Among other things, the official reports said that the horses were starving and dying of thirst and therefore needed to be rounded up. Such was not the case, but no matter: A plan was in place and, one day in 2003, the contractor from Utah who makes his living rounding up wild horses on public lands all over the West arrived with his team, his truck, his chopper and his portable corral and chute and set the trap. Up went the corridor through which the horses would make their last run, the channel that would lead them to a dead end, the metal fencing that would form the small pen into which thousands of mustangs had been chased before and thousands were going to follow. From outside the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the chopper took off and flew into the park, sweeping across the boulders and cholla and ocotillo until it spotted the horses, in Coyote Canyon, their home, a stunning and rugged riparian region cut by a rare and sparkling desert treasure — a stream.
The chopper dropped altitude and slowed and began harrying the wild horses out of the canyon, up the ancient path used by Indians, Spanish explorers, cattlemen, wildlife, hikers, drivers of jeeps and ATVs. As the band neared the trap, the chopper peeled off and there came the dispatch of the contractor’s Judas horse — a sad name for the sad gig that was this animal’s lot in life — and it galloped before the oncoming band, leading it toward the trap, peeling off like the chopper just before the mustangs ran into the dead-end makeshift corral. Panicked, the horses shifted this way and that, the stallions occasionally leaping above the pack and trying to break out, the smaller horses battered in the frenzy. After a while, the mustangs tired and lowered their heads. Sorted by gender and numbered with chalk (there were 10 stallions and 19 mares), the wild horses of Coyote Canyon, the last herd of wild horses in Southern California, were then funneled into trucks and hauled out of the desert.
When the last of anything that is good and pure and true disappears, it is a sad occasion. But consider this: America — and, very much so, California — would have no history without the wild horse. In fact, our country and state would simply not exist without this four-legged partner. As we fled tyranny into the great, wide open, the wild horse carried us across parched deserts until it could run no longer and then it buckled under our weight. In death it served us still, becoming nourishment on the trail. Unable to catch a break, the wild horse was taken from the Western range and pressed into service to fight our wars. In the Civil War, thousands were killed at Gettysburg alone; in the Indian wars, Custer massacred hundreds of Indian ponies in the Battle of the Washita lest they live to carry Native Americans into battle once more; in World War I, the need for cavalry mounts decimated our herds as thousands were shipped to the European front and died in service. And even as we mythologized ourselves and our relationship with the wild horse in the making of Westerns, the horses were injured and abused, or they perished. Among the many horses killed in stunts gone fatally awry are the mustang in the original Jesse James with Henry Fonda, which was forced to jump off a cliff, and two wild horses that died in stunts during the recent filming of the remake of My Friend Flicka. So I say mad props to the eagle, but ’tweren’t no bird that the red-white-and-blue came in on. It’s the wild horse that courses through our blood and promises freedom and the pursuit of happiness and the open road. It’s the wild horse that is our most powerful and meaningful icon, the wild horse that lurks right under our hood. Which is why America’s once-and-future vehicle of cool is called a Mustang.
Alas, most people — probably including drivers of Mustangs — don’t know that we even have wild horses. I base this on many conversations I’ve had over the past few years about a book I’m writing on wild horses in the West. “There are wild horses on the range?” people generally say, excitedly. “Where can I see them?”
The story of the wild horse — actually, the fact of its very existence — is basically suppressed. Not in a conspiratorial sense, but what’s the difference? Even I missed the part that’s right in our own backyard, in spite of my extensive research — visiting several of what the government calls herd-management areas around the West, reading dozens of reports and historical accounts, studying various maps and stats about the remaining wild horse herds on public lands, and talking with scores of people in the desert states where wild horses still roam. In fact, it was not until 2004 — after investigating the plight of these animals for six years — that I heard about the wild horses of Coyote Canyon. That’s when I met Kathleen Hayden.
Hayden is one of a dozen or so fierce advocates for the wild horse who live in various regions of the country and work for the horse in their own respective ways. Some work on the deep inside, with government agencies, others about as far away as you can get, dealing, sometimes in secret, only with the severe rescue and abuse problems posed by the cataclysmic failure of those agencies charged with wild-horse management, and sometimes even with reports of mustangs that mysteriously disappear from federal pipelines, rumored to have been transported to rodeos or slaughterhouses. Over the years, I have observed that it’s mostly women who lobby for the wild horse; its longtime partner, the cowboy, has mostly pulled a disappearing act, as if he cannot face the horse, the one animal that has seen it all and knows our country’s deepest and most hideous secrets. Hayden is one of those women.
