When Alta’s editorial team decided to make Jason G. Goldman’s “Feral Horses, Fierce Controversy” the Issue 8 cover story, we anticipated that his reporting on the thousands of feral horses overpopulating Modoc National Forest would generate heated debate. However, we knew that the story, which provided a nuanced look at the unintended consequences of well-meaning people and policies, had to be told. The issue at hand—federally protected horses competing for natural resources with wildlife and cattle ranchers—has become even more contested than we expected. (Goldman explains why “feral” is the correct term for the horses in an Alta podcast, while others insist the horses are “wild.”) One reader who spotted our cover on display at Whole Foods claimed she plans to boycott the grocery chain. Another advocated a hands-off, let-them-roam-free-and-come-what-may approach. And still others argued for the horses’ continued protection.
Goldman isn’t surprised by readers’ reactions. “Before even pitching this story, I knew it would be a controversial one,” he says. “There are no easy solutions when it comes to balancing the needs of feral horses, livestock, and native wildlife, especially in arid regions with limited water and food resources, against a backdrop of climate change. In today’s media climate, especially in the U.S., nuance is difficult to come by as stakeholders on all sides take advantage of human psychology to promote an us-versus-them narrative. It’s easy to pit cattlemen against horse advocates and see a simple pattern of industrial greed versus the romance of the American West, but the simple truth is that it’s more complicated than that. I believe that’s precisely why stories like this—about problems that require compromise and good-faith engagement to address—need to be told.”
Here is a sampling of the reader response Alta received:
“You Stupid Fools”
I don’t even know where to begin to start with your story about the horses and California. At the very least, you should know that horses are not feral. There would not be a horse on this planet if it weren’t for the early horses here in North America. This is where horses started. These horses ended up elsewhere in the world while, probably man, drove them to extinction here in North America. Then they came back again from Spain and elsewhere. The most important point is, however, that horses started here in North America. They are not feral. This horrifying disinformation is the most obvious indicator that Alta and Whole Foods are in bed with these greedy people in the cattle industry, in the oil industry, and the Trump administration hell-bent on destroying our natural world for monetary gain. I will truly have no trust in a Whole Foods ever again. Get a clue and quit destroying our natural world. We won’t have a world to live in if it is left up to people like you.
Tahoe City and Mill Valley, California
Wild Horse Annie
How could you write this story without mentioning Wild Horse Annie? She was the heroine for the passage of the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act. Many years before, she had followed a trailer full of wild horses destined for the slaughterhouse, to become dog food. Blood from injured horses dotted the highway. This had to stop! The new law allowed people to adopt a wild horse. These were wild horses captured on the range, who had spent their lives as far away from people as possible. They weren’t saddle-broken, tame horses. After adoption, the horses remained the property of the U.S. government. The new law also gave wild horses top priority over livestock for the limited food on BLM lands. So, fast-forward 50 years and herds of horses have taken over the range. Wild Horse Annie would be ecstatic! But I think I’d rather have more livestock, which people can eat, and fewer horses, which no one eats. FYI, I lived in Nevada when the new law was passed and knew Wild Horse Annie personally.
Kerry L. Cartier
Will’s Point, Texas
Rights vs. Privilege
Alta magazine may promise “a celebration and examination of all things about California,” but it shines little light on the wild horse situation in the state. In becoming so enamored with the cowboy archetype manifested by Jess Dancer, manager for a corporate ranching operation, your reporter has delivered a preposterous polemic suggesting that mass slaughter is the only way to deal with California’s wild horses.
Your 3,600-word article found space to include the absurd claim that geese and ducks in the Modoc National Forest prefer grass cover that has been mowed down by cattle. Yet there was no room to note that some of California’s top officials, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, have expressed serious misgivings about the Forest Service’s herd management strategy for the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory.
Your reporter ignores the massive habitat damage caused by intensive livestock grazing within the Modoc Forest and elsewhere on western public lands. And he fails to note that the American Wild Horse Campaign proposed a viable birth control darting program to Modoc Forest officials and were flatly rejected, even though it would be implemented at no cost to taxpayers.
Your reporter also blithely dismisses the darting program as ineffective, even as he ignores the National Academy of Sciences, which reckons it’s a “more affordable option” over the long term than the brutal roundup regime currently in place.
There’s a story in Devil’s Garden, but it certainly isn’t the violent war that Mr. Dancer glibly predicts. California’s wild horses have a legal right to live on public lands, while cattle grazing by Mr. Dancer’s employer is a privilege offered at the discretion of our federal government.
I expect more from Alta than simply to serve as a mouthpiece for cattle interests. Your readers deserve better.
Executive Director, American Wild Horse Campaign
The American Wild Horse Campaign also published an online response to Goldman’s story. Read it here.
Follow the Money
How much do these ranchers pay the government for their private permits to keep their for-personal-profit cattle on the lands that are designated as Bureau of Land Management and/or U.S. Forest Service property, i.e., essentially land belonging to the people of the United States? U.S. public sentiment has always been in favor of the wild horse herds being left to roam. Now they should be killed—you know that’s where it’s headed—so that a group of individual ranchers (independent business owners) can profit personally off of something that belongs to all Americans? You know, in the rest of the country when people want to farm or ranch they buy their own land. Maybe you can suggest to ranchers who think they have the right to profit off public lands that they look elsewhere to make their living and plunk down the purchase price like everybody else does.
Columbus, North Carolina
What’s a “Weekend Warrior” Know?
Compared with someone who grew up in the wilderness, logged, hunted, managed forest, continues living in the wilderness among wild horses, and was trained to be a scientist, Mr. Jason G. Goldman is what we call out here a “weekend warrior.” His opinions are based upon regurgitated hearsay and politically, economically manipulated science that is probably corrupted. The recent report on how to manage wild horses submitted to Congress is simply put: contrived.
I am wondering now, having read Goldman’s piece, if your publication has the integrity to publish a study that looks at the posits of Goldman in fact-based contrast?
With that said, I offer the following press release citing a five-year study of wild horses in a wilderness area:
You have my expressed consent to publish my study (as provided in the press release) for consideration. It has been presented to the DOI in a recent meeting.
William E. Simpson II
Wild Horse Ranch, Hornbrook, California
Free to Roam
I firmly believe the horses should be left to roam with other wildlife. Horses can die of overeating! So, why not let them stay as is and maybe the farmers should actually buy feed for their cattle when they wrangle them up! I do believe in the contraceptive dart even if it doesn’t hit all of them. Please let the horses roam and those that don’t get adopted, turn them back to roam. Please!!!!! (Previous horse owner when I was younger.)
A shortened version of this post appeared in Alta‘s August 29, 2019 newsletter.