Biscuits and gravy, black coffee and wild horse stories: That’s how I remember Bruno’s Country Club in Gerlach, Nev.
It was there I met members of the Bureau of Land Management staff to talk about wild horse roundups. I was researching fact-based fiction featuring mustangs and didn’t expect our meetings to be congenial. They were, but that was when BLMers could answer questions without consulting talking points, when they drove journalists out to observe a single helicopter bringing mustangs in at a nervous trot.
No more. These days, members of the public must make reservations to stand or sit (the BLM’s choice) miles from where choppers push multiple mustang herds into a frantic stampede to captivity.
And congeniality? In February, the BLM sent staff to spook a family of Pine Nut mustangs out of a hay trap into trailers. Eleven men, some armed, monitored the few observers who’d spotted government trucks and come to say goodbye to horses—Bunny, Blondie, Cree and others—they’d watched since birth.
The us vs. them attitude shift was born of the bureau’s reaction to the disastrous 2009-2010 Calico roundup. Weather, foal-heavy mares and terrain made it risky. I’d ridden the terrain and knew it was steep and covered with shale the size of dinner plates.
Over the icy weeks of December and January, 86 of 1,922 Calico Mountains mustangs died. Forty mares suffered spontaneous abortions. On Jan. 16, I was close enough to see a nursing mare forced into a trailer. Partway inside, her foal’s cry from a nearby pen made her turn. An onslaught of other mares, driven by contract staff, slammed into her. Her neck was broken.
Eyewitnesses to these accidents plus the rise of social media could have meant positive change, or at least an end to the BLM’s claims that roundups were humane. Instead, the BLM and lavishly paid private contractors made them difficult to observe.
Roundup announcements may come too late to make reservations with the BLM, drive to distant rangelands or secure the 4-wheel drive vehicles that may be mandated. On site, strategically parked BLM and contractor trucks often block binocular views of traps. Captive horses are often trucked to rented private land so that access by the press and public can legally be refused.
Sometimes there are no announcements. Watchers of the Pine Nut herd had spotted a BLM hay trap. They monitored it around the clock in below-zero temperatures, hoping their presence would keep mustangs away. In the meantime, the BLM erected a surprise trap. Members of the public had no time to call their legislators, to ask for an environmental impact statement or simply ask why. Rights to observe roundups, secured in court under the First Amendment, were brushed aside.
The BLM’s allegiance to agribusiness and extractive industries makes them willfully ignorant of science that says mustangs aren’t destroying the range. Only legislation will end the roundups, but mounting cameras on helicopters and traps for virtual viewing would bring us closer and end the BLM’s claim that access is restricted for our safety.
The public has a right to know—to see and hear—what’s done in our name, with our tax dollars.
Terri Farley’s award-winning books, both fiction and nonfiction, have told the historic and contemporary wild horse story to millions of readers worldwide. She has been honored by the National Science Teaching Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Junior Literary Guild, the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame and others. A former middle and high school teacher, she owns three adopted wild horses. Learn more at TerriFarley.com.