“Letter from the West” is a regular column from Deanne Stillman on our region’s wide open spaces, and as she says “what we do to each other and all that lives there.” The column is based on the idea that, “Above all else, the personal is geographic and the reverse is true as well. I would like for people to renew our basic connection with the West.”
SINCE JULY 12, hundreds of earthquakes have swarmed through and around the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, a protected region that straddles northeastern California, southern Oregon, and northwestern Nevada. In recent days, these quakes have reached a fever pitch, especially under a portion of the terrain in Nevada. Thereabouts, starting on October 30, the quakes have increased in magnitude, and since November 5, six shakers of magnitude 4.0 or more have occurred — and during the past few days, as many as 40 earthquakes have rattled through the area within one 24-hour period.
There has been much talk about why this intense and prolonged swarm of earthquakes is happening. Some geologists have said that groundwater has been percolating along the various fault lines running through the region, building up pressure. Apocalypse fans suggest that the profusion of temblors is related to the periodic shaking at Yellowstone National Park — basically an active volcano (hence the park’s geysers and hot springs), which first erupted in ancient Nevada (location of the recent earthquake swarm) and then migrated eastward hundreds of thousands of years ago. The linkage between the ongoing rumblings at Yellowstone and the almost hourly subterranean explosions beneath northeastern Nevada is said to be one more indicator of the end of the world, adding to the list that we all have in our own ways. (For me, it starts and ends with the Kardashians, and the Duggars are somewhere in the middle.)
As for the meaning of the swarm of eruptions at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, I have my own interpretation; to me, it’s a call-and-response situation involving what is happening to earth’s creatures and how the planet answers. You see, at exactly the time that the earthquakes in the refuge began, another cataclysm occurred there. And the earthquakes continued right through the end of the event, which unfolded over a period of weeks. This cataclysm received little notice beyond a small circle of like-minded citizens and a few reporters who were characteristically unable to see past a he said/she said scenario, painting one more small picture involving government talking points and a couple of people who dispute them.
What happened was a roundup of wild horses living at the refuge began. This was a federally mandated “gather,” and its goal was to remove the entire Sheldon herd of 420 mustangs and 70 burros. The horses are descendants of ranch stock and cavalry remounts that served in the Boer War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. In those conflagrations, the horses perished by the thousands, after languishing in treacherous ocean crossings and enduring harsh treatment in severe climates for months on end. Upon their return, survivors were sent into the range.
After blazing our trails, carrying our mail, serving as transportation, and fighting our wars, the day of the horse was over. By the end of the 19th century, there were two million wild horses. Many were sent off to foreign conflicts (the ancestors of the Sheldon herd, for instance), others were culled for pet food and chicken feed (the railroads had a special per-pound rate for shipping horses to rendering plants in California), moved off by cattle and sheepmen, or simply shot. By the middle of the 20th century, the wild horse was on its way out, reduced to a population of possibly 60- or 70,000 — and now perhaps around 30,000, a number that fluctuates, depending on the extent of roundups during any given year, with some herds now reduced to just a few individuals, destined to fade away soon. To this day, many ranchers view mustangs as tumbleweeds or other invasive pests. (Tumbleweeds are from Russia originally, arriving in the 1870s via flax seed carried by émigrés to South Dakota.) Yet the wild horse is indigenous to North America, its DNA linked to the Ice Age horses that originated here and then populated the rest of the world, crossing the Bering land bridge before going extinct on these shores and then returning with conquistadors.
On the range across the West, in designated herd areas, wild horses have fended for themselves for decades, enduring periodic roundups in which foals are trampled and killed. (Alas, such incidents are expected and contractor estimates for the costs of wild horse roundups include projected figures for mustang deaths, not to exceed a certain percentage of the taken mustangs, as per federal regulations.) Nevertheless, having flourished in the wilderness for millions of years, mustangs continue to do so, forming communities of bands and families with their own rules and styles of language, straddling land where they are federally protected and land where they are not, spreading seeds so new grasses can grow, fleeing trappers and running from bullets, being wild and free.
The Sheldon Wildlife Refuge is managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency that has mandated wild horse herds as “feral,” thus placing them in the “goodbye Charlie” animal census category and rendering them eligible for roundups. Most of the country’s wild horses live on terrain managed by the Bureau of Land Management and have more federal protection, to the degree that it is properly enforced, under the law that prevails, which is the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. In other words, these horses are legally wild. This law was passed in 1971 after a decades-long battle waged by an intrepid Nevada figure known as Wild Horse Annie, who waged her campaign on the local, state, and finally federal level, traveling from the county courthouse to the steps of Congress and then the White House. The bill was signed by Richard Nixon in a tearful Rose Garden ceremony in which he quoted Thoreau. “We need the tonic of wildness,” he famously said, in an era during which he signed the big landmark environmental acts that are now under siege — and have been for years.
