A gimlet-eyed look at the place of the wild horse in the landscape of the American West and at the poor legacy of human relations with that spirited animal.
If you do not live in the mountain West, you might not know that a fierce controversy rages over wild horses, or mustangs, on public lands and whether they should be removed and, in some cases, exterminated. Ranchers, as Colorado-based New York Times reporter Philipps (Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home, 2010) writes, are vocal in their hatred of both the federal agencies in charge of those lands and of the wild horses: “Mention mustangs in almost any small-town bar or café and prepare for an earful.” Lifting the argument a notch or two above where it usually rests, the author examines the natural history of these wild creatures—feral, their ancestors long-ago domesticated horses that escaped and formed their own herds—writing that while they may look a little scruffy, they are prized for intelligence and stamina: “The desert prunes any deficiencies.” Traveling through mustang country, Philipps considers a long history of mismanagement on the part of the federal government, based on rather haphazard roundups for most of the last half-century, with halfhearted efforts at adoption. When left to their own devices, ranchers have followed a program of trapping wild horses, selecting the best to incorporate into their herds, and then—well, one Nevada rancher tells the author, “we would chicken feed whatever nobody wanted.” Philipps proposes that we recognize the mustang, as with other wild species, as an animal that has a people problem, not the other way around, adding that some of the old saws about mustangs are inaccurate: it’s not true, for instance, that they lack natural predators, since mountain lions are vigorous in culling the herd.
A fine, readable work of advocacy journalism, of a piece with Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, that deserves to inform discussion about the mustang issue as it plays out in courts and in Congress.