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Kelly, Wild Horses - LETTER FROM MONTANA xhausted and...

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Unformatted text preview: LETTER FROM MONTANA xhausted and terrified, a herd of wild mustangs gal- lop around the side of the mountain, miraculously managing to skirt the treacherous prairie-dog holes and deep crevices as they try to escape the scream- , ing, whirling predator on their tail. Their instincts tell them they can out-run most any animal, but this one is relentless. You wish a director would yell “Cut,” and the horses would be led to a plush Hol- lywood stable for rest, food, and water. But it’s not a movie, and the pilot flying the helicopter is not an actor. He works ‘ for a government program to round up wild horses from public lands. The target horses this week are from the Sandwash Basin herd, in northwestern Colorado. As the horses hit a straightaway at full stride, a camouflaged fence gradually funnels them into a trap. Close to the neck of the trap, the roundup crew releases a “Judas horse,” which runs to the front of the pack HOME ON THE RANGE Wild horses in the Sandwash Basin of northwestern Colorado gallop during a roundup on September 30, 2005. Inset, Senator Conrad Burns last year. 224 l VANITY FAIleww.vanityfair,com PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN KELLY and leads the mustangs directly into a tiny corral. Once inside, the horses screech to a stop, piling up on top of one another as dust flies, the gate slams, and the helicopter pulls away to go back for more horses. When the crew is finished, a few of the horses will be‘ released back onto the range, some will be put up for adoption, but most will be relo- cated to government holding facilities, and a large number will be eligible to be sold to slaughterhouses, thanks to Senator Conrad Burns (Republican, Montana). In 1971, Congress passed a law that banned the inhumane treatment of wild horses and put safeguards into place so they couldn’t be sold for slaughter. That law was the result of a two-decades—long crusade by Velma Johnston, better known as “Wild Horse Annie.” But in December 2004 that law was gutted. Just days before the Thanksgiving holiday recess, when most of Washington was getting ready to leave for the long weekend, Senator Burns put the NOVEMBER 2006 INSET BY MATTHEW MINARD LETTER FROM MONTANA final touches on his rider No. 142, which removed all protections for wild horses (and burros) that were over the age of 10 or had been offered unsuccessfully for adoption three times. Such animals could now be sold “without limitation, including through auction to the highest bidder, at local sale yards or other convenient livestock selling facilities.” Burns inserted his one-page rider into a 3,300-page budget—appropriations bill on the eve of the bill’s congressional dead- line, and there would be no opportunity for either public or legislative debate. The following week rider No. 142 was uncovered, thanks in part to a tip from “14111116 faced regular death threats and answered the door with a pistol?" says Karen Sussman. the Government Printing Office. Animal advocates and politicians from both major parties were outraged. Representative Ed Whitfield, a Republican from western Ken- tucky, observed, “The thing that is so dam- aging about this Conrad Burns amendment is that he passed it on an appropriations bill that no one knew about. . . . It is precisely the way the legislative process should not work. I don’t know his motivations, but more than likely he was protecting the ranchers who have leased those lands [for cattle and sheep grazing].” Despite protests, President Bush, who likes to borrow the imagery and ethos of the American cowboy (and whom Burns once praised as having “earned his spurs”), signed the rider into law, capping a series of policy moves at the Bureau of Land Management (B.L.M.), the government agency in charge of managing the horses, that have sought to diminish the protected status of these “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” as the 1971 law called them. The rider caused such anger that in May 2005 the House of Representatives over- whelmingly passed a bipartisan bill to re- store the original intent of the 1971 law. A similar amendment in the Senate had to make one stop before its confirmation vote: the appropriations subcommittee for the Department of the Interior, which has jurisdiction over all federal lands and the National Park Service. Burns is chairman of that committee. Proving again that one man can make a difference, he blocked the amendment from going to vote. The B.L.M., part of the Department of the Interior, is responsible for administer- ing America’s 261 million acres of public land. Historically, it has worked closely with 226 | VA N I T Y FAIR I www.vunilyfair,com ranchers and other commercial interests, such as gas and oil, coal, and timber, in the management and use of these lands. Over— seeing the wild horses is one, small part of what the bureau does, but to the general public, which has an emotional attachment to them, it is one of its most important re- sponsibilities. Celebrated in film, literature, and our nation’s history, the mustangs helped Lewis and Clark complete their his- toric expedition, and during the opening of the frontier, they pulled plows, delivered mail, and carried soldiers in battle. Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat, West Virginia) summed up the feelings of many when, in his speech to overturn the Burns rider, he criticized the B.L.M.’s management of the wild horses. “Surely there are actions that can be taken by the BLM to ensure the proper operation of the wild horse and burro program without resort- ing to the slaughter of these animals.” Horse Whisperers hen you drive up the dirt road to Karen Suss- man’s double-wide trailer, in South Dakota, you are greeted by two dogs, 12 cats, and the 300 mus- tangs that roam her 680 acres. Sussman meets you at the door, and the first thing she asks is “Have you eaten?” An intern who worked for Sussman once called her “the mother of all living things.” But she is no pushover. As president of the 750-member International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, Suss- man, 59, is a fiery activist who also works part—time as a nurse, in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, for the Indian Health Service. Small and energetic, with short hair that stays in place when she moves, she looks like a for- mer gymnast and seems always ready to jump to the next task. Her home is packed with the late Wild Horse Annie’s personal items, making it a kind of unofficial muse— um~she even has Annie’s saddle resting on a sawhorse. Sussman, who never knew Annie person- FRIEND OF FLICKA Wild-horse activist Velma Johnston, better known as Wild Horse Annie, with Hobo, a rodeo horse her father gave her in I924. ally, grew up in rural Pennsylvania. In 1981, she adopted her first horse and began volun- teering for Annie’s organization. She became president of it in 1989, and both president and executive director in 1993. During these years, she worked closely with Helen Reilly, who was Annie’s good friend and personal secretary. (Reilly passed away in 1993.) Suss- man knows Annie’s story inside out, and so, at one time, did many other people. By the time her 1971 law passed, Annie had been featured in countless newspaper articles, on national television, and in popular magazines as diverse as Reader’s Digest and Esquire. At age 11, while living outside Reno, An- nie contracted a severe case of polio and under- went an experimental operation, after which she was hospitalized in a body cast for nearly nine months. A bright spot in her day was looking at a large painting of mus- . tangs entitled Roaming Free, which hung in the hospital hallway. “I stud- ied it with all my senses. I could just feel what it was like out there, wing- ing along with the herd,” Annie wrote. When Annie’s cast was removed, it turned out the constricting plas- ter, which covered much of her neck and head, had not allowed space for her face to develop even- ly, and while she would grow to a height of five feet seven inches, she was twisted out of alignment by the polio. Annie’s dis- figurements proved to be traumatic. Kids taunted her, so she retreated into her studies, wrote poetry, drew, and helped her father take care of the animals on their ranch. Her best friend was a rodeo horse named Hobo, which her father had given her when she got out of the hospital. “Then there’s her most famous story,” Sussman says, “the one that changed her life.” On a beautiful morning in 1950, An- nie was driving to her secretarial job in Reno when she approached a truck pulling a livestock trailerwa common sight. As she pulled closer, she saw blood dripping out of the trailer. Through the wooden slats she saw it was jam-packed—not with cattle, but with horses. Trampled under their feet was a young foal, no more than a few months old. When the truck turned off the highway onto a dirt road, Annie followed it. Its desti- NOVEMBER 2006 LETTER FROM MONTANA nation was a slaughterhouse that processed horsemeat for pet food. The truck parked next to a holding pen, and a man unlocked the trailer gate. As the gate swung open, a tight pack of mustangs untangled and scrambled to get out, falling over the trailer’s edge, landing on top of one another, fighting to get to their feet, running into the holding pen. he horses were bat- tered and bloody. Most had wide swaths of flesh torn from their sides, which were oozing blood. Annie would later learn that such wounds were in- flicted when the horses were roped, pulled off their feet, then dragged up a ramp into the cattle trailer. Many were spot- ted red from shotgun blasts fired by wran- glers in planes. Still in the trailer was the foal, trampled to death. An- nie gasped and leaned forward, sick to her stomach. She received the nickname “Wild Horse Annie” a few years later, as her reputation as a mustang advocate grew. In Carson City, Nevada, she entered a BORN FREE PHOTOGRAPHS: TOP, BY