Now, on to today's marvelous post.
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Reno, the “Biggest Little City in the World,” has the biggest little heart when it comes to wild horses. Nevada is home to more than half of the 38,000 mustangs currently running free in eleven states in the Wild West.
It’s amazing what I learn travelling in my own back yard. The Virginia Range herd in southeast Reno numbers 1,400 strong, although the day I got the chance to see these living legends of the Old West during a holiday visit with family, I counted maybe a dozen in all that had trickled down the mountain in search of food.
Little did I know these mustangs were at the center of one of the Wild West’s biggest battles of the twenty-first century.
I knew even less when it came to horses, wild or otherwise. What I did know I’d gleaned years ago as an adolescent while reading Anna Sewell’s popular book, Black Beauty. I’d also watched Elizabeth Taylor learn to care for and ride her spirited gelding, “Pie,” from the movie National Velvet, but without the fame and fortune of a twelve-year-old child star, I’d had to put any chance of a horse in my life out to pasture years ago.
Standing there on the Virginia Range admiring this icon of American spirit and freedom, what I knew about the controversy surrounding these mustangs amounted to little more than horse chips.
Two million had roamed free in 1900; over the next fifty years their numbers dropped considerably as the horses were captured and domesticated for private and military use, others killed for sport. Some were slaughtered to make glue, pet food or pony furs; some went to foreign markets for consumption. Horse meat is regularly eaten in France, Sweden and Japan. Oh, dear! That’s a horse of a very different color.
These feral descendants of the 16th century steeds the Spanish conquistadors brought to North America had dwindled to 17,000 by the time Reno secretary and horse lover Velma Johnston pressured the U.S. government to prohibit the use of aircraft and motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses. In 1959, passage of “The Wild Horse Annie Act” effectively reduced the capture and slaughter of these “wild symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of America.”
In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burros Act put the cost of protecting and managing these living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West in the hands of the taxpayers. Those costs are predicted to reach $1 billion by 2030 as the numbers of protected horses continues to rise.
Keeping the mustang population at a “natural ecological balance” that allows both man and wild horse room to roam the 34 million acres designated public land (in 1971, when the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act became law, 80 million acres had been designated public land to be shared by farmers’ livestock and wild horses) means every year about 9,000 mustangs are captured and warehoused in tax-payer funded short and long-term holding facilities, most for the rest of their lives. About 45,000 wild horses are currently living in captivity with another 37,000 running free, the largest numbers concentrated in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.
Environmentalists find it difficult to imagine wild horses living out their lives fenced in. They argue that too many of those wild horses warehoused eventually find their way to slaughter houses. One in three wild horses rounded up as surplus do find adoptive homes, although those numbers have dropped following the economic downturn in recent years.
The words of Lisa LeBlanc, a volunteer for the Nevada non-profit organization, Wild Horse Education, dedicated to protecting America’s wild horses from abuse, slaughter and extinction, resonated for me.
"Nearly everything in America is owned or leased by someone; every piece of forage or timber, every wild animal, every hard rock or open space has the potential to generate income. Among the last bastions of true freedom - those things owned by all Americans equally - are Public Lands and Wild Equines. Each can be viewed and enjoyed absolutely without cost: You may camp, respectfully, on America's wide open spaces and wildernesses, for free, any time or anywhere. And wild equines are the only living wildlife owned by no one and everyone - simply because they are protected American icons. There are no licenses issued to hunt them, no grazing fees collected - they are truly free in every sense and for all to enjoy and admire. Perhaps this is why wild equines, along with our remaining open spaces, are such serious objects of contention - because the only monetary value they generate is upon their removal or utility. With everything in America for sale to the highest bidder, foreign or domestic, shouldn't there be something preserved, something regarded for simple aesthetics? Does everything need a dollar value attached?"
Ironically, the Virginia Range horses I got the chance to see that morning in Reno belong to and are managed by the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA). Because the land the Virginia Range herd occupies is not public land, the BLM is not responsible for protecting and managing this particular herd.
The animal rights group Return to Freedom (RTF), a non-profit organization located in Lompoc, California works with the NDA to preserve and protect this particular herd of wild horses, handling everything from public safety and traffic issues, to private and federal property concerns. RTF has the right to purchase all Virginia Range horses collected by the NDA for public safety purposes at $100 per horse on an as-is basis. RTF manages adoption programs to help defray the costs associated with rescuing the Virginia Range wild horses.