Every Wednesday a group of wild horse advocates gathers in front of the Nevada State Capitol building in Carson City to draw attention to the plight of wild horses. On the Capitol’s lawn is a statue of trailblazer Kit Carson carrying a rifle astride his horse, commemorating his famous search for a route across the Sierras.
No mention is made of the many horses that died on the trail. Nor is much mention made on any public square of the horses that perished so that America could live, the legions that died in the Spanish conquest, the Revolutionary War, the trek to the West, the trek to the Yukon, the Civil War, the Indian wars, World War I, and now, the modern range wars.
Wild horses populated North America before the Ice Age, died out, and were reintroduced by conquistadors. They still roam the West, and it’s fitting that they are most plentiful in Nevada, the country’s most extreme state, a kind of 24/7 mosh pit where part of the state was blown to smithereens during the age of atomic testing, rivers are bled dry so hotels in Las Vegas can have fountains, and–some say–an alien autopsy happened on a military base.
Today the Nevada state tourism commission sells the extreme image, running full-page ads in adventure magazines with a photo of a dusty woman in front of Nevada scenery, evidently just having climbed up Bloody Shins Trail, “challenge #6” on the state’s list of mountain biking trails. “Rage before beauty,” the headline says. “This is a 91,000-square mile provocation to seize life by the throat and throttle it like a rag doll.”
The problem is that some people in Nevada–and at their behest, the federal government–do exactly that, which is why wild horses are under siege and very possibly about to exit the American stage. The modern war against the wild horse is waged by cattlemen and ranchers, lone nuts and wayward members of the military, sagebrush rebels with a copy of the Second Amendment tucked into their back pockets, all operating under the cover of various national mantras and laws. In one way or another, the war is officially backed: by government agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Nevada Department of Agriculture, by sheriffs and small-town officials and others who are marching to the great American battle cry, “Don’t tread on me.”
As many ranchers see it, wild horses are thieves that steal food from cattle. All over the west, people who like to go out in the desert and shoot animals routinely kill wild horses–and usually get away with it; the status quo mitigates against any free-ranging animal that isn’t a cow. And now, if the Bureau of Land Management has its way, most of the remaining wild horses in Nevada will be gone by 2005.
The demonstrators who meet on old Highway 395 (the Kit Carson Trail) hoping to stop this plan include high school students, regular citizens who don’t often get involved in causes, and long-time friends of the wild horse. Last week, one participant waved a big American flag. Others carried placards that said, “Public Lands in Public Hands,” “Goodbye Spirit of the West,” and “As It Should Be/Wild Horses Running Free.” Many who drove through downtown Carson City slowed as they saw the protest, read the signs and honked their support. One woman pulled over and called out “Remember Wild Horse Annie!”
Wild Horse Annie was Velma Johnston, an intrepid Nevada character whose efforts (initiated after seeing blood spilling out of a truck that was hauling Mustangs to the slaughterhouse) led to the 1971 passage of the federal Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon. Legend has it that, apart from the war in Vietnam, Congress received more mail regarding protection for wild horses than on any other issue in history. Sadly, our current ranch-owning President is no friend to the horse he rode in on.
“The Bush administration’s policy toward the wild horse is the worst I’ve seen,” said Betty Lee Kelly, a founder of the sanctuary Wild Horse Spirit, at the Carson City demonstration. She and her partner Bobbi Royle have been tracking federal and state policy toward the wild horse since Ronald Reagan was in office. The horse has not fared well under any of the past four administrations. “But at least the others listened to us,” Kelly said. “That’s not happening now.”
Under the Bush regime, the “Wild Horse Annie” Act is ignored and bypassed by new twists on a myriad of regulations that have mired the wild horse in bureaucratic language such as “Herd Management Areas” (HMAs) and “Appropriate Management Levels” (AMLs)–all findings that are determined by agencies that dance to a fiddle played by beef barons. If the Bush policy is not stopped, the worst side of cowboy politics will prevail, and the 19,000 wild horses that still roam Nevada (those are government figures; some independent sources have put the number at 8,000-9,000) will be reduced to half that by 2005 in the name of “range management.” Wild horse advocates insist that these numbers are not enough to sustain the wild horse population of Nevada.
