Last week, George Bush screened Broken Trail at the White House, along with its star, Robert Duvall. It was a fantastic movie directed by Walter Hill, about two cowboys driving 500 wild horses from Oregon to Wyoming, doing the right thing by way of women, Native Americans, and immigrants along the way, even fending off horse thieves in the process. The President loved it, we are told. So did the critics. In fact, the movie's ratings were so high that it was a headline on Drudge. There were many great things about this movie, but to me, the best part was the mustangs thundering across the high desert, carrying the great American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Last week, some of their descendants died during an unnecessary, government-sponsored round-up.
To learn the fate of the horses in Broken Trail, you had to listen close. They were heading for war -- in this case, the Boer War and the Spanish American War, where they would perish by the thousands, after languishing in treacherous ocean crossings and enduring harsh treatment in severe climates for months on end. Today, their descendants live in the Sheldon Hart Wildlife Refuge on the Oregon/Nevada border. In order to meet a goal of having a "Hollywood herd" of 125 horses by 2012, 337 horses of the 1500 to 2000 horses were recently chased off the land by helicopter, harried into traps, cleaved from their families, and hauled off in trucks to points unknown, possibly the slaughterhouse (which is why it's important to join everyone from Bo Derek to George Steinbrenner, and tell your representative that you support the permanent ban on horse slaughter, coming up for a vote this week on the House floor). Incidentally, the round-up that I just described is perfectly legal.
According to a team of investigators including wild horse advocates Susan Pohlman, Valerie James-Patton, and John Holland, Darla Clark, as well as veteran wild horse advocate Neda de Mayo, at least four foals died during this process. In addition, investigators say, pregnant mares aborted their foals en route, a charge that refuge leader Paul Steblein denies. Moreover, a grown horse was killed -- shot because it was crippled, long before the round-up, says Steblein; crippled during the round-up, say investigators. For pictures reportedly taken at the round-up, along with a vet report detailing the plight of the foals , click here.
Sadly, although the round-up was legal, as Patricia Fazio, environmental historian and long-time friend of the wild horse, points out, "That doesn't mean it wasn't cruel." Backstory: wild horses are indigenous to this country. They died out during the Ice Age, were reintroduced by the conquistadors, and flourished on the American range. They were pressed into service to blaze our trails, fight our wars, carry our mail, serve as transportation. By the end of the 19th Century, there were two million mustangs. Many of them were again sent off to war, culled for chicken feed and pet food, moved off by cattle and sheepmen, or simply shot for sport. By the middle of the 20th Century, they were on their way out, reduced to perhaps 60 or 70,000. To this day, ranchers see them as pests that steal food from livestock.
Fortunately, there came upon the scene a woman known as Wild Horse Annie, an intrepid Nevada character who risked her life by organizing a campaign to protect wild horses after she saw blood spilling out of a truck and following it to what turned out to be a slaughterhouse. The "Wild Horse Annie Act" was signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1971, assigning their protection, along with that of burros, to the Bureau of Land Management, which could carry out annual round-ups in designated "Herd Management Areas" provided that proper population and range impact studies were conducted regularly (there haven't been any since 1990, except for in a few areas). But horses don't read maps and many of them were living in terrain that came under the mandate of the Fish & Wildlife Service, which was not required to protect them and in fact regards them as "feral." In the words of my late father, that translates into "Good-bye, Charlie."
In 1971, when the wild horses finally gained federal protection, there were 50,000 on public lands in the 11 western states. Under the current administration, the round-ups have escalated ferociously. In fact, George Bush from the great state of Texas where the wild horse once roamed by the millions may preside over the complete obliteration of America's greatest icon. As of this moment, the wild horse is in the fight of its life. As I write, we are down to our last 20,000 horses. This is a number that according to various experts may not be sustainable.
Yet the BLM plans to round up another 1700 horses later this month. With drought and fire conditions unfolding, expect more culling -- such conditions are often used as an excuse to remove horses, "for their own protection" -- although they are never returned to their home after presumably being given a drink. Nor are other animals routinely removed for the same reasons.
