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The Horse Nation of the West is Dancing

Horses evolved in North America during the Pliocene Epoch, some 4 to 4.5 million years ago. Superbly adaptable, this subspecies of the genus Equus had, within 2 million years, spread to South America and, by way of the Bering land bridge, to Asia and beyond.

In the Americas, the horse flourished until 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, when, for reasons that are not clear, the species disappeared. Disease, climate change, and the arrival of meat-eating humans likely played a part. Because the Bering land bridge had become submerged, horses that inhabited Asia were prevented from migrating to North America. A 10-millennia emptiness of horses set in. At last, in the late 1400s, Spanish explorers and other Europeans began arriving in the New World, bringing horses with them. Members of the species that are found in the United States today, some 9.2 million individuals, are descendants of those animals. [i] [ii]

And such descendants! Whether racing at Churchill Downs, starring in movies like “The Black Stallion,” “The Horse Whisperer,” and “National Velvet,” laboring on farms, prancing in parades, or serving private owners or municipal mounted-police units, horses are beloved creatures. A 2014 tally of animal searches on Google put horses in third place, trailing only dogs and cats, swamping bears, birds, lions, wolves, monkeys, apes, and eagles. [iii]

Of the U.S. population, some 75,000 horses are wild, the majority of them inhabiting the vast open spaces of my home state of Nevada, with smaller populations in a few neighboring states. Another 45,000 reside in government holding pens. [iv] (“Wild” horses, or mustangs as they are commonly known, are more accurately described as “feral,” meaning they are descended from domesticated stock.) The site of a herd of mustangs racing across an open space or feeding beside a mountain stream is stirring. Unlike true wild animals, mustangs possess an understanding, even a mystique, that arises from their domestic origins. They tried domestication and found it wanting; so enlightened, they returned to nature--to freedom. To humans, mustangs came to symbolize hopes and dreams and spirit. The animals saw civilization, its tedium and its hazards, and they would have none of it.

Today, wild horses are in crisis. Writing on the National Geographic website, Ben Masters, a member of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, summarizes the quandary:

Seventy-five thousand wild horses and burros in the American West are caught in a political, emotional, and environmental controversy with two questions at its source: how should our public lands be managed, and how is “good” land management defined?

Legally, there are only supposed to be 27,000 wild horses and burros for “thriving natural ecological balance” in the area in which 75,000 now roam. There are another 45,000 in government holding pens, gathered to prevent overgrazing, that are costing the agency nearly $50 million annually. The ecological consequences of mismanagement are staggering. [ibid]

Simply put, the West has more mustangs than its public lands can support. (The 27,000 figure cited above is the BLM estimate of maximum sustainable herd size.) Ben Masters goes on to describe some possible solutions to the problem—fertility control using a drug called PZP, which can be administered in the wild by dart gun; trapping and neutering horses, then returning them to the herd; adoptions by private citizens; expanding the range of the animals. All of these methods are in use or have been tried. Several need new blood pumped into them. An example: Mustang adoptions have fallen off dramatically in recent years, a trend that could be reversed through more active publicizing of a program that few potential horse owners outside of a handful of Western states are aware of. [v] Another: Dart-delivered fertility control is typically utilized in small areas where horses are acclimatized to people. With large herds of human-averse animals, the strategy is more difficult to implement but hardly impossible. An increase in budget, research, and numbers of trained personnel could turn PZP into an effective population control.

* * *

One additional solution to the overcrowding problem has been proposed. Enter Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, the department charged with administering BLM lands. Simple and practical, Secretary Zinke’s plan eschews sentiment, nuance, and nostalgia, pays no heed to history or to the integrity of the American wildlands, is utterly oblivious to the majesty, the symbolism, and the needs of mustangs. Secretary Zinke, you see, is a no-nonsense guy. He gets things done. The last U.S. horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007. But there are nice ones in Canada and Mexico. Zinke’s solution: Round up five or ten or twenty thousand mustangs, ship them to our neighbors to the north and south, and have them made into dog food.

Bonus: horsemeat is a prized delicacy in some European and Asian countries. Check ‘em out. Possible market for overflow! Good for budget! Good for impression that we’re upfront problem solvers! [vi]

A former Navy SEAL who arrived for his first day of work at the Department of Interior last January (get ready) riding a horse, Secretary Zinke isn’t queasy about killing wild animals. When he’s not hunting them, he enjoys practicing. Here, from your Department of the Interior, a recent press release.

WASHINGTON – Today, ​on the heels of a groundbreaking directive to expand hunting access on public lands, ​U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced ​his latest initiative to reemphasize hunting and fishing at the Department with ​a new​ temporary​ addition​ to the employee cafeteria:​ ​the arcade game “Big Buck Hunter Pro.”​ The Secretary also announced the "Secretary's Shotgun Showdown," a fun ​employee ​competition​ on the game​, with the winner earning bragging rights and a personal visit with the Secretary. The contest runs from today, September 19th, 2017, until Wednesday, October 11th, 2017.

Completing the Department's goals and objectives hinges on employee awareness and involvement. Having the "Big Buck Hunter Pro" arcade game will get many employees involved in sportmen's season, in turn furthering the Department's mission of wildlife and habitat conservation​.

“Some of my best memories are hunting and fishing ​with my dad and granddad, and then later teaching my own kids to hunt and fish​. That's something I want more families to experience," said Secretary Zinke. ​“​Hunters and ​anglers are the backbone of wildlife​ and habitat​ conservation​ in America​​ ​because sportsmen contribute billions of dollars to conservation​. From my perspective, the more sportsmen we have in the woods and waters, the better our wildlife ​and land ​will be. The ‘Shotgun Showdown’ will help reignite the passion and emphasis of hunting and fishing at the Department, and will be a fun way to advance our mission of wildlife and habitat conservation." [vii]

* * *

They are dancing.

They are coming to behold you.

The horse nation of the west is dancing.

They are coming to behold.

--Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks

* * *

Let us praise the BLM for its efforts until now to save wild horses. The agency should be granted the monies, the personnel, and the resources to continue on that path.

As for Secretary Zinke’s proposal to send thousands of the animals to slaughter in a foreign country where no one can see what is going on: It is contemptible and it is cowardly. If the herd is to be thinned, let a grieving nation witness the butchery. Let each symbol of spirit and freedom, of the majesty of the American West, be led to an open grave in the Utah or Colorado or Nevada wildlands, and there be appropriately saluted by a bugler or a troupe of musicians, and there be shot and then buried, and there be honored by the spreading of an American flag across the mound, and there have a simple and kindly marker placed at its head. And there rest in peace.

It might even be developed as an arcade game.

* * *

[The following is reprinted from Watt’s News, my 1981 parody that lampooned Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior James Watt and his minions.]


We’re 100,000 men and women working to make life in America just a little bit better...

We’re Bill Andrews, making Christmas toys for the crippled children of Elyria, Ohio...

We’re Betty Malone, baking a cherry pie for an old man whose wife is in the hospital...

We are tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored...

Our truth is marching on!

Oil rig, oil rig, hallelujah!

Oil rig, oil rig, hallelujah!

Oil rig, oil rig, hallelujah!

Our truth is marching on! need us.

* * *








Photos courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management

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