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Book Review: Wild Horse Country

If you are looking for a fearless journey into “Wild Horse Country” that explains why we sit at a time where tens of thousands of wild horses could be shot by the federal government? This is not that book.

To The Desert Independent

October 17, 2017

On October 11, the book “Wild Horse Country” by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dave Philipps went on sale. Does it tell the story the title promises? not really. If you are looking for a fearless journey into “Wild Horse Country” that explains why we sit at a time where tens of thousands of wild horses could be shot by the federal government? this is not that book.

The book does not lead you into a time in history where our EPA is being dismantled, industry that will destroy air and water deregulated, National Monuments are under threat; a movement building, politically, for decades. This book makes a tragic, common, mistake; it would have you believe wild horse management is not overwhelmed with politics, pandering and a part of the big picture of public land.

The book is a good beginning, but it does not follow the trail that threatens to destroy our wild horses and the land they stand on.

I first met Dave at a winter roundup in Nevada. Most reporters announce their arrival and show up with a cameraman. Dave came with his notebook, digital tablet and his own camera strung around his neck. I always like to watch folks, sometimes for a long time, before I truly engage. He was unpretentious, intelligent.

I had been getting death threats online that had spilled over into the real world. Those that sent those threats to me were part of a massive political move to silence any voice for the environment, the public land seizure movement. I was going to retreat to simply watch holding and keep distance; let law enforcement deal with it. A storm was moving in and all those not committed to the operation, either advocacy or a paycheck, would leave town in the next 48 hours.

I was also waiting for news on a massive first amendment case that I was fighting, the win came through on February 14, 2012. Dave doesn’t mention (in the book) that active case influenced the fact that we had daily observation when he attended, not the one day a week that had been on offer before he arrived in “wild horse country”. Being chased around the desert and threatened with arrest, just for trying to see horses after capture, had been an experience in Nevada before that case was filed.

So instead of dealing with the aggravation the threats presented I sat with Dave and shared coffee, for hours. He had a lot of questions but did not understand any of the context resided in. There is only one way to really understand the corruption our wild ones are caught in, to walk through it yourself. The corruption is carried on all sides of this conflict packaged in a multitude of wrappers.

Of all the things I spoke to him about the Bureau of Land Management “sale program,” where wild horses could be purchased for around $5. each by the truckload, caught his interest. I fanned it. It was a good place to begin some depth of understanding.

After months of contact with myself, and Wild Horse Education volunteers, Dave was ready to publish. In September of 2012 ProPublica broke the story. The story linked former Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, with a Colorado kill buyer Tom Davis. Tom Davis has purchased over 1700 wild horses, shipped to him on the tax payer dime, and made a profit off selling wild horses to slaughter. Tom Davis is an old family friend of Salazar.

Instead of that moment being a gateway to begin to understand that the entire frame of wild horse management is wrapped in the corrupt shroud of “good ol’ boys,” Philipps sees the broken program as “too tempting” to exploitation for fast cash. Instead of looking at how the program is kept “broken” to serve the corruption, he meanders down an old tired path; poor cowboy (without ever looking at the permittees permit), the poor BLM with too many horses, the “wild vs feral” debate and “we need mountain lions” without any serious investigative work.

I do know that after the brilliant expose on Salazar/Davis that Philipps was treated horrifically by advocacy. I know, I get the same treatment. I also know he was threatened with a “punch in the face” by Salazar. But what colored this journey?

I sent Philipps info for this book. I told him if he did not look at it he did not understand what our wild ones were really caught in. He never looked at it. The info I sent him would have this book ready to tackle the politics that threaten everything that lives and breathes on public land, right now. I began sending it three years ago.

The political storm of today, the old sage brush rebellion, is nowhere to be found in a Pulitzer Prize winners book on wild horses. Philipps will tell you about the Animal Liberation Front and how they set fire to a BLM facility in the 90’s. Nowhere does he tell you a bomb was tossed on the NV state BLM office by the sagebrush rebels and the fear instilled by them during the same time frame. He doesn’t tell you how the public land seizure movement impacts the big picture; nothing, nada, zip, zero.

