“Unbranded” follows a group of horseback riders on their journey from Mexico to Canada. Former Texas A&M University student Ben Masters organized the trip to raise awareness about the plight of America's wild horses and burros in captivity. [Courtesy photo]

When Congress passed a 1971 law aimed at protecting the nation’s wild horses and burros, it grandly declared that the species are the living symbols of the American West’s historic and pioneer spirit.

But today, due in no small part to that landmark law, a majority of wild horses are wild in name only.

A new documentary calls attention to the plight of some 50,000 wild horses and burros who live in government-leased pens and pastures across the country, where they’re held in captivity, pending adoption.

“Unbranded,” which will be screening for free at Star Hall on Thursday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m., follows a small group of horseback riders who set out to raise awareness about the situation.

Grand County Public Library Assistant Jessie Magleby said a library patron who first saw the documentary at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival recommended it to her. The library then purchased a copy of the book “Unbranded” that details the group’s adventures riding wild horses across the West.

Right away, Magleby said that library staffers were convinced the movie would be perfect for the Utah Film Circuit screening, which the library is sponsoring in conjunction with the Utah Film Center.

“I know I always say I’m excited about our upcoming films, and I always am, but I’m especially looking forward to this one,” Magleby said. “The scenery is spectacular, the adventure is gripping, and the plight of our nation’s wild horses and burros is most worthy of our attention.”

Ben Masters is the self-proclaimed “mastermind” behind the film.

Six years ago, he and two friends completed a 2,000-mile ride along the Continental Divide, from Arizona to Montana. They were broke at the time, so for $125 apiece, they adopted captive mustangs from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to supplement their string of quarter horses.

They soon found that the mustangs outperformed the domestic horses on the trails, and an intrigued Masters began to investigate the decades-old controversy regarding wild horses on America’s public lands.

Animal-rights activists allege that federal land managers’ efforts to control the fast-breeding species are driving the charismatic animals to the brink of extinction. Meanwhile, many environmentalists view the horses as unwanted pests that compete with native wildlife for limited forage in the arid West. Likewise, the horses vie with livestock for often-scarce resources on federal grazing allotments, to the dismay of many ranchers.

Behind the scenes and away from controversy surrounding BLM roundups of the horses, 50,000 animals now live in captivity – outnumbering the estimated 40,000 horses in the wild.

Masters wanted to get the word out about the captive animals in need of caring homes. So he adopted 16 wild horses and recruited three riders to join him on a new quest from Mexico to Canada. He brought director Phillip Baribeau on board to guide the film’s production, and then reached out to organizations and individuals from around the world to raise crucial funding for the project.

Utah Film Center Artistic Director Patrick Hubley said the film is a remarkable documentary.

“Featuring gorgeous cinematography that captures the wild beauty of the American West and a charming cast of characters, both human and animal, ‘Unbranded’ harks back to the days when traveling was as much about the journey as it was about getting to the destination,” he said.

“Unbranded” comes to Star Hall on Feb. 18

“The scenery is spectacular, the adventure is gripping, and the plight of our nation’s wild horses and burros is most worthy of our attention.”

When: Thursday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m.

Where: Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.

Cost: Free

Star Hall is located at 159 E. Center St. For more information about upcoming Star Hall screenings, go to www.utahfilmcenter.org/events/category/moab/upcoming/.