Sixteen days ago my husband and I drove out to the Kamma Mountains of the Nevada desert. An entire year had passed since we had been there. Neither of us spoke as our wheels crunched over mile after mile of gravel road. Each was preoccupied with memories of our last trip to the Kamma Mountains when, during one day, we sighted 21 mustangs. Interspersed with those memories was apprehension about what we would–or would not–find when we arrived this time.
Until a year and a half ago, I was among the U.S. population who had never seen a mustang in the wild. That changed in August of 2012 when one day my husband and I visited the remote Kamma Mountains’ Painted Canyon. The horizon that afternoon was the same shade of gray as the gravel road due to smoke from several wildfires commingling in the still air. We were lulled by the sky’s anomalous hue and full bellies after a picnic. We ascended a knoll and turned right opposite Rabbit Hole Spring. And there, after traveling thousands of miles in the Nevada desert over a span of four years, we watched the first mustang we had ever seen cross the road. That afternoon we would see a total of 17 mustangs, all of which appeared vigorous and healthy. Among them were a tall black stallion and his family. Because we had traveled many, many times before in the Kamma Mountains, and never seen mustangs there, I wondered whether these were survivors of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management round-up in the Jackson Mountains a couple of months prior.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, field agency for the Department of the Interior, has been for the past several years conducting round-ups of mustangs across the western United States. There are currently more mustangs in captivity in the United States than there are living in the wild. Although the BLM contends that its data supports the need for removal of the mustangs on the basis of insufficient water and forage, frequently it permits cattle–for which it receives revenue from ranchers for supplementary grazing–on the same area of range that it claims will not support mustangs.
In November of 2012 we returned to the Kamma Mountains and discovered even more mustangs than we had seen in summer. All appeared well fed and lively. A juvenile male which had apparently been ostracized by the herd, emerged from a canyon to fraternize with us when we stopped to eat lunch. He pranced around our Land Rover as if delighted to join us.
Later that same day while crossing the Mountains on a higher pass, we found the black stallion we had seen in summer, with a few new mares and a foal. About four miles from there back down in the canyon, on the western end of the Kamma Mountains, at the edge of Black Rock Desert, we saw two mustangs grazing together and a third at a distance. They appeared contentedly sedentary and I considered that they might be older.
Equidistant between the stallion and the west end horses, we came upon a new herd of cattle. I expressed to my husband concern that the BLM would consequently announce a need to remove the mustangs from the area.
Back at home in California, I scanned the BLM Winnemucca website and round-up schedules throughout the late fall, all winter and into the spring of 2013. I saw no mention of the Kamma Mountains mustangs. Then, being preoccupied with projects my husband and I have taken on this year, I stopped looking.
In early August of 2013, I was heartbroken to read on Laura Leigh’s Wild Horse Education website that the BLM had just completed a round-up of mustangs in the Blue Wing/Kamma Mountains complex, a term assigned by the U.S. government to a borderless region I would define as vast desert wilderness and a sacred experience of the American West.
Laura Leigh is an American hero who has, to the exclusion of all else in her life, devoted the past several years to patiently and methodically documenting the relationship of the BLM to Nevada’s wild horses, and to challenging in courts the liberties the BLM routinely employs to justify mustang removals. One of the major legal challenges Leigh has posed to the BLM this year relates to First Amendment rights aimed at removing BLM restrictions on inspections of wild horse holding facilities to confirm the captive mustangs’ location, treatment and conditions. This is significant because investigations into BLM practices have produced evidence that wild horses are disappearing from BLM-contracted holding facilities and from ranches where hundreds of horses released to private parties through BLM-sanctioned adoptions are supposedly being held. It is widely speculated and proof is being assembled, that in both cases, the BLM has been complicit in the sale and transport of these wild horses across international borders for slaughter.
I did an on-line search and found a video of the Blue Wing round-up posted on U-Tube by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. Because of AWHPC’s efforts, I was able to witness portions of the event, to look for mustangs I might recognize (I didn’t see any but the footage is limited and the round-up targeted hundreds of horses from multiple bands) and to try to visualize how the round-up might affect any mustangs which could escape it.
Internet media is playing a vital role in the events surrounding mustangs, as most of the BLM’s mustang-related activities take place in extremely remote areas and with very little notice to the public, making them difficult to monitor or follow. The Blue Wing/Kamma round-up was one of the few BLM gathers where public access was permitted.
Laura Leigh’s WHE images and AWHPC’s video of the Blue Wing/Kamma round-up made the vast Nevada desert sanctuary that my husband and I know and love, appear small and terrible.
Two and a half weeks ago, when we arrived in the Kamma Mountains, this is what we found:
More than half of the mustangs we saw during our 2012 travels through the Kamma Mountains were not visible on this trip. Among those did see, depression was palpable. The horses were sluggish. And skittish. The black stallion was gone, along with most of his family. Three of his mares remained with one foal, hunkered at the base of a mountain.
The two mustangs pictured in these photographs might or might not be the same couple we saw at the west end of the range last year. A single young black and burnt umber stallion down the road from them, was the bleakest figure of all. His head slung low, he appeared to be trudging.
There is a special sort of heartbreak that comes at the sight of a man-made tragedy.
I pray every day for the comfort of these mustangs and the return of those in captivity to the range.
In my faith, the lives of these and all mustangs have been made whole again.