Monday, January 8, 2018

Mustang Story


I was recently visited by a long-time friend who is politically conservative (like the majority of voters in my community), and quite vocal about her belief that America was a much better place in the 1960's. 

  • (On some items, I might agree -- but then again, we were white girls growing up in a blue collar town out west; untouched by the civil unrest that prevailed elsewhere, at the time.)

The conversation turned - as conversations nearly always do, in my house -- to the "wild horse situation". 

My friend informed me (presumably because I don't know much about these things) - that the wild horses were thriving in Nevada, right up until 1971, when a bunch of outsiders got Congress to enact the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, through which wild horses are managed today, under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management.

I was (AGAIN) reminded that, up until that time, the ranchers were guardians of mustangs on the range: 

"They cared for them! They turned out some of their best stock to breed with the wild ones,  improving the genetic characteristics of those horses, and in return, each year these ranchers would go out on horseback, round up a few ponies to train for ranch stock, culling a few 'bad ones'," (And presumably, turned the rest back out, to live the rest of  their natural days in wild independence.) 

It's a lovely story! 
(Well, what else a would a good daddy tell his little girl!)

It is the story that continues to prevail here in the rural west, where we still love our cowboys, and sadly lament their struggles to maintain a 'lifestyle' that doesn't mesh very well with contemporary thinking. 
Home On The Range - 1948
  • Most of the old family ranches are gone; having been consumed by large corporations. Cattle production represents a minute fraction of Nevada's economy, while rancher politicians continue to dominate the political landscape - thanks mostly to local sentimentality, and Big Ag lobbies, like the Cattlemen's Association and Farm Bureau.

My friend's version of the story does not quite match my own understanding of the original issue; probably because I heard about it from my close relatives, who were active participants in the decimation of wild horse herds in the west. 

Butte Valley cabin where my mother's family lived
during mustanging days (1940's). As a teenager,
she stayed here with her brother and his wife, and
their two little girls 
During the lean years, my grandfather and an uncle sustained themselves and their families by capturing wild horses in water bait traps. Some mustangs were taken and trained for ranch stock, while most of the rest were shipped off to be slaughtered and made into chicken feed or dog food, and sometimes, fish bait.

The mustang trade was a brutal business, and humane standards were scarcely a consideration. Demand for ranch horses declined, as machinery took over as the primary means of transport and labor on ranches. 

Americans stopped buying dog food made with horse meat in the 1960's.

Later, I heard tales of horses with severely elongated heads, short legs and stocky bodies. That was the result, they claimed, of ranchers having stopped turning out breeding stock to improve the genetics. 

  • Science, however, suggests the opposite: Wild equine populations had been so diminished that in-breeding was the only option available to horses on the range.

    Herd health has improved tremendously, yet this 40 year old myth about the inferior quality of mustangs continues to prevail in rural Nevada.

    In my lifetime on the open range, I have never seen a wild horse suffering from dwarfism. Incidentally, I have never seen a starving wild horse, either.

This is the story from which began my personal journey of investigation into the "wild horse situation", starting around 2000, when I returned to my rural roots in Nevada. My concern about wild horses began more intensively around 2005, when my interest was piqued, and I decided to observe a wild horse "gather" in nearby Utah. 

At the beginning, I was sympathetic to the BLM. I thought those activists MUST be exaggerating the brutality of these operations. I supposed they were being unrealistically sentimental, and that others had more expertise than those "easterners" who were raising Cain in my back yard.

I went. I saw. I came away with a completely altered perception of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program. 

  • I witnessed cruelty on the site of the gather, but subsequent experience proved that the worst brutality occurs beyond the periphery of the gather; out of sight of public observers, who are restricted to tight little observation areas, closely guarded under the scrutiny of fully-armed security officers.

    (Utah's BLM seems slightly less intense, and FAR more capable of managing public observers, than what I have witnessed in Nevada roundups.)

My friend went on to describe the differences between the "overpopulation problem" on the western side of our state, as compared to what's going on here on Nevada's eastern ranges. 

She seemed offended as she described the dangerous situation around Silver Springs, with "horses running all over the roads, getting hit, people getting killed" BECAUSE: "Those people over there PROTECT those horses!" ... and MEANWHILE - "Over here, where they have millions of acres to roam around on, they're being gathered and taken all the time. Why are they doing that?!!" she wondered. "It makes no sense!"

My knee-jerk response to my friend's rhetorical question: "Because nobody over here GIVES A SHIT!

"BLM does whatever the ranchers want them to do, and nobody here bothers to say a word. The horses do not affect them in any direct way, so the people keep on going along with the old 40 year old story line."

Ultimately, my friend and I did agree on a few things: 

  1. That neither the ranchers, nor BLM should be entrusted with the management of wild horses on the range. 
  2. Conditions that prevail in other areas are not the same as those that exist here in eastern Nevada, and cookie-cutter policies will not correct what is going wrong.
  3. Mass extermination of America's wild horses would be a national disgrace.

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