Dec 11, 2013
The War Against the Horse
Posted on May 4, 2010
By 1900, there were 2 million wild horses in America. By then, the train and car had arrived and horses had done their job: Many had been pressed into service during the frontier wars and had died in battle. Others were killed because they belonged to the tribes. A critical part of the government campaign to vanquish Native Americans was to strip them of their ponies. Thousands were killed during Army massacres, and when it was all over, and the tribes had been dismounted and moved to reservations, the federal caretaker for Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce asked if there was anything he wanted. He requested a horse. His caretaker didn’t understand the significance of the request and denied it—regretting the decision years later, as an old man, long after Chief Joseph had died.
With the frontier closed, mustangs became a cash crop: Hundreds of thousands of them were slaughtered and sent to Europe in tin cans. Others were shipped abroad for foreign wars. Until a Nevada character named Wild Horse Annie came along in 1950 and waged a 20-year battle for legal protections after seeing dying mustangs being hauled to a slaughterhouse, horse roundups and massacres had gone unchecked for decades. Today there are about 20,000 mustangs left on the range. Their major predators, such as the mountain lion, have been all but wiped out, and for more than a century their biggest enemy has been man, who desires the land where the mustang roams—and things that it offers. As I heard many times while working on “Mustang,” wild horses are regarded in some circles as “pests” or even “thieves”—animals that steal food from cows, which also graze on public lands in the West (at a ratio of about 50 to 1). And so the double-barreled war continues, with wild horses fending off a brutal campaign fueled by greed but stoked by a strange quirk in the American personality, the one that loves freedom and sings “don’t fence me in” while walling up what’s wild and selling it to the lowest bidder. As I wrote in “Mustang,” we may be fighting wars around the world, but in the West, to paraphrase the great environmental writer Bernard DeVoto, we are at war with ourselves.
As a result, ours is a history that includes a long list of mustang killings; I’ll skip the incidents that occurred before federal protection went into place in 1971 (the law that was unraveled under the Bush administration and remains in tatters, although a new law called the ROAM Act—Restore Our American Mustangs—awaits attention in Senate committee after passing the House last year by a wide margin). But for the record, let this be known: In 1973, in Howe, Idaho, ranchers on snowmobiles and saddle horses chased a herd of 32 mustangs for 45 days, driving them into a narrow canyon and trapping them on a shelf. Some jumped off the cliff to their deaths. Others panicked and jammed their hoofs into rocks, breaking their legs. “We didn’t know what to do,” one rancher said. “We disposed of them by cutting their legs off. I mean it was gruesome.” A few days later, the dead and mutilated horses were found at the foot of the cliff.
In 1989, over a period of months in Nevada, at least 500 mustangs were mowed down by rifle fire. When coyotes came to feed, they too were killed. In 1992, 54 burros were gunned down on Good Friday outside Oatman, Ariz. In the 1998 case mentioned above, 34 wild horses were gunned down outside Reno at Christmastime.
In 2001, seven wild horses were shot to death in eastern Nevada, and six more later that year. In 2002, nine wild horses were gunned down by two ranchers in Utah. In 2003, as many as 500 Nevada mustangs—known for the record as the Fish Creek horses—died after being rounded up in an ongoing territorial dispute between a pair of Shoshone Indians and the feds; they were adopted by a rancher in California but left without food in BLM corrals as they awaited relocation and later were dumped in the wilderness after they starved to death. In 2006, a mare and stallion were shot to death in Gerlach, Nev. The mare had aborted her foal during the incident and it too perished. In fall of that year, seven horses were shot and killed near Pinedale, Ariz. The BLM offered rewards, but no one has come forward.
New and Improved Comments