Knowing that round-ups were coming this season, wild horse advocates urged Sheldon refuge managers to wait until mid summer or fall after foaling season had peaked, in order to avoid a situation in which newborns could not keep up with their mothers as the herd was chased by the helicopter or possibly trampled by bigger horses. But the Cattoor family -- one of two families in the West which handles most of the government's horse and burro round-ups; it alone is responsible for one of the most bizarre statistics I've ever heard, taking 200,000 wild horses off public lands -- was not available then and F&W wouldn't wait. It's not clear exactly why -- whenever agencies rush into wild horse round-ups, they cite preservation of habitat for other species. In this case, it was antelope, sage grouse, and lahontan trout. In other words, things that can be hunted and fished, and bring in licensing fees. In BLM areas, the habitat is generally given over to cattle first, with some other animals following, and horses last. "If we had waited to gather the horses," refuge leader Paul Steblein told me, "it would have been hotter and more stressful."
Well, it's true -- these round-ups, or "gathers," as the feds euphemistically call them -- are stressful whenever they happen, and in fact, there are often fatalities. Exactly how many is hard to come by and one or two are expected; incidents involving more deaths are generally covered up or considered part of the "protected information" owned by the people who carry out the round-ups and keep track of what they did, handing off the protected information to the government only. Clearly, in this recent Sheldon round-up, something went wrong and it's difficult to take official explanations seriously. For the past couple of years, there have been anecdotal reports of inhumane treatment of wild horses during round-ups on that refuge. Similar reports have emerged from other areas and I myself have witnessed several round-ups in Nevada -- it ain't a pretty sight, no matter how pretty the pictures of the running horses on the BLM website.
When it comes to stewardship of wild horses, the feds have an abysmal record. Among many scandalous incidents, during the 1980s, as many as 30,000 wild horses were siphoned off the BLM's adopt-a-horse program and sold off to slaughterhouses -a kind of deadly equine insider trading. A grand jury investigation was held, witnesses were scared off, and the whole thing was dropped. Which is what usually happens when it comes to wild horses.
Once again, a coalition of wild horse advocates is calling for a Congressional hearing -- this time into what happened at the Sheldon refuge. As Neda de Mayo told me, "things should be done in the least intrusive way. What happened during this round-up shows me where their priorities lie." DeMayo runs a sanctuary called Return to Freedom in Lompoc, California, and has a preservation herd of Sheldon horses on her land, along with horses from other dwindling herds. She does not have the room for more. Last year, I visited a sanctuary in South Dakota, where 81 horses from the Sheldon herd are living. These were taken in by Karen Sussman, who runs the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, the organization started by Wild Horse Annie. As we walked through the prairie grasses on the 600-acre preserve, visiting the Sheldons and horses from other vanished herds, Sussman also expressed a desire to take in more animals. "But I just don't have the space," she said.
Nor should she have to. There is no reason that wild horses should keep coming off the land. The West is fully capable of supporting the country's last remaining 20,000 mustangs. In fact, we owe it to them. So on July 4th, as we gather in town squares to celebrate Paul Revere's ride, let's knock back a few for the animals that brought us here (8000 died at Gettysburg alone), and then let's go forth and ask not for hearings on a specific round-up but for a moratorium on all round-ups, starting now. The broken trail can be mended, but nowadays, the horse thieves are running the government and we need to head them off at the pass.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: For the past few years, I've been working on a book about wild horses, criss-crossing the West and visiting horses in the wild, as well as talking to people on all sides of the issue. If you'd like to read my dispatches from the field, please click on these links: Slate, the LA Weekly, here on this site, on this podcast, and in the Boston Globe, last July 4th, in an op-ed about Comanche, the US cavalry horse who was taken from the wild, survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn, witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee, then, like many war veterans, lost his mind and became a drunk.