|The following story was written and reported byJames Davies, Native Sun
News Correspondent All content © Native Sun News.
Hay prices threaten wild horse herds
By James Davies
Native Sun News Correspondent
CHEYENNE RIVER RESERVATION - America’s wild horses were once just domestic livestock gone feral, but they did not remain domestic for long. After escaping from their Spanish masters, they thrived for centuries in the American West, forming wide-ranging herds with distinct behaviors and bloodlines stretching from Canada far down into Old Mexico.
Even though horses were reintroduced to North America by the Spanish, they actually evolved on this continent, just eight million years after the dinosaurs went extinct, when the entire continent was covered by a single, vast forest. They prospered in North America for 57 million years, going extinct between 8000 to 12,000 years ago, presumably due to Ice Age climatic pressures, but survived as a species by migrating over the Alaskan land bridge to Asia. Once reintroduced into the wild, all of their ancestral behaviors, even vestigial markings, quickly came to fore, and the wild horses that exist now are not the domesticated animals that escaped five hundred years ago, and according to the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB), are “genetically equivalent to those that went extinct” 12,000 years ago.
The uneducated idea that wild horses are a foreign invader that negatively impacts the native ecosystem persists, and it is an idea that can be exploited by those with a vested economic interest in clearing wild horses off their last remaining isolated ranges. This process has been well underway for more than a century, opposed by dedicated groups like the ISPMB, formed in 1960 to assist Velma Bronn Johnston (1912-1977), better known as the iconoclastic activist “Wild Horse Annie,” but under the direction of Karen Sussman since 1989.
Sussman is presently an RN at the Indian Health Service hospital in Eagle Butte, South Dakota., but she was an IC Critical Case RN in Scottsdale, Arizona, when she adopted a wild horse named Shooting Star in 1981.
“She so transformed my life, Sussman said, “from riding domestic quarter horses to riding only once wild horses. I realized that there was so much misinformation out about these animals that I would be committed to helping educate the masses about them. I looked into four organizations. Believe it or not there were only four at that time. I chose to commit my energy to ISPMB and I have never regretted the choice, as it was, and remains, the reputable organization in the U.S. for change for wild horses.”
Black Diamond’s Fate was the second wild horse she adopted.
“He was a ten year old harem stallion whose entire family was removed from their rightful lands in Arizona,” Sussman said. “The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) had cautioned me not to adopt an older horse that I could get hurt. Well, Black taught me a lot. He is buried out here in my back yard. He was also on the promo for Steven’s Spielberg’s ‘Spirit.’ It ran on the animal planet channel.”
Now that she has managed four wild horse herds, Sussman has concluded that the age of an animal has nothing to do with its ability to develop a relationship with people.
“It has taught me more than ever that ‘trust’ and honesty in a relationship is paramount to a healthy one,” Sussman explained. “Wild horses expect this because they are honest with each other. BLM has all these older horses in holding pastures because they have termed them un-adoptable; a very incorrect term for any of the animals.”
Sussman currently maintains four wild horse herds on 680 acres, located on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, just west of Lantry, South Dakota. Ideally, much more open range is required for the horses to sustain themselves by grazing alone, and so Sussman must significantly supplement their diet with hay, and when hay was a reasonable $65 a ton, the non-profit ISPMB had the funding to purchase what local hay they needed.
Recently, adverse climate conditions have increased hay prices dramatically, soaring as high as $300 a ton, and this is before delivery, the cost of which averages $4.50 a mile, which explains the need to purchase hay locally.
“During the past year and a half, there has been no rain in the Western states including ours,” Sussman said. “This made hay a premium commodity. Although we got our hay out of Canada during the winter last year, it was trucking that made it so expensive. There was no hay within the local area or state by August of last year.”
Sussman is now faced with an immediate and urgent problem—purchasing enough hay to maintain four herds through this difficult period of drought.
“The most important action to save these rare and endangered herds,” Sussman said, “is to send one load of hay, from ranchers all over our state, and we will give them a tax-write off. If people don’t have hay, it would be appreciated if they could send money.”
High hay prices and short supply could persist into next year, and so Sussman has reluctantly determined she must proactively downsize her herds to meet this likelihood.
“We would like to place up to 200 wild horses in homes where they will be cared for and treated with great respect,” Sussman said. “All our horses have had ceremonial blessings by Arvol Looking Horse, the Keeper of the Sacred Pipe.”
Sussman also said people could donate land, or offer leased land to the ISPMB at reasonable terms.
Many attempts to save endangered animals have had sketchy, unrealistic goals, offering no long term protection for the animal, and lacking a sound business model to maintain what protection was possible. The ISPMB has long had a very sound and sensible solution at a relatively reasonable cost to folks willing to help.