KURT MARKUS; BOTTOM, BY JOHN KELLY NOVEMBER 2006 Karen Sussman at her home, in Lantry, South Dakota; below, a helicopter chases horses for a Sandwash Basin roundup. packed room in the state-senate building to speak before a committee about banning the airplane roundup of wild horses. As she walked down an aisle, a local rancher, in an attempt to ridicule her, said in a loud voice, “Well, if it isn’t Wild Horse Annie.” " ’ The press in the room _ picked up the nick- ‘ name, and in a genius - public—relations move, 3 Annie adopted it. As a g result of her activism, ‘Annie faced regular - death threats,” Sussman ays, “and answered the door at her ranch out- ide Reno—the Double . Lazy Heart—with a pis- ‘ olsbehind her bac .” Before she faced the >U.S. Senate, in 1971, . Annie orchestrated one of the largest letter- writing campaigns in US. history, and Con- gress was flooded with letters, many written by children and teenagers, on behalf of the horses. Widespread, unreg- ulated commercial exploitation had brought the mustang numbers from two million in the early 19005 to fewer than 18,000 in 1971. Arthur Miller and John Huston’s 1961 film, The Mg‘its, depicted the increasing despera— tion of the down—and—out cowboys who traf- ficked in the few remaining wild horses. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act passed both houses of Congress unanimously. It protected the mustangs “from capture, branding, harassment, or death.” The B.L.M. was the main agency assigned to enforce this law. Annie died of cancer at age 65 on June 27, 1977, but Sussman and others continue her work, which they believe is far from over. “The B.L.M. has consistently exploited the intent of the law,” says Sussman. “They have constantly chipped away at key provi- sions. The horses on my ranch come from two herdsione of which comes from the B.L.M.—that were zeroed out. The total land that was set aside for mustangs in the 1971 law has been reduced by over 10 mil- lion acres.” Sussman, like many wild-horse advo- cates, thinks that the mustangs, under the LETTER FROM MONTANA stewardship of the B.L.M., could one day reach numbers so low that their ability to survive in the wild would be at risk. Slaughterhouse Blues y the late 70s the population of wild horses had increased to 44,000, and changes were made to the 1971 law, adding provisions for “excess animals” to be removed from the range—the excess to be determined by the secretary of the interior when he saw a threat to “a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relation- ship in that area [i.e., ranching].” A 1976 amendment to the law allowed for mecha— Idaho), the B.L.M. began enthusiastically re- moving wild horses from the range—around 40,000 between 1984 and 1987. Journalist Tad Bartimus, in an article for the Associated Press, revealed how ranchers and the B.L.M. had gotten around the four— horse adoption limit: dozens of individuals would adopt four horses each, then give the ranchers power of attorney. Bartimus quoted a Montana rancher who had gotten 1,100 horses this way, which he planned to sell to the slaughterhouse. The rancher said, “We have powers of attorney from people in Arizona, California, Texas and Mon- tana.. .Of course, they went to slaughter. “The health and future 01:116211 . 15111 danO er, sa nized roundups (helicopters and trucks), and roundup numbers began to increase dramati— cally. More revisions in 1978 allowed for old, sick, and lame animals “to be destroyed in the most humane manner possible,” a mea- sure Annie supported, according to Suss- man. “Annie wanted to create an airtight bill, and she foresaw population problems in the future,” she says. “She wanted to deal with such problems on the range and to avoid the roundups and slaughterhouse horrors.” The 1978 revisions also specified how the horse- adoption program should dispose of healthy excess animals: “qualified individuals” were allowed to adopt no more than four horses each (for which the B.L.M. charged a fee of $25 a horse). After proving they had treated the animals humanely for one year, the new owners were given title. The four-horse limit and one—year probationary period were in— tended to eliminate the economic incentive for ranchers to take large numbers of horses to sell to slaughterhouses. Thanks to former Nevada Republican senator Paul Laxalt, however, a loophole big enough to drive a truck through—one straight to the slaughterhouse—was also included in the revisions. It stated that wild horses and burros would lose their protected status once the new owner received title. The implications of this became all too clear after Ronald Rea- gan installed the pro-ranching-and—mining James Watt and later the lesser-known but like-minded William P. Clark and Donald Hodel as secretaries of the interior. In 1984 the B.L.M. instituted a fee—waiver program, whereby most anyone willing to take at least 100 wild horses would get them for free, and from 1985 to 1987, after Congress appropri- ated $51 million for roundups (thanks mostly to Republican senator James McClure, of 