DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For years out West, the federal government has been rounding up wild horses. The goal is to manage limited resources - water and vegetation. But now the federal government keeps and cares for more wild horses than there are horses left in the wild. And some people say it is time to let them go free. From member station KUNR in Reno, Will Stone reports.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: Drive about 20 miles north of Reno into the barren scrubland and you're sure to see wild horses - more than a thousand, in fact. Just not in the wild.
LAURA LEIGH: You're going come? Come on.
STONE: Laura Leigh calls several mares to the edge of a dusty corral.
LEIGH: This one will let you scratch her withers and put your hands on her legs.
STONE: She's a regular at Palomino Valley National Adoption Center. Leigh founded the advocacy group Wild Horse Education and has been coming here for years. Palomino is near capacity, like most of the Bureau of Land Management's holding facilities.
LEIGH: Some of these horses have been here for over a year. But when you run a broken program that stockpiles wild horses, eventually you're going to fill up your warehouse.
ALAN SHEPHERD: It's not allowing us to do the proper management on the range.
STONE: That's Alan Shepherd, who's with the Bureau of Land Management. For a while now, the agency has gathered more horses than it can adopt out. The end result is a lopsided program that spends about 60 percent of its budget just on holding the animals.
SHEPHERD: It's not sustainable, us spending that volume of dollars on holding horses and caring for horses.
STONE: In total, 50,000 of these horses and burros are in federally funded facilities. Only about 40,000 are left in the wild. The population has rebounded dramatically since the 1970s. A recent study attributes this to the Bureau rounding up so many horses.
The agency has reduced competition for food and water on the range and now horses are reproducing at unnatural rates. Advocates hope the study may bring about substantive policy changes - namely an end to roundups. The Bureau's Alan Shepherd says they've cut back but can't halt them altogether.
SHEPHERD: We're definitely looking into how do we control that population growth, through fertility control and sterilization and that type of work.
STONE: He says without roundups the public lands would soon be degraded and thousands of horses could die. Dr. J.J. Goicoechea is a veterinarian and rancher. He's the head of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association and says the horses have become a major problem. They eat too much of the food and drink up all the water.
DR. J.J. GOICOECHEA: We're not about anti-horse. We're about pro-resource. We're actually pro-horse. The horses are healthier and they do better if managed appropriately.
STONE: Goicoechea is frustrated with the Bureau too. He says the agency doesn't have the capacity to respond properly because it's out of space. He's not in favor of slaughtering horses, but he wants more gathered and sold. To him they're essentially livestock.
GOICOECHEA: Livestock, we eventually sell them or they have some kind of end. These horses, I guess it's more hospice to me than livestock, and that's what's wrong.
KATRINA BOYDEN: My name is Katrina Boydon, and I am the very happy owner of two mustangs, Spirit and Phantom.
STONE: Boydon's arm is draped over Spirit's pale cream-colored mane. Most Americans can no longer afford to care for a horse. Boydon says adopting a wild one can be challenging. They tend to be skittish and need a lot of training. They adopted him anyway for $125 and never looked back.
KATRINA BOYDEN ASSOCIATION: Once you've got them and trained them and gentled them, I mean this, my Spirit over here, is the gentlest horse we've got in our five here.
STONE: Spirit's story may help a few more mustangs find a home. But with tens of thousands still in holding, their fate can't rest only on the goodwill of people like Boydon. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.