Heritage in the Crosshairs

By Kim Lewis

The wild mustangs of the Virginia Foothills Photos courtesy of Robert H. Zorn


Visionary men like Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Russell and Will Rogers knew and appreciated the great American West. The wild horse has long been a symbol of this great basin where early explorers marveled at these beautiful animals. But as the population of the western states increased, people brought with them their slash and burn habits that had already laid to waste so much of the country's interior. There were naturalists who appreciated and worked to preserve these great treasures and resources. Roosevelt was a classic example of a man who ranched, hunted and traveled throughout the rugged western region while at the same time, striking a peaceful coexistence with nature. In fact, it was Roosevelt who worked so hard to expand the protection of public lands from exploitation.

Spending much of my youth with horses and cattle, I saw two types of people make their homestead on the open range. There were those that practiced conservation in harmony with their land use and those who simply took everything they could get their hands on, never replenishing anything. I was fortunate to be related to those who practiced the first policy. Sadly, some people who came to the early west felt the need to lay waste to the great treasures this part of the country held before them. The needless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of buffalo is a classic example of the 'white trash' that abused nature's resources. And so it was that these types of people could not resist the exploitation of one of the greatest and most widely recognized symbols of the west, the wild horse.

The wild mustangs of the Virginia Foothills Photos courtesy of Robert H. Zorn

As the wild horse became increasingly endangered, one advocate, Velma B. Johnston, a tough-talking Nevada woman, began a public campaign to protect these animals. Velma was painfully aware of the ruthless practices of hunters, ranchers and mustangers who often employed cruel methods to harvest wild horses for commercial use. During the late 1950's Velma orchestrated a highly effective public awareness campaign, which ultimately brought to the attention of the public the plight of wild horses and burros. Her campaign soon led to significant pressure upon Congress. In January of 1959, Nevada Congressman Walter Baring introduced the first legislation, which would afford some protection to the horses. This bill, known as the Wild Horse Annie Act, prohibited the use of motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses and burros on public lands. While this initial legislation offered some protection, it did not stop the harvesting of this national treasure.

By 1971, wild horses were disappearing at an astounding rate due to the elimination of them by mustangers and hunters. Finally, on June 17, 1971, the Senate passed Public Law 92-195, The Wild, Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act. This act was to protect all wild horses and burros on public lands, and allow for the management of these animals by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Things changed, but did not necessarily improve for the horses, for many reasons including questionable enforcement and political and personal agendas.


Politics run amok

While many ranchers lived in harmony with the wild horse, some wanted everything the land had to offer. By 1997, Nevada Senator Dean Rhoads began efforts to eliminate the wild horse from public lands within his state. Rhoads was also widely considered at the time to be the father of a group known as TheSagebrush Rebellion. Rhoads and his mob spearheaded legislation with the intent of taking control of public lands away from the Department of the Interior and moving it to state control under the Public Lands Committee. It was no coincidence that this was Rhoads' special interest committee. Once they had control of public lands they would begin the elimination of the wild horse for the single purpose of increasing cattle grazing allotments. Rhoads and the Sagebrush Rebellion worked long and hard to secretly, and often publicly, erode any protection afforded the wild horse, including The Nevada Commission for the Protection of Wild Horses (about 20 years previous, Leo Heil, a Washoe County, Reno, NV man left to the state a large amount of money - $230,000 - with the sole and explicit purpose of protecting the wild horse).

Like everything else in the west such as water, land, gold, and cattle, the wild horse could not outrun the political machine. In November of 2004, Montana Senator Conrad Burns, the Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, managed to wipe out the will of the people, which had stood fast for more than three decades, by quietly slipping a provision into a spending bill, which was thrown at Congress at the eleventh hour. Burns was banking on the last minute rush to get the language rubber-stamped. He was right on the money. The move appears to be repayment to certain special interest users of public lands that filtered money to Burns' election campaign. While Burns' office denies any such connection there are a great many unanswered questions as to why a subcommittee chair such as Burns would slip language into the budget that would diminish protection of the wild horse. Many wonder why the issue wasn't couched openly and publicly. Certainly the method, motive and timing have created significant suspicion.

A school teacher

Children in Revolt! On the outskirts of Reno lies the Virginia Foothills. These hills are home to two groups of mustangs - the first being wild, and the second being in the form of the Damonte Ranch High Mustangs, that being a high school and the mustangs appropriately being their mascot. Teaching class at Damonte Ranch is Tierney Cahill, a good friend and a person of fierce conviction. (To give you an idea how fierce, while teaching a lesson about the election process one day, her students challenged her to run for office. She did. And now a movie about her political exploits is in production.)