In 1900, there were 2 million wild horses in the United States. Although horses are animals of prey, their major predators were killed off long ago, and for years their biggest predator has been man. Horse round-ups and massacres went unchecked for decades, until Wild Horse Annie came along. Ranchers have long seen wild horses as competition for cattle, vying with Nevada’s 530,000 head of cattle and 225,000 sheep for 48 million acres of public grazing land. They are also seen as sources of income, waiting to be rounded up and shipped off to the slaughterhouse–and there is an increasing demand for American horsemeat in Europe now that hoof-and-mouth and mad cow disease is scaring consumers away from beef. But the fact is, less than 3 percent of American beef comes from cattle grazing on public lands in the 11 Western states; most of it comes from Nebraska. Moreover, study after study suggests that cattle–not horses or any other critters–are destroying public lands.
In spite of those facts, thousands of horses have been moved off the range and funneled into the BLM’s seemingly innocuous and even cute adopt-a-horse program. BLM literature refers to wild horses as “living legends,” yet its use of the term is disingenuous, for they are treated as a scourge. Wild horse advocates have long contended that loopholes in the program have permitted “killer buyers” to purchase Mustangs and sell them to slaughterhouses. Today the loopholes have supposedly been plugged, but the horse that enters this program is still endangered. According to a recent BLM announcement, the adoption program might be scrapped because it’s not working; not enough of the horses are being adopted, and many are sent to government-subsidized “sanctuaries” to live out the rest of their lives as captives.
Yet the round-ups are scheduled to proceed apace, and the people who run these “sanctuaries” make hundreds of thousands of dollars. “There are ranchers who stand to make millions from horse removal,” Kelly said.
Recently, at a semi-annual meeting of the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board (under the BLM), a Montana rancher talked about his elaborate proposal to “repatriate” 10,000 wild horses to Mexico, “at no cost to the government,” telling a reporter he was urged by the BLM to develop his plan. In the old days, horse thieves were hung; now they’re running the agencies that are supposed to protect horses. Given the latest timetable for wild horse removal, perhaps it’s time for the Bush administration to explain why it’s in the business of stealing horses from public lands–and entertaining notions of sending them to foreign countries–instead of protecting them, as mandated by federal law.
A few weeks ago, a group of people went four-wheeling on the northern Nevada range to look for wild horses. As the sun came up on the high desert juniper and sage, a band of 15 or so presented itself–grays and paints and roans, still with their lush winter coats–and there was a one-day-old foal. “It breaks my heart to see this foal,” a woman said. “I worry about its fate.”
As well she should, for even as our cowboy President defends us from external enemies, he would destroy the national treasure that he has invoked in his personal mythology. When Bush was governor of Texas, a famous western painting called “A Charge to Keep” hung in his office. It portrayed Methodist circuit riders on Mustangs, galloping through the brush and delivering the word of God. According to a recent Frontline documentary, Bush sent a memo to staffers at the time, citing the painting and reminding them of the messengers on horseback. “That’s us,” he said.
Ironically the horses that once roamed the West by the millions may not survive the Bush administration, as our President proceeds to remove our dwindling herds from public lands. In the 1880s, a wrangler named Billy Dodson wrote about life on the Texas trail and memorialized The Ten Commandments of the Open Range. “Recognizing that the horse is indispensable,” says Number VI, “he will never unnecessarily abuse him.”
Deanne Stillman’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Rolling Stone, and GQ, among others. She’s the author of the critically acclaimed bestseller, Twentynine Palms. Currently she’s writing Horse Latitudes: Last Stand for the Wild Horse In The American West, a narrative nonfiction history of the wild horse in the West, for Houghton Mifflin.