpayers into a situation of placing the animals in long-term holding facilities.

There were an estimated 47,000 horses and burros in holding facilities in 2012. The federal government can keep building holding pastures in the Midwest forever to hold animals rounded up on the range, but that doesn't seem like the best resolution for the government or the horses.

The report also asserted that the BLM's wild horse program has not used the best science in estimating the population sizes on public land and also questioned methods used to assess the availability and consumption of forage.

The most promising answer, the report suggests, to curb runaway wild horse population growth is fertility control. The report notes that these methods usually require rounding up horses to administer a vaccine, but that's no worse than the current method of population control.

In defense of federal land managers, my perception is the BLM tries to do the right thing when it comes to the welfare of the animals. I've heard it explicitly from local BLM officials that humane treatment is the priority during gathers.

Wild horse advocates see horses at full gallop chased by a helicopter with foals falling behind. It isn't a comfortable sight, but it might be the quickest and safest way to get wild horses off a range that cannot support their numbers.

Drought is now pushing public land managers around the West to take action - to either cut cattle allotments on the range, speed up wild horse gathers, or both.

Either way, the BLM - and the wild horses - are in a tough spot.

Steve Lyon is editor of the Humboldt Sun. Contact him at