National Geographic : 2009 Feb
• does go wrong on these grasslands. So in the mid-1800s, when stockmen released up to 40 million cattle on the plains, where horses had lived for centuries without destroying the graz- ing, at most two million mustangs were held responsible for the suddenly depleted range. At the same time, the range-tough wild horses, a fast-breeding renewable resource, were indispensable to early settlers. Occasion- ally hunted to keep their numbers in check, they were also rounded up periodically for ranch work and transport or were used to con- quer and de ne the growing nation. Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, invading Mexico with Gen. Zachary Taylor s army in March 1846 on a freshly caught mustang (from mestengo, meaning "stray"), tells in a contemporary account: "As far as the eye could reach to our right, the herd extended. To the le , it extended equally. ere was no esti- mating the number of animals in it." But then came railroads and roads, cars and tractors, tanks and combine harvesters, and you can t x a dead horse with a monkey wrench, so the mustang lost its value as transport and instead became, literally, dogmeat. Millions of pounds of wild horsemeat were processed into food for dogs, cats, and chickens during the 1930s alone. "Man," as Pat O Toole said, "was the wild horses natural predator." Traditionally ranchers haven t had much time for anything that competes with them for resources. It s not uncommon to find coyote carcasses draped over barbed-wire fences, as if Westerners had gone trolling for whatever of- fended their souls and, unable to shoot the wind, turned their ire on something more tangible. In February 2006 the Sportsman s Warehouse in Reno, Nevada, sponsored a competition in which the varmint hunter who brought in the most proof---such as the jaws of coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions---would win a boat. Around the same time several wild horses were also shot, even though mustangs have been federally protected since 1971---under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act--- from capture, branding, harassment, or killing. (It was largely the e orts of a Nevadan, Velma Bronn Johnston, better known as Wild Horse Annie, to bring the plight of mustangs to public attention that led to passage of the act.) You can outlaw cruelty, but you can t outlaw the culture that spawned that cruelty. Wild hors- es around the Rock Springs area (where Dot is from) have been killed in greater numbers than anywhere else in the country. It s impossible to know if the deaths are the deliberate work of ranchers fed up with the pressures on their grazing or of careless young men with too much time on their hands. In the spring of 2005 two Wyoming men and two men from Utah roped a wild stallion and castrated the animal with a knife. e mustang bled to death, and its body was dragged to a remote draw and le to rot. All four men were apprehended, convicted of mis- demeanors, given six-month suspended jail sen- tences, and ordered to pay nes of a little more than a thousand dollars each. It s hard to conceive that anyone would kill a federally protected mustang in this way, until you take into account the anatomy of the West: little towns strung like beads along highways, and between the towns an impression of endless public lands where it s still possible to imagine getting away with anything, in part because these expanses feel as if they belong to no one and everyone all at once. where wild horses are found, the federal agency in the unenviable position of overseeing the interests competing for public lands---livestock and minerals, trees and the people who hug them, hikers and wild- life, wild horses and watersheds---is the Bureau of Land Management. e BLM is required to manage its 258 million acres (more than any other federal agency) for an ever changing West Millions of pounds of wild horsemeat were processed into food for dogs, cats, and chickens during the 1930s. Alexandra Fuller s latest book, e Legend of Colton Bryant, is set in Wyoming. Melissa Farlow photographed the July 2007 Tongass Forest story.