Ongoing drought and decades of overgrazing have devastated grasslands on the Navajo Reservation. With a wild, feral horse population in the tens of thousands, the tribe has made the difficult decision to round up as many of the animals as possible. Most of those horses will end up at a slaughterhouse in Mexico.
At daybreak a group of Navajo cowboys hired by the tribe’s Department of Agriculture set up a corral at a lone windmill. Then they spread out on horseback and ATVs in search of the animals. The man in charge, Ray Castillo, is scouting from a hilltop.
"As we were driving in," Castillo said, "there was eight of them right down here so we figured we'd go after them first. The further in there we go, the more horses we're probably gonna start finding."
This is a problem all across the western United States. But on the reservation it’s estimated there are somewhere between 60,000 and 75,000 feral horses. Officials say that’s four times what the land can support. So the Navajo Nation has decided to round up as many as possible and sell them.
"Stray horses are dominating windmills, wells, natural springs, coming to corrals, breaking into hay barns causing damage," said Kim Johnson, who runs the reservation grazing management program. "There's also animals out there that are injured and nobody's there to take care of them. They are just dying a slow death."
Johnson said earlier this summer President Barack Obama issued an emergency drought declaration that earmarked $1.3 million to deal with the feral horse problem. About 60 communities — more than half the reservation — have requested roundups. The unbranded animals are immediately sent to auction.
"The unbranded ones are sold to buyers that are bonded by the Navajo Nation," Johnson said. "And I believe the destination is Mexico, to a slaughter processing plant."
With the horse market at an all time low, the Navajo Nation is getting somewhere between $10 and $20 per head. That's a quarter of what it costs to bring them off the range. Recently, the tribe has officially come out in support of a horse slaughter processing plant that is trying to open closer to home in New Mexico. A lawsuit has temporarily stopped the plant from opening.
Erny Zah is a spokesman for the Navajo Nation. He said this has been a really difficult decision to make.
"We have a kinship with all our surroundings and the horses, they are a part of our creation myth," Zah said. "They are a part of who we are as people. That's where those old ceremonies come in, of asking for their help by eating their meat. At times during the winter months our people used to do that to get strength. They're revered."
As the sun climbs higher into the sky, a man who lives nearby pulls up. He said there are 80 horses that he knows of in one direction, another 100 in canyons nearby, and that they come to this watering hole around noon. Throughout the day more than 40 horses are rounded up.
"This is not something we came to as an abrupt solution," Zah said. "This is something we've weighed, we've thought about, we've prayed about. And this is the best way we see to manage our horse population."
Some members of the Navajo Nation say the decision to take such drastic measures with a sacred animal should be reached through consensus. Zah said the president's office is just trying to manage the nation’s resources responsibly.