Wild Mustang Adoptions Expand to Alaska
By Jennifer Tarnacki
It was while working in Cooper Landing as a horse guide that Natalie Rolhfs started asking herself, “Why aren’t there more mustangs in Alaska?”
Having worked previously with adopted wild mustangs, it was while riding through the trails in these mountains she became convinced that wild mustangs, once trained and adopted, could uniquely serve Alaskans.
“A horse like that could thrive in the lifestyle here,” Rolhfs said, “the way we demand upon ourselves and our animals. A mustang is so perfect for that.”
With an instinct for survival, mustangs have been naturally selected over the course of generations to be the toughest and smartest. These are the horses that make it out there in the wild.
“Mustangs are incredible,” says Rohlfs. “During my work at a dude ranch, the mustangs were the hardest working. They put the other horses under the table. It was incredible.”
Looming in our imagination, a stampede of wild horses stands for all that is rowdy and tenacious. We love to imagine them as a symbol of our pioneering spirit, roaming freely on the plains; an emblem of a last vestige of wildness in a civilized land, just like us.
We may be civilized, but we still fancy ourselves to be made of the stuff of the American character, as hardy as the first pioneers. Yet as much as we love this symbol, far from wild, mustangs are starving and very, very overpopulated.
There are currently around 80,000 mustangs across the American West under Bureau of Land Management control. The BLM’s appropriate management levels, a number determined by rangeland biologists, are closer to the 25,000 mark. The range’s carrying capacity has been stretched beyond its brink. Competing with ranchers and oil companies, wild horses have overgrazed the land down to dust.
It’s a big, controversial issue. Not many people outside of its immediate range know about it, and when they find out, passions and tempers flare. Ranchers are furious. Horse lovers are more furious. No one is sure what to do. It’s a deep divide, right along the lines of current divisive political situation.
The BLM is tasked with figuring out how to manage the public land these horses roam from a multiple use standpoint, allowing for ranching, oil fields and energy companies, as well as wild horses, to somehow coexist. Since the 1971 Wild-Roaming Horse and Burro Act which federally protected mustangs, BLM’s legal options include round up to long-term holding, adoption or sterilization. This quandry means thousands of mustangs are in long-term holding facilities.
Rohlfs thought that one way to move forward on the wild horse controversy could be to expand the range of adoptions out to a wider radius. In response, President Rohlfs and Vice-president Serenity Snow, along with a board of professional trainers, veterinarians, and activists, combined their expertise to form Jackalope Acres, a non-profit whose mission is to adopt and bring mustangs up to Alaska and connect them with loving owners. Adoptions are open to any qualified Alaskan.
They’ve already found their first adoptive mustang parent, Zoe Seppi of Anchorage, “I’ve always wanted a mustang. Jackalope Acres is making it very easy, charging only the cost of transportation and grain for the horses.”
While she admits adoptions are one small solution in a larger conundrum, Rohlfs insists the wild horse issue is really an issue of public lands, something Alaskans care strongly about. Wild horses compete for public grazing land with cattle and with oil companies, both economic drivers. The horses themselves are just one part of a much larger question about public land use. Of the multiple competing uses of land; ranching, oil fields, and wild horses, the horses are the only ones without any economic value.
This is striking contrast from the recent past, when range-tough mustangs were indispensable to early settlers. Horses, far from lacking value, were a symbol of our great expansion, our comrades and confidantes in our pioneering quest to tame the unknown. It was on horseback that the early explorers tamed the land, our manifest destiny very much tied up in their equine abilities.
The partnership with our horses was strong. We relied on them for work, companionship, and survival alike. As anthropologist Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence once quipped, “Of all animals perhaps the horse is uniquely suited to represent the conquest of the wild – the extension of culture into nature.”
It’s easy to forget now, with cell phone towers and highways, that horses were ever useful. The mustang, galloping along ranchers’ barbed fence lines and oil field rigs, is an animal that has lost its use in a shrinking landscape. Alaska is one of the last places in the country with tracts of relatively wild land. The rugged landscape of Cooper Landing is ideal for a tough horse like a mustang.
A self-professed horsewoman, Rohlfs speaks eloquently with thinly restrained passion about the issue. “Mustangs represent our pioneering heritage, the kind of spitfire deep down in our souls that Alaska was built upon. I think that’s the kind of American history we should care about conserving for future generations, don’t you?”
Witnesses to mustang round-ups have been known to act uncharacteristically emotional; furious and deeply sad at once. Rousing passions, the mustangs touch a nerve; a deep national chord of identity that is more fragile the more you gaze at it.
Perhaps that is the issue at hand, a national conversation about public lands, for how we use land comprises what our national character really is. In that sense, bringing a mustang up to the last frontier is a symbol in and of itself, a conversation starter about how we can and should value our wild.
For Rohlfs, the human-mustang bond is a connection that offers its own unique gifts, and that’s something she wants to share.
“The biggest thing we’d like to let people know is that we’re here. The one thing we’d really like is to strengthen the horse community in Alaska.”
For the founders of Jackalope Acres, the reason to protect the wild horses is simple. Conserving mustangs would be conserving our American heritage as frontier-facing, tough, and a little wild ourselves.