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Tracking down mustangs; you can join in near Bishop this spring.

Tracking down mustangs

Living symbols of the Old West, wildhorses, or mustangs, are still very much with us today--thanks to a 16-year-old act of Congress that prohibited their capture except by government agents. But the rapidly increasing number of horses is causing problems on the range, and control of their population is hotly debated. This spring, through a college extension course or on a private tour with an operator, you can get a close look at the free-roaming mustangs on California's Pizona range, just north of Bishop. You need to sign up soon, since space is limited.

The range management problem

Descended from horses brought to Americaby the Spanish and from animals let loose by later explorers, ranchers, and miners, mustangs travel in bands of 5 to 20 mares, with mares and young guarded by a harem stallion.

Congress passed the Wild Free-RoamingHorses and Burros Act in 1971, making it unlawful for any private party to kill, capture, harass, or sell wild horses or burros on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. Until then, most mustangs ended their careers in pet-food cans.

In 1971, an estimated 17,000 wild horsesroamed national forest and BLM lands in the West. Today, there are about 42,000, and in some ranges they've become a destructive element. Like cattle, the horses graze; and when grass is not available, they browse, nibbling on leaves and twigs--competing for food not only with livestock but also potentially with wildlife. Public sentiment favors full protection for the mustang, but many ranchers and naturalists have become frustrated by the problem. Interests on all sides agree that the wild horse population must be controlled. The most promising management technique may be fertility control.

At present, the Forest Service and theBLM round up excess mustangs each year for an Adopt-A-Horse program. For $125, any qualified applicant can adopt a mustang. But demand doesn't match the number of animals that must be removed, and the program is costly to administer: in 1986 alone, the BLM spent $6.7 million on some 10,000 horses in three holding centers. At the same time, there is concern that sufficient numbers of healthy young horses be left on the range to breed.

Two new publications give excellent backgroundon the overpopulation problem and possible solutions.

A special issue of the Journal of EquineVeterinary Science, edited by Jay Kirkpatrick and John Turner, Jr., outlines proceedings of a 1986 mustang symposium. It clearly explains the problems, the positions of the BLM and Forest Service, and the status of current research. For a copy of Volume 6, Number 5, send a check for $7.50 to the journal, Box 1127, Wildomar, Calif. 92395.

Wild Horses and Sacred Cows, by RichardSymanski (Northland Press, Box N, Flagstaff, Ariz. 86002, 1985; $9.95), recounts in lively style the history of America's mustangs and the consequences of legislation on their behalf.

Tracking the mustangs on horseback

Spring is the best time to get out and seemustangs for yourself. Mares with new foals run slowly so their young can keep up, and young stallions fight for places in established herds.

Four colleges offer seminar trips, and twoSierra pack outfitters take private parties out tracking.

You'll be able to follow the mustangs andget close enough for good viewing and picture-taking. Someone will be on hand to explain the bands' social patterns and interpret behavior.

The college field trips involve four days onhorseback and three nights camping in the Pizona range. Cost includes meals, equipment, and mount; you bring a sleeping bag and personal effects.

Los Angeles Pierce College offers amustang-tracking trip May 23 through 26. Cost is $350, with a $75 deposit due by April 23. For details and to reserve a spot, write or call Ron or Lynn Wechsler, 18916 Nordhoff St., Northridge 91324; (818) 349-3309.

UC Davis Extension offers a trip May 30through June 2. Cost is $395; $150 is due by April 30. For details and to pay by credit card, call (800) 752-0881.

UCLA Extension offers a trip May 16through 19. Cost is $465. For details and to register by credit card, call (213) 825-7093.

UC Santa Barbara Extension runs a tripJune 4 through 7. Cost is $425, with $100 due by May 18. For details and to pay by credit card, call (805) 961-3697.

Frontier Pack Train takes 5 to 10 guestsinto the Pizona and Silver Peak ranges on three-day trips between May 9 and June 13. All-inclusive cost is $225 per person. For details, write to the outfit, Star Route 3, Box 18, June Lake, Calif. 93529; call (619) 872-1301.

Rock Creek Pack Station takes privategroups into the Pizona range in May and June. Cost is $85 a day, per person. For details, write to the outfit at Box 248, Bishop, Calif. 93514; or call (619) 872-8331.

Photo: Knee-high in sagebrush, alert group of mustangs with blaze-faced foal scents trackers

Photo: Hidden amid rocks, wild-horse biologist John Turner identifies herd stallion to outfitter setting up telescope for guests

Photo: Moving quietly through mustang country,riders search for signs of five bands in Pizona range, part of California's Montgomery Pass Wild Horse Territory

Photo: Some 42,000horses roam free across 10 Western states; color indicates concentration

Photo: Long, ragged mane and scarred hide hint this horseis wild; face shape indicates Spanish Barb ancestry

Photo: Long-time mustanger Bill Hyzer sharesmorning coffee with Rock Creek guest before setting out for day's tracking
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Date:Feb 1, 1987
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