Mustangs picked their way through the sage, headed toward the Carson River on a bright morning in July.
Eight mares and at least two gangly colts were urged on by the stallion, a large bay with white socks and an unruly black mane. All were fat, sleek and shiny.
Two sorrel mares stopped to gaze curiously at human intruders, but the stallion was all business, keeping a wary eye as he urged on his brood.
Perhaps it was the human presence, the traffic or their nature, but they moved back into the range as quickly and quietly as they had come, the stallion acting as sentry between the civilized world and his family.
It's a simple scene made complex, as Nevada's burgeoning population cuts off the horses' water supply and invades their range.
Dedicated organizations like Wild Horses In Need and Wild Horse Organized Assistance fight for preservation and protection, scraping for money to provide medical care and arrange adoptions. Others wish the horses would just go away.
Wildlife ecologist Dr. Craig Downer traces the horses' ancestry to the North American continent to prehistoric times. They disappeared for several thousand years before their reintroduction, but readapted easily and can provide ecological stability on the range.
Horses are nomadic and will disperse their grazing pressure by roaming over hundreds of square miles, depending on the vegetation and water availability, Downer said.
They don't ruin riparian zones by camping on streams or rivers as do cattle, and are capable of taking advantage of remote water sources, which they can smell in the air, according to Downer.
They represent but a fraction of the grazing pressure on range lands, yet they are the first to be blamed for its problems, he said.
"Government and vested interest detractors say the horses are overpopulating, all the while paying little attention to the clear, indiscriminate over exploitation of resources and overpopulation by our own species. The cattle culture is so ingrained, no one wants to question it," he said.
But Jim Gianola, horse specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, said the numbers of cattle on the range have been reduced drastically in the 25 years he has worked in Nevada, primarily in the name of range quality.
Horses and burros are restricted by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, federal legislation which limits their range to the areas they inhabited that year. But the populations continue to grow in these horse management areas, according to Gianola.
"We've set limits for horses and never been able to achieve them. We might eventually reach our goals, but we've never been there. So when we talk about the ranges being impacted, keep in mind that the animals can't be outside of those areas legally," he said. "If they are, they must be removed. "It's a tough emotional issue, and from our perspective the goal really isn't numbers. I think you have to have horses in balance with forage. I'd rather remove 200 fat horses with colts than 600 that are starving and can't make it to the trap."
He argues domestic cattle are part of a more controlled situation, moving on and off the range at regular intervals, while pressure from the horses is constant.
Historically, cattle grazing has taken its toll on the range, but the tables are turning, according to Dr. Paul Tueller, professor of environmental and resource sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. Controls were nonexistent before the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and some range lands were devastated. But management practices have come a long way since then.
"Grazing is the harvest of a basic, renewable resource that has been going on for centuries," Tueller said. "Many perennial grasses are very resilient and what may appear to be overgrazing to the unschooled eye may simply be heavy grazing."
Gary Brackley, range management specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said good management is the key to maintaining the range when grazing cattle and things have improved as the science has evolved. Distribution of water for the cattle in the deserts, for example, is critical.
"Historically, livestock operations would turn the cattle out in spring and not worry about them again until fall," Brackley said. "That's not good management and it was happening up through the 1970s. Livestock grazing can be compatible with grazing resources when properly managed."