I-Team Special: Stampede to Oblivion

on .

From Channel 8, KLAS-TV Las Vegas

Half of the country's wild horses are in Nevada and the BLM is gathering them off of public land in record numbers with increasingly thin justifications behind the roundups.

Critics allege the BLM has repeatedly engineered or otherwise contributed to the conditions on public ranges, which are later used to justify the removal of horses. Fences have cut the horses off from water and forage all over the west, which BLM then uses as a reason to round them up.

Overall, BLM has gathered a quarter of a million horses off the public range, but what's happening now is different from previous years, both in scale and long-term intent, and it is happening with virtually no oversight.

"They are saying, ‘Okay, we will do what we want.' They just totally caved in. What the public doesn't already realize is that these greatly reduced herd management areas are already a very serious reduction. But now they're just going for broke. They are saying, ‘Hell, get rid of them,'" said Craig Downer.

"We have taken the number of horses off the range by over 50-percent in 20 years. For these people to say the horses are out of control, the numbers are out of control, there isn't anything out there that's realized a 50-percent decrease in the last two decades. Certainly not the number of cattle out there," said Jerry Reynoldson.

By almost any measure, there has been a dramatic shift. The pace of the government roundups has jumped over the last several years, averaging more than 9,000 head per year. As of early 2009, there are more than 33,000 horses in places like Ridgecrest, California or Fallon, Nevada -- more horses than exist on the open range.

Once they get to government corrals, they're no longer wild horses. Essentially they become wards of the state -- welfare horses living off the public dole and for the rest of their lives, they will be warehoused at either government pens or private ranches.

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp explores how the wild horse program got in such bad shape and what can be done to turn it around, including a plan by billionaire philanthropist Madeleine Pickens that would create an eco-tourism destination featuring the horses.