It's not uncommon for Tierney to arrive at school early in the day to find a group of wild mustangs roaming freely around the grounds. According to Cahill, the horses are a beautiful sight and have become a sort of symbol of the community. Some people said the horses posed a danger to children. Some complained about the smell. Ironically, most of the complaints seem to have come from people who moved from out of state to enjoy the country way of life. Regardless of the origin or validity of the complaints, the fact is that the complaints came in and officials, being bureaucrats, decided to act. They asked BLM officials to round up the horses that so many had come to enjoy seeing in the area. And with Senator Burns' recent weakening of the wild horse protection act, the fate of many of the horses could not be determined.

But the students would not have it. After the horses had been rounded up into corrals bordering the school grounds, many of the students, teenagers who had become aware of Senator Burns' bill that would allow the slaughter of these horses, became upset. The kids had been ordered by school officials to remain inside and away from the corrals. But about 50 of the little activists gathered a petition and broke free from their classes. They ran to the corrals and presented the man at the gate with the document which asked the government to promise that the horses would not be slaughtered. When the children presented the document to officials, they refused to sign. One official explained that they could not guarantee the horses would not be slaughtered now that new legislation had been enacted. But these are the same kids who made Tierney Cahill run for office. What happened next is made for movies. The kids made their way back to the corrals when no one was watching and set all of the horses free. As the horses galloped back into the wild rangeland, school officials called an assembly. Teachers were admonished for 'encouraging' the children's revolt and a man from the government addressed the assembly telling the children the horses were being relocated to safe rangeland in South Dakota.

An American cowboy

Bill Cummings, or "Wild Bill' as he has been called for decades, is another such story. Wild Bill has always been a cowboy and a buckaroo in the truest western tradition. With his hat pulled down to his ears, his long coat flapping in the wind and a Winchester Rifle tucked into his scabbard, Bill faces away from the snow and wind, surveying a group of cattle he is moving to new range. To the west a hundred yards or so, something catches his eye as a herd of wild horses breaks the silence. Here sits a man who is one of the last of a disappearing breed.

When you ask him if he feels the wild horse should be removed to make way for more cattle, his brow raises and snaps back in his customary gruff tone. 'These sons a bitches were here a hell of a long time before these cows, and people need to just leave 'em the hell alone!" Bill has never minced words and as he spits a plug of tobacco he goes on to say, 'There's nothing more magnificent to my eyes than to see a herd of wild horses dashing between the sagebrush and juniper as they head over the horizon.' This cowboy is not out there looking to eliminate nature but rather to embrace it. Real stewards of the last pieces of open range will tell you they never want to see the mustang stop running free. There is a way for ranchers and free roaming horses to exist in harmony. Both the wild horse and the rancher share a role in the history and shaping of the west.

OUR free and wild horses and OUR lands at stake

At this time there are approximately 37,000 wild horses and burros running free on various BLM Herd Management Areas throughout the west. There are an additional 14,000 being fed and sheltered at adoption centers. Senator Burns' weakening of the horse and burro protection act places at least 8,000 of these horses up for grabs to the highest bidder. Translation: 8,000 once free and wild horses, a symbol of the west that has outlasted famine, the slaughter of the buffalo, the devastation and exile of the American Indian, and the pillage and plunder of the west, are now eligible to be killed.


The public own public lands and that translates to you and I. No one individual has the choice to eradicate the will of the people or the wild horse itself. What we all need to be focusing on are those responsible for the legislation itself.


What can we do?

We need to get involved in changing the laws; you and your ideas can be part of the solution.

First and foremost: Write letters to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior.

Secretary of the Interior
Gale A. Norton, U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240


Second: Identify who the real enemies of the wild horse are: Montana Senator Conrad Burns, Nevada former Senator Dean Rhoads, and other public officials who have made their intentions against the wild horse clear. Write letters to the Editor of their newspapers and write letters voicing your beliefs to their offices.

Newspapers list available from:


Nevada Press Association

PO Box 1030
Carson City , NV 89702
(775) 885-0866
FAX (775) 885-8233


Senator Conrad Burns:

187 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510


Third: Identify who the people are that are actually empowered to help the wild horses, and in what areas, and join in their efforts through time, donations and letters of support.

Fourth: Support HR 297, introduced in a bipartisan effort by House Democrat Nick Rahall and Republican Ed Whitfield. HR 297 would restore the prohibition of the commercial sale of wild horses and burros for slaughter.


Last but not least: If teenage students at the Damonte Ranch High School can make a difference, so can you. Grass roots efforts are effective. Speak up for the wild horse.


About the author:

Kim Lewis is an Idaho Cowboy, writer and speaker. He travels the US and abroad as a keynote speaker at many horse related events and other conferences. He can be reached at idahohorses1@netzero.com.