He does an in depth look at the fossil record and comes to the unsurprising conclusion that wild horses are a reintroduced native.

He does look at predation.

He never looks into the design flaws perpetuated on myth, something the National Academy of Sciences has been writing about since the early 80’s. The exact design flaws used to “remove and stockpile” wild horses instead of addressing the real flaws in range management because as a federal land manager you are either corrupt or scared.

He never looks closely at the disproportionate use of public land by the livestock industry and what it is doing to the land and federal managers. Domestic livestock has cost over a billion dollars in the last decade, is the largest use of federal grazing land (66%, wild horses only actually consume about 2% of available public forage), the largest destructive use and only produces about 3% of beef. But livestock controls politics in the West. He doesn’t mention the Government Accounting Office (GAO) study of 2016 that shows that illegal use of public land by livestock is rampant. He doesn’t talk at all about the underlying violence in the American West that has been headline news on and off for decades.

The public land seizure movement is also after the resumption of mustanging (wild horse slaughter). Because management of wild horses is the federal management of a resource the states and counties want back, to kill horses for profit.

He concludes that to manage wild horses we need mountain lions, fertility control and maybe to kill them in holding to balance the program fiscally. We do need apex predators back. They don’t “laugh you out of the room” when you suggest it because it won’t work, they laugh because it will never happen because of politics. Politics, those never discussed at length in the book, are why we are set to kill wild horses.

When I expressed my deep, gut wrenching, off the charts, sadness that he never looked at the broken framework of public land I got an extremely disturbing reply; “I give you a big section in the book.” That reply made my blood pressure go off the charts. I would much rather have the book give the big picture the scrutiny it deserves, that is set to kill the wild horses I have lived out of my truck to protect, than to see my name in print once. I did not ask him to print my name, I asked him to read what I sent him and try to understand it. I offered photos, for free.

I sincerely like Dave Philipps. Maybe someday he will write about wild horses and the politics that surround their demise. I have the pre-publish copy, inscribed, on my bookshelf. I knew that someday this journalist would write a book, it’s what he does with his work. After meeting him I looked him up and ordered his book on Afghanistan that won a Pulitzer. It never bothered me that he might quote a government statistic in an article like it bothered other advocates. He’s a journalist, not an advocate. It’s a steep learning curve.

It bothers me that he could be lied to about the sale program, yet simply accept all the numbers. Not simply the range game, but holding. This year the political machine removed all roundup statistics from the internet pre-2012. We should have 60,000 in holding and the last few press releases quote 43,000. Holding was the thing Dave kept tracking. Why is it not in the book?

I found it exciting that a Pulitzer winner was going to dig into the world of wild horses. But I expected there to be something in there I could say went deeper, something that might point to the depth of the unfortunate truths of our public land. For me, this book is really a sad statement, perhaps about journalism itself? The book feels like it was not a priority project, but a way to stay a published book author working to support a family as you deal with the “assignment desk.”

I’m not saying that the book is not worth reading. What I am saying is that if you want a decent book that touches the surface, because you know nothing, buy it and read it with an eye between the lines that tells you where to use “Google.” This book could have been written a decade ago. There is no up-to-date look at the landslide. You can order it at Amazon.

If you are looking for a fearless journey into “Wild Horse Country” that explains why we sit at a time where tens of thousands of wild horses could be shot by the federal government? this is not that book.

Dave needs to write the rest of the book; this version is not complete.

Unfortunately, it won’t come before our wild horses stare down a bullet in the head held by the gun wrought of politics.

Footnote: The Department of Defense spent over $84 million in 2014 on Viagra. The federal grazing program loses over $125. million in one year. Two permittees that were mad about drought closures cost the tax payer over 1.5 million to keep their grazing allotments open. Ryan Zinke spent more than $400,000 on travel just in one summer.

Can we stop acting like wild horses are “breaking the bank?”

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