Weeping Matrons (Part 2)
Romanticism Fosters Mustang Suffering
by Tim Findley
|"Wild Horse Annie" was a middle-aged Reno secretary with the less colorful name of Velma Johnston when she earned her moniker through a fierce and relentless campaign that incorporated letters written by thousands of children and their parents emotionally begging Congress to save the horses.|
"Pencil War" produced more letters to
legislators than on any single subject except the Vietnam
War, and resulted in the 1971 passage of the Wild
Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.
The act declared them to be "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West," and specifically protected the horses form "capture, branding, harassment, or death..."
Within weeks, ranchers who had even regarded and admired free horses as their "own," descended from working animals on their property, found them to be federally-guarded "symbols" -- the confiscation that Eureka rancher George Parman and others complain about to this day.
The act, however, was not intended merely to let the horses run free. It called for a management program by the BLM that would set limits on the herds and institute an "adoption" program for young, healthy animals gathered to control their population.
At the time of the act, there were an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 horses on the range in Nevada. Today, despite adoption of some 150,000 horses and burros gathered throughout the west, the wild horse population in Nevada has at least doubled and may have tripled.
The Bureau of Land Management estimates in its own documents that if only 2,500 horses are gathered and adopted each year, the population of wild horses in Nevada alone will, by 2001, be over 150,000 -- a plentiful number of "symbols" but one catastrophic to the ranchers of the state.
While horse herds have been increasing in the Silver State, the number of cattle on the range has diminished by more than 200,000 -- the result in part of market fluctuations but also of new federal regulations and grazing restrictions.
And it isn't just federal budget shortages, chronic since the mid-1980s, that is preventing the BLM from reaching anywhere near its management goal of gathering 5000 horses and burros a year.
It's also the spirit of "Annie" herself, who died in 1977 but left in place her still matronly-managed Wild Horse Organized Assistance (WHOA) organization, and its strange and troubling relationship with Nevada's State Commission for the Preservation of Wild Horses, which is supposed to serve as a liaison between a variety of interests in the state, including ranchers and the federal government.
It was John Balliette, of the Eureka County Public Land Advisory Committee, who first called attention to the remarkable similarity of positions taken by the state commission and WHOA.
In fact, he says he has copies of 22 identical letters from both organizations sent to four BLM districts protesting planned federal gathers of feral horses. The language was identical, right down to the typographical errors. Only the letterheads and signatures -- Catherine Barcomb for the state commission and Dawn Lappin for WHOA -- were different.
"Yeah, we noticed that too," said BLM manager Winnepenninkx in Battle Mountain.
"It was like they'd just been copied onto different stationery and signed by somebody else."
"Well, we are a public agency. Anybody can get copies of what we do," Barcomb tried to explain. "I don't see that it makes that much difference."
In one case, the appeals against a gather on the Soldier Meadows allotment were so identical that both letters omitted the last numeral of the year: "199_".
This, Balliette concluded, was an indication of more than just over-the-shoulder cribbing between a special interest group and a state agency supposedly representing all sides of the issue.
Barcomb, by her own resume description as having come "from upstate New York and had never heard of horses and burros running wild," cannot be said to have a western ranching
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background. But since 1989 she has
involved herself with what she calls the "Land Use
Planning Process" on behalf of wild horses and is
now the politically appointed executive director of the
commission, established in 1985 with the mission of using
funds from a private endowment to assure a
"managed" habitat for the horses. The
commission is intended to include representatives of the
livestock industry as well as state wildlife officials
and horse advocates.
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