“Kat,” as she is called, is a lifelong horse lover who grew up on a ranch in Idaho and has lived near Coyote Canyon for the past 20 years, often riding her own horse into the park to see the mustangs. In defense of the Coyote Canyon horses, she has put together an ingenious and effective networking circuit that obliterates conventional wisdom and cuts across many lines. Hayden’s network includes Tom Pogacnik of the California Bureau of Land Management (the federal BLM has not done well by the wild horse, which it is legally bound to protect), animal-rights attorney Valerie Stanley in Maryland, and California State Senator Bill Morrow (a Republican), who gets a zero on the annual Environmental Scorecard published by the California League of Conservation Voters. But that’s the thing with wild horses — the politics around them consistently make for very strange bed buddies, and it is these unlikely and very impassioned alliances that show the true power of the American mustang.
I met Hayden at the annual meeting of the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, one of the myriad government meetings that is announced in relative shadow and open to the public. The “W/H & B Advisory Board,” to use the shorthand of wild-horse advocates, advises the Bureau of Land Management, under which it operates, about policy towards the federally protected mustang and burro. In 2004, some of the country’s foremost wild-horse and burro advocates had traveled to the Phoenix meeting from points west, east, south and north, to represent wild-horse and burro herds, which, in spite of BLM’s mandate, really have little protection, regardless of government claims to the contrary. Among those advocates were Ginger Kathrens, for the Pryor Mountain horses in Montana, Toni Moore and Val Stanley on behalf of the Douglas herd in Colorado, the late and crucial “Tahoe Barry” Bledsoe for the burros of the Eastern Mojave Preserve and Death Valley National Park (which really don’t get no respect — over the past few years, some were reportedly being hunted down and shot, legally although not surprisingly unannounced in press releases — from the National Park Service), Craig Downer for the mustangs of Nevada, and Kathleen Hayden for the Coyote Canyon herd.
Unlike the other herds various citizens spoke of, the ones that are in constant danger of being expurgated from public lands, the Coyote Canyon horses were already gone, vanished into the Orwellian maze of government housing for thousands and thousands of mustangs taken for decades from rangelands all over the West in cruel and often unnecessary seizures reminiscent of the Marilyn Monroe movie The Misfits. The years 2004 and 2005 were critical in terms of wild-horse management; the takings have escalated ferociously under the Bush administration, and there is a very palpable and logical fear that wild horses are currently doomed. Government takings of wild horses generally happen for four reasons. First, there is the mustang’s worst enemy, what I like to call “Big Beef” — ranchers who control government policy, grazing cattle on public lands for a few dollars on the head and who regard wild horses as thieves that steal food from cows. To accommodate Big Beef, the Bush administration recently “fixed” the results of a grazing study in order to unravel regulations set under Clinton. The scientists whose studies were inaccurately reframed have come forward and blown the whistle, and several public-lands groups are preparing lawsuits. Second, the wild horse must contend with oil, gas, and mineral outfits that also seek to clear the land of wildlife (have you seen the recent Kerr-McGee ad featuring wild horses happily galloping near a new gas well? The truth is, the Wyoming mustang population has been decimated to make way for such wells). Third, the wild horse is at the mercy of myriad federal, state, and local agencies that depend on grants to study things and generally come up with findings that support an anti-wild-horse mindset: In 2002, for instance, the California State Parks Department asked Stacey Ostermann of the University of California at Davis to study the impact of “feral horses on Coyote Canyon’s bighorn sheep.” In this case, Ostermann’s own conclusions, which were actually favorable to the wild horse, were ignored, although it’s difficult to mitigate negative effects of the term “feral.”
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.
“We were working on a deal to keep the horses in Coyote Canyon,” Kat Hayden explained to me at the Phoenix meeting. “Or at least move them to a sanctuary in California. But they came and got them when we were away.” By “we,” Hayden was referring to the Borrego Valley Unit of Back Country Horsemen of California (BCHC), of which she and her husband Robert are members. BCHC’s philosophy is as follows: “To perpetuate the common-sense use and enjoyment of horses in America’s backcountry and wilderness; to work to insure that public lands remain open to recreational stock use; to assist the various government and private agencies in their maintenance and management of said resource; and to educate, encourage and solicit active participation in the wise use of the backcountry resource by horsemen and the general public commensurate with our heritage.” Of course environmentalists (I hate labels but this is the one thing I don’t mind being called — even if it is disturbingly unmelodious) will be put off by such phrases as “recreational stock use” and “wise use,” but the key word here is “heritage,” which is the essence of the battle for the Coyote Canyon horses, and of various other battles being waged on public lands by various groups with conflicting values. All go right to the heart of what our heritage is — and who controls it.
