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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Here in the West, it has been a bad year for wild horses. Large herds are starving on Nevada's high desert. Drought and wildfires have wiped out much of their food supply. Federal land managers are trying to save the horses with emergency roundups.

NPR's Jeff Brady went along on the latest one this week outside Reno.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

JEFF BRADY: A helicopter is herding wild horses down a dirt road. There's a long funnel-shaped trap leading into a corral. A cowboy is there, waiting to release a tame horse. It's called a Judas horse because when the others come near, it'll lead them in.

On a hillside, Jaime Thompson, with the Bureau of Land Management, is crouched behind a sagebrush.

Mr. JAMIE THOMPSON (Spokesman, Bureau of Land Management): Now, the Judas horse has been released and it's running into the trap, and the other horses are following it.

BRADY: Seven wild horses are captured as the helicopter, now just a few feet off the ground, turns and flies away to find another herd.

(Soundbite of helicopter hovering)

BRADY: As we head down the hill to the corral, the horses are still wide-eyed, but starting to calm down.

(Soundbite of horses)

BRADY: Veterinarian Patty Maxwell has come from New York State to volunteer for this roundup. She examines the captured horses.

Dr. PATTY MAXWELL (Veterinarian): We have a mixture of weanlings, all the way up to some very old horses. In general, they looked to be in very good body condition; however, some of the mares are looking a bit thin.

BRADY: Maxwell says the mothers often are the first to show signs of stress. She says it looks like these animals have been captured in time to keep them healthy. Now most will be put up for adoption, a few released, but only enough for the available grass and water to support. First, though, the horses have to be loaded onto a semi-trailer.

Ms. SHAWNA RICHARDSON (Bureau of Land Management): Oops, she came back down.

BRADY: Workers used white plastic grocery bags tied on the end of a stick and shake them behind the animals. It appears to be much kinder than using a whip.

Ms. RICHARDSON: As soon as you get a couple turned the right way, going the right direction, the rest will usually turn and follow.

BRADY: Shawna Richardson is with the Bureau of Land Management. She sorts the animals, deciding which will be headed back to the wild. But first, she spray-paints each horse's age on its backside.

Ms. RICHARDSON: It's been in my truck and it's been frozen, so I want to make sure that it's all mixed up good.

BRADY: This process with all these trucks, helicopters and workers is not cheap. It'll cost more than $200,000 to round up 700 horses. Then the BLM pays to board the animals until they're adopted. The adoption fee is about $150. That doesn't begin to cover the cost. So taxpayers pick up the rest.

(Soundbite of horses neighing)

BRADY: Roundups like this are controversial. Environmentalists tend to criticize the BLM for moving horses, but not ranchers' cattle, which are allowed to graze on public land for a modest fee. But the BLM says roundups like this are the only way to keep wild horses healthy.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Reno.

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