When it comes to wild horses, they have not had a friend in the White House since Richard Nixon, enduring brutal roundups under Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior and junior, Bill Clinton, and, most recently, Barack Obama. (Flame me if you must, but I am here to tell you that Richard Nixon had a serious connection with mustangs, more so than the cowboys who have occupied the Oval Office, and this is my theory about why.)
Since the Nixon presidency, the war against wild horses has escalated, with each administration caving in to various lobbies, primarily the cattle crew in this case, which views the mustang as an animal that steals food from cows, in spite of the nearly 30 to 1 ratio of cows to horses on the range. As Bill Clinton once said, without the support of the western states, no administration can survive; ironically, the West is where wild horses live but are not wanted by policy makers, who favor income-generating uses of wilderness; in addition to grazing, this includes timber, mineral extraction, and hunting — with mustangs finishing last. So the wild horse is consistently thrown overboard — a repeat of the literal jettisoning of the animal from conquistador ships during early crossings to the Americas in order to lighten the loads when the ships were becalmed along the equator. (For a detailed account of the Hernán Cortés expedition and the first 16 horses of the conquest, see “Horse Latitudes,” a chapter in my book Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. It also includes a full account of the ongoing wars against the wild horse by way of roundups that I witnessed and massacres that I recount, including the 1998 Christmas killings of 34 wild horses outside Reno — the incident that led me to write this book by way of first journeying into the Virginia Range where it happened and then getting to know a filly who came to be known as Bugz, the lone survivor of that massacre.)
Each time a herd of wild horses is disappeared or cut into via roundups, a piece of American history goes with them. Every tribe of mustangs across the West has its own story to tell. For instance, the Sulphur herd in Utah is comprised of descendants of horses that arrived in the New World with conquistadors, with the dorsal stripe markings that indicate their Spanish heritage. The original members of this herd came to live in the area after escaping from drives across the old Spanish Trail, which ran from Los Angeles to Santa Fe, or being taken in raids by the Ute highwayman Wakara, who ranged across the western Mojave and staged a lightning strike at the missions of Los Angeles in 1840. The herd that lives in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota comes from the ponies that carried Sitting Bull and his Lakota brothers and sisters across the plains. The McCullough Peaks herd in Wyoming includes descendants of horses that traveled with Buffalo Bill, and the mustangs on the Atlantic shores of Chincoteague Island are said to be descended from horses that survived Spanish shipwrecks in the 16th century.
What I see at my Mustang talks around the country is at odds with the reporting of the wild-horse situation that continues in the media. A wide range of citizens generally attends, including those on the far right and far left, people of many ages, cowboys, farmers, white-collar folk, retired and active members of the military (especially the army; cavalry members know their history and are upset about how we are treating the animal whose insignia they wear on their uniforms). Sometimes, one or two of the old mustangers will come to my events. These are the men who participated in the decimation of our wild horse herds before they were protected. They would go out into the range and harry them into cruel traps, as in The Misfits, the famous movie with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable and Eli Wallach about the horrific roundups of the 1950s. Or at the behest of ranchers, they would go out into the range and shoot them, paid when they returned with the ears. Now in their 80s and 90s, they are ashamed of the things they did. They look out across the land and instead of wild horses running, they see a Walmart — or nothing, for everything is gone. They approach me quietly, when everyone else has left and I am packing up, almost without a sound, sometimes in tears. “What can we do?” they ask. “I am so sorry …” And then they leave, just like Shane in the movies, and I know they are not coming back.
By October 30, the last of the horses and burros at the Sheldon National Wildlife Preserve were gone. And on that day, the earthquakes increased in number and magnitude.
“Why are we, a cowboy nation, destroying the horse we rode in on?” is a question I have been asking for years. Having traveled the wild horse road for a long time, I know that the answer goes beyond special interest lobbies, although that’s a manifestation of the problem. Behind all the roundups and massacres is another story, not one of greed, but one of fear and self-loathing. In short, the story goes like this: The wild horse has been our partner in all of our glorious and shameful ventures along the winding road. It has carried us through Lexington and Concord (yes, Paul Revere’s horse had mustang bloodlines), the Civil War (many were mustered into service and died on the field), the Indian wars, up and down cattle trails, into our myths via Wild West shows and the movies, and in the end we have turned on it, obliterating it for fortunes and, finally, because it knows our secrets. Quite simply, it is our silent witness, and like all witnesses to the shadow, it has to go.
According to Lakota legend, horses come from the West, land of the thunder beings. They bring the rumblings that precede rain and they bring power and they bring truth, like an arrow. When they headed off the stage at the Sheldon preserve, these creatures whose blood speaks of service to country and mankind, they were given no fanfare in the media. But the land had its own response, the series of earthquakes that accompanied every moment of their removal, echoing the horses’ final gallop with a drumroll from Earth itself.