BARTLESVILLE, OKLA. — Nostrils flaring, tails billowing, muscles straining under taut skin, they race through the prairie switch grass just for the thrill of it. They are wild mustangs, some of the last on earth, and their untempered dash to nowhere is marvelous to watch.
But back in Washington, in the cinder-block offices of the Interior Department's Inspector General (IG), the National Prairie Wild Horse Refuge program provokes a different response.
In a 1994 audit, the IG concluded that this 1,200-horse sanctuary, which costs about $600,000 a year to operate, is not "economically justifiable," and that this herd should be trucked back to its ancestral home in Nevada's dry sagelands.
At a time when both Democrats and Republicans are closing military bases and discussing federal cuts in spending on entitlement programs, such as welfare and health care for the poor and elderly, it's easy to see why a program for unwanted horses might be viewed as disposable.
Auditors will soon release a new report on the wild horse program, which could again recommend eliminating the Oklahoma refuge. To the ranchers here, that would be tragic. The problem, they say, is that as many as half the herd could be too accustomed to the easy life here, or too old, to survive back West.
"Back in Nevada, these horses had a rough life," says John Hughes, the rancher who oversees the program. "It doesn't rain much there, vegetation is sparse, and they have to compete with cattle, deer, and elk."
By contrast, he says, his 18,000-acre haven boasts some of the world's finest grasslands, and the horses have grown accustomed to feedings from a flatbed truck in the winter months. "Here, the horses must think they've already died and gone to heaven," he says.
It's probably true. The horses were brought here in 1989 as part of a 25-year-old federal program that maintains wild mustangs on public lands in Nevada. When food grows scarce, horses starve in huge numbers.
Since there is a federal law preventing the slaughter of mustangs, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been charged with rounding up as many as 6,000 horses each year, training them, and offering them for adoption all over the country.
The wildly popular program costs adopters only a minimal fee and prevents overcrowding on the Nevada range. But before BLM changed its policy eight years ago, it rounded up many horses that were unadoptable. This swaybacked, long-toothed, or just plain ornery collection of mustangs was kept in holding pens at great expense, until BLM decided to take bids from ranchers who would house the horses on their property.
"These horses are not the prettiest things in the world," says the program's supervisor, Lili Thomas, "but they're definitely the strongest."
Hughes points out a horse he calls "Englebert." Born with only half a rib cage, Englebert makes quite a spectacle when he runs - bouncing along like a kangaroo. "You try not to laugh," he says, "but you really can't help it."
Indeed, a look at the herd reveals that this refuge, as inspiring as it can be, is essentially an expensive retirement home for over-the-hill horses. Since no more horses will be added, the program is slated to end as soon as the last one dies.
This fact, coupled with Hughes's inability to raise 33 percent of the refuge's operating costs through private donations, has alerted auditors, who are more attuned to crunching numbers than thundering hoofbeats.
So far, Ms. Thomas says, attempts to attract would-be adopters and donors have produced little but some curious marketing slogans. Among them: "majestic mares make marvelous mothers," "make your home their haven," and "even legends retire."
But Thomas and Hughes contend that if people could see this place and compare it with the hardscrabble range in Nevada, they would not mind footing the bill or even giving money to make these horses' last years livable. "Wild horses are an emotional issue," Thomas says. "The American public really likes them. They're a part of this country's heritage that can never be replaced."