“We would like to be along I-90 where we could create an eco-tourism project that could at some point match Crazy Horse in visitors,” Sussman said. “This would make us financially self-sufficient and we could draw thousands of people to visit. We especially could capture the international trade as one thing that draws them to America is the American West with the Rocky Mountains and wild horses. This came from a BLM person who spoke with a person from behind the Berlin Wall. This is what they wanted to do! The horses represent the last living symbol of the West because in ten states they are still free, unlike the buffalo, and sadly, the Native people who reside on reservations. Yet we have lost nearly half of the areas where wild horses and burros once roamed in spite of a law that should protect them.”
The four wild herds that the ISPMB maintains have interesting histories. In 1999, Sussman rescued her first herd, off the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico.
“Fifteen hundred of these wild horses were adopted,” Sussman said. “ISPMB took the last 70. (The White Sands) were the favorite of the range rider and he tried to protect them to the very end. Many are grays. We do genetic testing on all of our animals. In this particular herd, there is a rare North American Gaited Gene. Their ancestors could be Saddlebreds, Tennessee Walkers, and/or Standardbreds. They have a beautiful gait and have beautiful conformations.”
In 2000, Sussman rescued her second herd, “when the BLM removed 36 horses from the Gila Bend area of Arizona.”
“They were the last herd to be protected in the United States,” Sussman said. “ISPMB was instrumental in getting them recognized as Wild and Free-Roaming with the help of then Secretary Bruce Babbitt. These horses are truly unique and their blood typing shows that they are Spanish and our research shows that they are descendents of Father Kino’s mission located near Ajo, Arizona. The Typing also showed that there was no infusion of new blood lines in the recent past. That means they stayed pure and Spanish. When we received these horses we had only 31 horses. Now thirteen years later we are at 100 horses. We have the last of these horses as the BLM census showed no more horses in that area.”
The Catnip Mountains of northern Nevada supplied Sussman’s third rescued herd, courtesy of the U.S, Fish and Wildlife, “where they were going to be eliminated from the range.”
“(The Catnips) have more quarter horse and thoroughbred blood in them,” Sussman said. “They were once used for cavalry horses in the 1800’s. This herd was to be gifted to the Southern Cheyenne Tribe by the Osage Tribe, but it never came to fruition, so ISPMB took them.”
“(The Catnips) helped us define our studies in regard to what massive removals do to the herds,” Sussman continued. “Our first two herds had not been touched by humankind in decades of time, leaving these animals with intact family structures, and wisdom from their elders that was handed down from generation to generation, unlike the Catnips who demonstrated behaviors that one could find in broken homes amongst humans and especially homes where teenagers are parents.”
The fourth and final herd came to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe as a gift in 2001.
“They were returned in 2007 when (the Tribe) turned over half of their 22,000 acre property to cattle grazing,” Sussman said. “We took the original branded horses and have kept them here at our center. These horses originated from the Virginia Range area of Virginia City, Nevada. These were the horses that our first president, Wild Horse Annie first saw from her ranch windows. These horses received the first protection in the U.S. with a county law in Storey, CO. They were never protected federally since they roamed on state land. Only horses on public and forest service lands are protected. All these horses are extremely intelligent and will make great companions.”
From its inception in 1960, the ISPMB has been instrumental in helping get legislation passed that protects America’s wild horses. Sussman said, “There would be no wild horses if it had not been for our organization. Any major accomplishments in protecting wild horses from capture and death have come from ISPMB.”
She cites the three major accomplishments, spearheaded by ISPMB, without which wild horses and burros may very well not exist:
• The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act: “It is the policy of the Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment or death, and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” All three presidents of the ISPMB have served on the joint advisory board.
Sussman sees a deep connection between the wild horse and the Lakota people. “When ISPMB began our Conservation program in 1999,” she said, “it was Pine Ridge reservation and private lease that allowed us to come to SD. It was a natural connection as the analogy between wild horses and the Native people are so similar. Today as the Native people are trying to hold onto their culture, their old way, so are the horses trying to do the same – to keep their culture but because of massive roundups by the BLM, wild horses are disappearing and losing their culture, their education, etc. Since only 20% of the Lakota population speaks their language, the culture may be dying as the wild herds are being eliminated. Once the wild horses are all gone, or so massively manipulated, their wisdom of the ‘ancients’ may be past history. Let us hope this does not happen to the Native culture or our wild horses. Now is the time to pull together and help these rare wild horse herds. ”
(Jim Davies can be reached at Skindiesel@msn.com)
Copyright permission by Native Sun News
• The 1976 Adopt-A-Horse program. According to ISPMB, because of this program, over the past 47 years more than 200,000 wild horses and burros have been placed in adoptive homes.
• A model for wild horse management. Sussman said: “We have created a model for managing wild horses on public lands based on 13 years of study.”