As Hayden sees it, the stripping of heritage from Coyote Canyon began in 1995 when the park closed the 3.1-mile stretch of the Juan Bautista de Anza trail that runs through the canyon. Designated as a National Historic Trail, it is the route traveled by the Spanish explorer de Anza in 1775-76 when he and his troops made their way on horseback from Mexico to San Francisco. Part of their trek took them through Coyote Canyon in the Anza-Borrego Desert, and it’s possible that some of their horses escaped to form the canyon herd. For years the Anza trail connected the gold, calcium, and gypsite mines in the area. The Coyote Canyon stretch was used by those who like to travel public lands in ATV’s, until 1995, when the road was closed to protect the endangered least Bell’s vireo, the southwestern willow flycatcher, and the Peninsular bighorn sheep – a favorite of wildlife biologists and other conservationists. Then came the taking of the horses, for the same reasons — and more. The horses were said to have been befouling the water in Middle Willows, a section of the canyon between Upper and Lower Willows, which allegedly drove the sheep away and caused them to die. Hayden argues that it’s mountain lions — not horses — that are the bighorn’s primary problem, and that horses have been drinking for generations from Lower, Middle and Upper Willows, named for the beautiful willows that grow along the stream that runs through the canyon, bubbling up from underground springs. Coyote Creek is the only year-round water source in the Anza-Borrego, which is why the canyon is a nonstop wildlife rave. In addition to trashing the stream, the horses were also said to have been dying of thirst, due to an ongoing drought. Of course, you can’t have it both ways, and at the time of the roundup, the horses looked robust. Lack of water is among the most disingenuous arguments for removing the horses: Other animals are not removed during droughts, and if the matter were as simple as giving the horses a drink, then they should be returned after they’ve been refreshed, but they never are.
Various groups had been protesting the closure of the Coyote Canyon stretch of the Anza trail since 1995, but once the horses were gone, the battle over heritage reached another level.
Enter State Senator Bill Morrow, at Hayden’s request. Although the Anza-Borrego Park is not in his district, he has a lifelong interest in it, as he recently told me, and he often spends time there. In fact, shortly after the Anza trail was closed, he visited the park with some lobbyists from the California Off-Road Vehicle Association and was ticketed for driving across Clark’s Lake — a dry bed that is closed to cars. “I didn’t see the signs,” he says, blaming the story on “extreme environmentalists.” Yet no other animal raises such high emotions as the mustang; Morrow’s defense of the Coyote Canyon horses — and the recent, overwhelmingly bipartisan Congressional move to ban their slaughter — suggests that the fate of the wild horse is the only issue that cuts across party lines and the media’s bogus red state/blue state division. “I grew up in this area,” he says, “and I care about it a lot. My family history goes way back. My grandfather was one of the founders of Salton City. I camped in the Anza-Borrego as a kid. I remember seeing wild horses in Coyote Canyon. They were traveling in a herd, galloping, just like in the movies.”
That’s an image embedded in American DNA, it’s our heritage, and after the horses were taken from the canyon, Hayden and BCHC contacted Tom Pogacnik of California BLM and asked him to intervene, pointing out that although the feds had ceded Coyote Canyon to the California State Department of Parks and Recreation, they did not cede the horses and still had jurisdiction over them, according to the Wild Horse Annie Act. Pogacnik realized Hayden was right, but state parks held firm. Meanwhile, nine stallions had been stripped from the band and taken to BLM holding pens at Ridgecrest. The remaining mares had been sent to a sanctuary in South Dakota. Just as the stallions were about to be gelded, Pogacnik suggested a postponement, pending legislation introduced by Morrow to the Structural Resources and Water Committee, asking to have the horses returned. The committee is headed by Santa Monica democrat Sheila Kuehl, a longtime Morrow foe (and no wonder — not only does he get consistently low marks from the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters, he had also introduced a bill outlawing gay marriage in California). Yet regardless of personal animosities, Kuehl and others failed to appreciate the role of the wild horse in American history and Morrow’s bill never got out of committee. (Neither did a bill to reopen the Anza trail.)
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.
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“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.”