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.  
Her "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.
Receiving no state funding, it has little actual authority beyond serving as an official government lobby and a quasi-official public relations agency through its $4.95 magazine, "Mustang Manes and Tales." While the commission is supposed to keep track of the horses and the potential problems they pose on the range, Barcomb concedes there is "confusion" in the numbers.
In July, Eureka County planner Balliette organized an audience of ranchers and local officials like himself at a Reno meeting of the commission.
"I'm really surprised by this," said Barcomb. "We've never had such participation at one of our meetings before.
Ranchers Roy Risi and George Parman were there, and fiery Shelly Wadsworth from the Lincoln County Public Lands Advisory Commission, and even Dick Carver from Nye County. All of them expressed bitter concern over the state agency's obstacles to culling the over-populated herds.
And the ladies from WHOA were there also, twice breaking into loud tears as they appealed for "something to be done to protect them [the wild horses]" from winter starvation and other uncertain threats.
Maybe not since Marilyn Monroe was seen facing off Gable and Montgomery Clift has anybody in the state used such methods as rubber tires tied to lariats, and certainly nobody since 1975, has legally rounded up wild horses except contractors for the BLM itself.
But every time it happens, there is certain to be public weeping, as if still orchestrated by "Annie" herself. In the state commission's own magazine, Larry Neel, a non-game biologist for the Nevada Division of Wildlife, is to be found recounting a tale of being run off a range by an old stud he named "Roman Nose," and another horse he called "Indian Blanket."
"When I read today that a government roundup had so far removed 120 feral horses from Upper Lahontan Reservoir.." wrote the state biologist, "I thought of Old Roman Nose ... and Indian Blanket ... and I was very sad."
It's the sort of emotional outpouring from a state official that drives Balliette and others with him nuts.
"Take a look at these pictures," he told Barcomb and the commission, handing over photos from Railroad Pass. "There's one that shows a mare that obviously starved and froze to death, and a little ways from her body is the body of her colt who obviously stayed there paying at the mare until he finally died too. That's where this overpopulation will take you."
The herds above Railroad Pass nowadays look sleek and well-fed from the grass of two wet, but mild, winters, and no competition from cattle.
They are wary, but unhurried, in their departure from the heavily stomped and soured meadow of a small creek overlooking the unspoiled Newark Valley. The stallion snorts some small signal of defiance as he urges them on. And they do, even to the "dink"-hating Balliette, seem to take with them a sense of proud freedom into the trees.
Four years ago, Martin Hansen remembers, the winter snow blew into deep drifts in the canyons and arroyos and temperature in the Diamond Range plunged to 45 degrees below zero.
It was the spring after that they began noticing the stench from Railroad Pass.

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