Destroying the Horse We Rode In On: Mustangs in Danger
Photo by Betty Lee Kelly.
Deanne Stillman, the author of "Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West," an LA Times "best book 08," winner of the California Book Award silver medal for 2008, and widely praised from the Atlantic Monthly to the Economist, is in Sebastopol for a signing at Copperfield’s Books on Thursday, May 14, at 7 p.m.
She will also be at Readers’ Books in Sonoma on Tuesday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m.
A COWBOY NATION TURNS ITS BACK ON WILD HORSES
By Deanne Stillman
It’s not news that America is a cowboy nation but it may surprise many that we are destroying the horse we rode in on. I refer specifically to the mustang, the animal that blazed our trails, fought our wars and serves as our greatest icon.
Since 1971 wild horses have been protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Protection Act, a hard-won law spearheaded by Velma Johnston, aka Wild Horse Annie, a classic Nevada character whose life was changed when she saw blood spilling out of a truck, followed it down a desert highway, and then witnessed injured and dying mustangs being offloaded at a slaughterhouse. From that morning in 1950, she led a battle to stop the cruel round-ups, resulting in the passage of four laws, with the final one signed by Richard Nixon.
Under the federal law, horses were to be “considered in areas where presently found, as an integral part of the system of public lands.” Their management fell to agencies inside the Department of the Interior, primarily the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which carry out periodic round-ups to cull the herds since most of their natural predators are gone from their ranges. Once taken, the horses are funneled into the adopt-a-horse program, which sometimes works for horses and people alike, and sometimes doesn't, resulting in fatal mishaps and other cruel disasters.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, there were about two million mustangs in the wilderness; today, according to the BLM, there are about 20,000 on public lands in the western states, with more than half in Nevada. Because the animals have been removed – or “zeroed out” – from at least 100 of their 300 official herd areas, contrary to the law’s provisions, they are on the brink of no return.
Ranching outfits often graze their cattle and sheep on lands where horses make their living, and many stockmen have long regarded wild horses as “pests” that steal food from their herds. They have tried to dismantle the wild horse and burro law through five administrations, while at the same time lone actors head into the wilderness to whack wild horses as well as burros (protected under the same law), yet are rarely found or prosecuted.
Under the Bush regime, large-scale corporate ranching operations had almost reached their goal of a mustang-free America, thanks to a rollback in the law in which culled horses that haven’t been adopted on the third try through the government’s controversial adopt-a-horse program – criminalized “three-strikers” – can be sold to the lowest bidder, along with mustangs over ten (not old for a horse). This meant a ticket to the slaughterhouse - and the rule still prevails. The rollback was aggravated by a media that often parrots the view that the mustang is an invasive species. In fact it is native to this continent, linked by mitochondrial DNA to horses of the Pleistocene.
Beyond that, horses are North America’s gift to the world. They evolved in the West, then crossed the Bering land bridge and died out on their native turf in the Ice Age, but not before they had established themselves in many other lands. They returned with conquistadors in the 16th century, and it was as if they had never left. For the next 300 years, their descendants were pressed into noble and bloody service. By the end of the 19th century, the West was no longer wild, and it was time for them to go.
A hydra-headed horseflesh industry arose and flourished until Wild Horse Annie came along. Self-valorizing mustangers ripped into the herds, trapping the horses in remote areas and then selling them for chicken feed, dinner in France, or wars. So many horses were taken from 1920 to 1935 that the era is known in some circles as “the great removal.”
But the round-ups didn’t stop then, and there are now more wild horses in the pipelines than on the range. Last year, the BLM announced that it was planning to "euthanize" 30,000 stranded mustangs because there's not enough money in the budget to keep them. Madeline Pickens came forward and offered to save them, yet so far, the BLM has not permitted her plan to move forward.
Many of these horses should not have been taken from the land in the first place, and in my travels across the country, I have learned that if there's one thing Americans are happy to spend their tax dollars on, it's the preservation of wild horses. They understand that our greatest road trip car is not called the Mustang for nothing and what it says about us if we can't take care of the real thing. To that end, a new bill was recently introduced to make sure that the wild horse has a permanent home on the range. It's HR 1018 and it's coming up for debate on the House floor soon. “We need the tonic of wildness,” Richard Nixon said, quoting Thoreau when he signed the law. “Wild horses merit protection as a matter of ecological right – as anyone knows who has stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang running free.”
Meet the author of “Mustang” at Copperfield’s Books
Critically acclaimed author Deanne Stillman comes to Copperfield’s Books, 138 N. Main St. in Sebastopol on Thursday, May 14, at 7 p.m to sign her latest book, "Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West" (Houghton Mifflin).
"Mustang" is a narrative nonfiction history of the wild horse on this continent, from prehistory through the present, with chapters about Cortes and the 16 horses that launched the conquest; the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the horse that survived it, and the ongoing war to wipe out the wild horse by way of massacres and round-ups. The LA Times named "Mustang" a "best book 2008," and it’s a winner of the California Book Award silver medal for 2008. It has gotten great reviews in the Atlantic Monthly, Orion, Economist, Seattle Times, NPR's On Point, and many other places. Michael Blake ("Dances with Wolves") calls it "stunning" and the late Tony Hillerman called it "remarkable."
Stillman began work on "Mustang" in 1998 after learning that 34 wild horses had been gunned down outside Reno at Christmas time. At the time, she was finishing up her book "Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave," an LA Times "best book 01" which Hunter Thompson called "A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer." There was an arrest in the horse massacre; three of the accused were Marines and one was stationed at Twentynine Palms. Having grown up around horses, Deanne was drawn to the story. She spent 10 years on the wild horse trail, following it across time as it evolved in North America, went extinct and returned with conquistadors, partnered with Native Americans, fought our wars, blazed our trails, and continues to serve as our greatest icon of freedom.
"Mustang" has been a driver in the grassroots campaign to preserve wild horses and burros and is one of the things that led to the introduction of HR 1018, the new bill that seeks to expand wild horse and burro protection for the first time since 1971. Stillman has been traveling the country since her book was published, and has learned that when it comes to the mustang, most Americans agree: we must preserve our heritage.
Stillman will also be appearing at Readers’ Books in Sonoma on Tuesday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m.