By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Speaking of the word “feral,” we now arrive at the fourth and most disturbing reason for the unchecked taking of wild horses — environmentalists. Like Big Beef, most major enviro groups regard the wild horse as feral. In wilderness speak, “feral” means “non-native” which really means “nigger” which, to quote my late father, means “Goodbye, Charlie.” Like non-native plants, there is no room at the inn for feral animals, which is why many wild horses end up languishing in BLM holding pens or being abused or killed — on the taxpayer dime.
But in fact the horses that live in officially designated herd-management areas (HMA’s in BLM speak) or national or state parks — such as those in Coyote Canyon (which once were under BLM guardianship) — are not feral. They are officially wild. And it shouldn’t take an artificially drawn boundary in the wilderness to certify that a horse — particularly if running unbranded with a herd in the wild — is wild. As Edward Abbey once said: “I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock. I believe in blood, fire, woman, rivers, eagles, storm, drums, flutes, banjos, and broom-tailed horses. . . .”
What Abbey yearned for wasn’t just a myth; it was the truth: Horses are indigenous to North America, populating this continent before the Ice Age (for proof, next time you visit the La Brea Tar Pits, check out pit number 91 and ask about eohippus). But, misidentified as non-native, the horses of Coyote Canyon have come up against a Hydra-headed monster made of government agencies and environmentalists, in the form of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the California Department of Fish and Game, the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey out of the Western Ecological Research Center, supported in this case by the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Wilderness Institute, and Defenders of Wildlife, not to mention all of the other enviro groups — with the important exception of Forest Guardians in New Mexico — that have weighed in with silence on the issue of wild horses. The plight of the Coyote Canyon mustangs has been further complicated by a celebrity-obsessed media which generally reserves its limited “animal slot” for stories about wilderness celebrities — big, sexy predators such as wolves and mountain lions — and therefore the story of the doomed Southern Californian wild horses has barely been covered. But fortunately, what turns out to have been a mistaken and possibly illegal removal was filmed by locals — as occasionally happens during the quasi-stealth roundups that go on all over the West — and the truth is forever preserved.
Wild horses are North America’s gift to the world. After the glaciers retreated, they moved north across the Bering land bridge, fanned out from Siberia to the rest of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, even as they mysteriously became extinct here. When conquistadors reintroduced horses to the Americas in the 16th century, some escaped and formed wild herds, later joined by horses stolen by Indians in raids on Spanish missions and horses given to the Indians in trade, cavalry horses, discarded ranch horses, abandoned plow horses, and so on. One raid at the San Gabriel Mission was said to have run off so many horses into the Mojave that you could see the clouds of dust kicked up in the Cajon Pass from what is now downtown Los Angeles. By 1900, there were approximately 2 million wild horses in America. Their major predators, such as the mountain lion, were nearly wiped out, and for more than a century their biggest enemy has been man. Horse roundups and massacres went unchecked for decades until the 1950s, when another woman, Wild Horse Annie, came to their rescue.
Wild Horse Annie, a.k.a. Velma Johnston, was an intrepid Nevada character whose efforts — launched after she saw blood spilling out of a truck hauling mustangs to the slaughterhouse — led to passage of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon. The law was unraveled by the current Congress in a backdoor rider attached to the 2004 federal spending bill by Montana Senator Conrad Burns. As a result, 41 wild horses have been slaughtered; thousands more were headed that way until late last year, when a huge grass-roots effort to stop the impending slaughter resulted in passage of a bill outlawing horse slaughter in this country — but for just eight months (or possibly just the next few days: The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that it is considering a petition from foreign-owned horse slaughterhouses in this country to rescind the ban).
In 1971, apart from the war in Vietnam, Congress received more mail regarding wild-horse protection than on any other issue in history. Today, there are at most 36,000 wild horses left in America, if you believe figures put forth by the Bureau of Land Management, or possibly as few as 14,000 (nearing extinction), if you believe figures put forth by various wild-horse advocates (some of whom have carried out their own aerial surveillance, which is how the counts are done). Most of the remaining wild horses live in Nevada, having moved deep into the desert long ago to hide, avoiding civilization just like lots of people who make the Silver State their home. While it’s difficult to tabulate wild horses, I happen to believe the current population is on the dangerously low side: The BLM has failed to carry out its mandated annual studies of mustang populations in most of the HMA’s; in fact, the agency that is legally bound to protect horses has not only presided over but set into motion countless wild-horse horror stories too vast to explain here, rendering government treatment of the wild horse (as well as the burro) one of the greatest and least-documented scandals in American history.