228 I VA NIT Y FAIR l www.vanityfair.com 8 finger Kathre1‘1s. Everybody knows what’s happening, but nobody will admit i .” According to a 1990 report by the GAO. (the General Accounting Office, now the Govern— ment Accountability Of- fice, which does indepen- dent, nonpartisan reports at the request of Con- gress), 20,000 wild horses were placed with “79 in- dividuals and 4 Native American tribes. . . . We found that hundreds of these horses died of star- vation and dehydration during the l-year pro- bation period and that many adopters, primar— ily ranchers and farm- ers sold thousands more to slaughter after obtaining title from BLM.” The GAO. report concluded, “By its very design the fee-waiver program was a prescription for commercial exploitation of wild horses.” The Animal Protection Institute of Amer- ica and the Fund for Animals took the B.L.M. to court in response to such abuses, and in 1988 a federal judge ruled that the B.L.M. could not issue a title if it knew the adopter intended to sell an animal to slaugh- ter. This terminated the fee-waiver program. But in the 1990s abuses under the adop- tion program were still being reported, be- coming more of an internal B.L.M. issue. In a series of articles for the AP, published in the mid-1990s, Martha Mendoza docu— mented how the B.L.M. had falsified rec- CALL OF THE WILD . Photographer Ginger Kathrens, creator of the PBS documentary Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies, at her home, in Hillside, Colorado, in April. ords used to identify and track horses, and how bureau officials were selling horses to slaughter after enlisting their friends and relatives to adopt them to circumvent the four-horse—per—person limit. In 1997, to address these abuses, Presi- dent Clinton’s B.L.M. announced additional regulations to protect the horses, including checking with adopters and spot-checking slaughterhouses. Buyers now had to sign an affidavit ensuring they had no intent to sell the horses for slaughter or processing. Un- der the Bush administration things would again take a turn for the worse. An American Classic he mustang is a relatively small and sturdy horse, measuring close to five feet (15 hands) high and weighing on average 900 pounds. Its chest looks narrow from the front but deep in profile, more substantial than an Arabian’s but not as bulky as a quarter horse’s. Its legs spread out from its body in a distinctive slight “A” shape. Mustangs come in all colors, from black the Pryor Mountains, in Senator Burns’s home state of Montana. And one of the best guides to take you through this territory and teach you about mustangs is documentary-film maker Ginger Kathrens. Kath— rens is a rock star in the wild-horse world. Driven and tough, she lets out frequent sparks of good humor. You’d never want to get on her bad side, though, or she would stare you down with her intense blue eyes. For her PBS series, which began in 2001 with Cloud: VVzld Stallion of the Rock- ies, Kathrens is filming Cloud, a majestic white mustang stallion. She has followed him for more than 10 years, from his birth. Now he is lead stallion of his own family. The Pryor Mountains are rugged and beautiful, filled with steep canyons and ex— pansive valleys. The Big Horn Canyon cuts across the plains as far as the eye can see. To film the latest installment in Cloud’s life, Kathrens treks on foot to find him. She is loaded down with gear: an Arriflex Super 16-mrn. film camera, a large Canon digital video camera, a heavy tripod, a Nikon 35— NOVEMBER 2006' PHOTOGRAPH BY KURT MARKUS LETTER FROM MONTANA mm. still camera, and binoculars. Pointing to a tree-filled valley that leads to the main watering hole, she looks through her bin- oculars, and a smile breaks across her face. “There’s Cloud,” she says. “He’s making his way to the watering hole.” “The lead mare chooses when and where to feed and water,” Kathrens explains. Cloud waits on top of a low hill just above the water hole. “Cloud typically takes the rearguard po— sition to make sure it is safe for everyone else before he goes down to water.” She checks the view through her telephoto lens as she explains the makeup of a family band: a stallion, a lead mare, plus several other mares, and all of their offspring under three. Usually, when the stal- lions are two years old, the lead stallion kicks them out and they join a bachelor band. “Made up of horses ranging in age from two and up, the bachelor bands serve an important role in wild—horse society,” says Kathrens. “The bachelors join up with one another for protection and social activities. They don’t have family responsibilities, so they can hang out and cause mischief. The <.<. _ . . . ll lllfi BWLM and the admnnstratton want to talk about 1110116], the} ,ir grazing pr ,7 look at t younger bachelors spar with the older ones to hone their fighting skills. A bachelor’s ul- timate goal is to steal a mare and start his own family.” “Hes still letting Flint stay around,” ob- serves Kathrens. Flint is Cloud’s ...
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