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Meanwhile, Hayden enlisted the aid of Dr. Thomas King, a specialist in historic preservation recently hired by Back Country Horsemen via fund-raising bake sales to nominate the horses’ home as the Coyote Canyon Wild Horse Herd Historic District for the National Register of Historic Places under the Department of the Interior. This would give them protected status, for, like all other herds of wild horses on our lands, the Coyote Canyon horses are a living lesson in American history. The lesson tells of Spanish explorers, original Native American residents, cattlemen, the closing of the range, and — as Alston Chase recently put it in Playing God in Yellowstone, a powerful book about what’s going on in our parks — the attempt to return the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to a sort of imagined Eden, not necessarily pre-Columbus but before various “invasive” species supposedly transformed paradise into wilderness hell.
“In the state-park system,” says Anza-Borrego Park superintendent Mark Jorgensen, “we’ve removed starlings, cowbirds, dogs, cats, goats, feral pigs, tamarisk, and Saharan mustard. We’re attempting to restore the natural environment.” But what constitutes “natural”? To fully reinstate California’s natural environment, most of us should leave. And why are Peninsula bighorn sheep, for example, which have been on this continent for a mere 100,000 years, given priority status in our parks, including the Anza-Borrego, over the wild horse, which was here — except for a stretch after the Ice Age and before Columbus — for millions? Once again, we are back at the word “feral.” Who controls language controls history.
Prior to 1975, Coyote Canyon was public land under the auspices of the BLM. When the BLM ceded the land to the California State Department of Parks and Recreation, it stated in its plan that, in Coyote Canyon, “There are many wildlife and plant species. There is a wild-horse herd in part of the acquisition proposal.” Once the canyon deal was closed, official documents began to refer to the horses as “feral,” thus paving the way for their removal. “We’ve wanted to get rid of them since the ’70s,” Jorgensen says. “They are leftovers and don’t belong here. I wouldn’t put any bank on the horses having been here since Anza. One rancher told me they escaped in the 1920s and someone who lived there in the 1940s said they never saw any horses.”
No one knows exactly when the Coyote Canyon horses began to make their home in the Anza-Borrego Desert, but they could have been introduced as early as the infamous Garra Revolt of 1851, when Cupeno tribal leader Antonio Garra led a posse of intertribal raiders against Juan Jose Warner at his Warner Springs ranch, taking cattle and horses that may have escaped. In 1772, the Spaniard Pedro Fages and his soldiers entered the canyon, looking for army deserters. Horses could have escaped then as well or been traded to the local Cahuilla Indians. In 1775, the Anza expedition swept through the canyon, with 50 to 75 horses, trading with tribes along the way. Recent DNA testing of the Coyote Canyon horses shows that they have the blood of Spanish horses, which confirms King’s theories and makes a mockery of the multi-agency view that they are recent “leftovers.” “These horses are very rare,” says Hayden. “They are extinct now in Spain.”
If the Department of the Interior accepts the nomination of the Coyote Canyon Wild Horse Herd Historic District, it will set a new precedent in the legal battle to save wild horses, changing the terms of a battle repeating itself all over the West, where the purging of the animal we rode in on continues. After three years of letters, e-mails and phone-calling, Hayden has had a very significant success: Last spring, four Coyote Canyon stallions were returned to her small ranch in San Diego County. Hayden and her husband, Robert, have named them: Don, Juan, Bautiste, and d’Anza. They eagerly await the return of the rest of the herd. “They are so laid back, easy going, inquisitive, kind and very sociable,” she says. “But I have no doubt that they would readily revert to freedom if given the chance.”