Will this era see the end of our great partner and icon, the mustang (not to mention the great road trip car named in its honor)? Given the misleading media coverage, the real thing may soon be heading off a cliff, spurred one step closer in the July 27th Los Angeles Times editorial called "Wild Horse Sense." A long and well-placed piece fueled by gov, beef biz, and hunting lobby talking points, the editorial seeks to take down an important new bill which cleared the House by a wide margin but hasn't even been introduced in the Senate.
When it comes to the wild things, the Times generally gets it. As I see it, our disconnect to wilderness is at the core of our problems, and it matters that a major newspaper understands that we are losing pieces of the natural world every day. But in this case, something is deeply amiss. For the Times to go after legislation that has not reached critical mass with so much ferocity is puzzling - and makes me wonder exactly why and how the decision to run this piece was made. As we shall see in a moment, it certainly was not by following its own editorial mission.
Quick backstory: wild horses are indigenous to this country, linked by mitochondrial DNA to the horses of the Ice Age. They died out during the Pleistocene era, were reintroduced by conquistadors, and flourished on the American range. They were pressed into service to blaze our trails, fight our wars, carry our mail, serve as transportation. By the end of the 19th Century, there were two million mustangs. Many of them were again sent off to war, culled for chicken feed or pet food, moved off by cattlemen, or massacred. By the middle of the 20th Century, they were on their way out, reduced to perhaps 60 or 70,000. To this day, many ranchers see them as pests that steal food from livestock, and often refer to them as "feral" or "weeds," not unlike the Times editorial, which ignores the very language of the law that protects them - and also fails to understand the frailty of its own argument: if everything that's feral were removed from the land, all of us except Native Americans should leave.
But the fact is this: wild horses are called wild by the law, which is the Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act, signed by Richard Nixon in 1971, primarily assigning wild horse protection to the Bureau of Land Management, which is tasked with carrying out annual round-ups in designated "Herd Management Areas" provided that proper population and range impact studies were conducted regularly. For a variety of reasons, they aren't - a fact that the Times editorial does not mention.
For decades, various constituencies have tried to take down the law. In recent years, they nearly have and wild horse populations are under siege across the West. In fact, contrary to the editorial's assertion that there is an "overpopulation" on the land, their numbers are dwindling. Where there is an overpopulation however is in government corrals, now crowded with at least 30,000 wild horses - more than are on the range. Many of these horses are awaiting adoption through the BLM's adopt-a-horse program, but there are far too many horses for too few adopters, and to alleviate a problem which the government itself created, the BLM recently raised the idea of euthanasia.
As if the corrals weren't crowded enough, the government periodically wages "emergency gathers" during a time of drought, stating that it would be "cruel" to let horses die of thirst - a response that the Times agrees with in its attempt to take down the ROAM Act, which seeks to broaden protections for wild horses. Curiously, no other wild animals are ever removed from the range during a time of drought, and when given a drink of water, the "rescued" mustangs are not returned. The real problem is the fencing off of water sources inside herd areas - a situation which needs serious investigation, again something not mentioned in the Times editorial.
But perhaps the most misleading aspect of the Times piece is its reduction of the debate over mustangs to one between "horse advocates" and various other groups. A wide range of citizens are in favor of the ROAM Act. They come to my book talks around the country and they are Republicans, Democrats, mustangers who regret their role in the decimation of our herds, Native Americans, rodeo heroes, you name the persuasion - they're at my gigs. They understand what's at stake if we lose our great partner and they do not have a problem with using their tax dollars in this regard - contrary to the expense canard rolled out in the Times editorial.
As the 1971 law states, "wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; ...they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands." It's a statement not unlike the Times own editorial mission: "Freedom is our core value...an abiding commitment to preserve the nation's natural treasures is also in keeping with our western roots." In both cases, the word "natural" is key.
So as we hit the road this summer, perhaps in our Mustangs, let's remember that the real thing is out there being wild and free for the rest of us. But not for much longer if the media keeps repeating what the guy in the cowboy hat tells them.** You all know that guy, the one who keeps leading us into war. This time, it's against the wild horse - now making its last stand in remote pockets of the vanishing West, as civilization closes in, intent on wiping out the animal that has carried us through our shame and our glory.
*Full disclosure: In response to the Times editorial, I wrote a shorter version of this piece for the Times Blowback section, after contacting editors there. A piece from the Humane Society was also in the works, and it decided to publish that one instead.
**Don't get me wrong; I love cowboys - like Shane, and I've met some who are like that in real life. Alas, they are not in charge of things.