University of Arizona professor Ed de Steiguer didn't need to look far for inspiration during the six years he spent researching and writing his recent book, "Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America's Mustangs."
For starters, there's a century-old photograph on the fireplace mantel in the Foothills home de Steiguer shares with his wife, Pamela.
The image is of his father, Joe de Steiguer, who was about 3 or 4 and sitting on a mule in San Marcos, Texas.
De Steiguer said the photo symbolizes the cowboy-and-horse traditions of his childhood - both sides of his family.
His great-grandfather, Peter Smith, was a cavalryman during the Civil War and a Texas trail driver who moved cattle from Texas to Kansas railheads.
"These were real cowboys, not the drugstore variety," he said.
For de Steiguer, this passion for horses and the West is mixed with a keen interest in America's public land and the history and politics surrounding its usages.
De Steiguer, 65, teaches classes on public land use for the UA's School of Natural Resources and the Environment. Before moving to Tucson with his wife and two children in 1998, he worked on land management issues for 20 years with the U.S. Forest Service in North Carolina.
"One of the main issues is management of federal lands in the West," said de Steiguer, who earned his doctorate in forestry from Texas A&M University.
"Believe it or not, this wild-horse issue, over the last several years in Congress, has been ranked one of the top land-use issues in the West."
Politics and policies
In his book, de Steiguer explores the history of America's wild horses and examines the politics today.
De Steiguer focuses on several issues, including steadily increasing horse and burro populations, sometimes cruel and even fatal horse roundups, a marginally successful adoption program, a reluctance to use fertility control, and overflowing horse holding facilities.
He worked in spurts over the years and spent breaks from the university traveling to areas where the horses live as wild animals.
De Steiguer, with the help of his wife, also spent a week at the Denver Public Library poring over the letters of Velma Bronn Johnston, known as "Wild Horse Annie." Johnston worked for years to achieve the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
The act put the Bureau of Land Management in charge of the wild-horse program, established 200 herd-management areas and established horses as equals on public lands that also serve cattlemen, hunters and loggers.
Today, wild horses live on established grazing lands in parts of the Great Basin, as well as in Northern Arizona, where there are mostly burros.
There is also a large horse range on the Montana-Wyoming border called the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.
The Bureau of Land Management's national goal is to keep the wild-horse population below 27,000, de Steiguer said, but there are about 33,000 wild horses in the herd-management areas.
Each year, as a result, wild horses and burros are auctioned around the United States, including at the Pima County Fairgrounds. Burros go quickly, de Steiguer said, but interest varies with the wild horses.
"As you might imagine, people are reluctant to adopt these horses that are over a year old," he said. Those that are not adopted usually end up in long-term holding facilities in states such as Oklahoma, Kansas and South Dakota. There are about 30,000 wild horses confined to holding corrals.
"It really flies in the face of what the protection law was all about," he said. "They were supposed to be living symbols of the pioneer West, but now you've got as many in holding facilities as there are on the range. It's bad philosophically and economically."
Controversy surrounds the management of these horses, how to control the population and when horses should be sold for slaughter. An amendment to the 1971 law permits the slaughter of horses that have been in holding for 10 years or have not been sold at auction after three attempts, de Steiguer said.
On the grazing lands, the philosophical battles are between horse protectionists and big-game hunters and cattle ranchers.
"Horses protectionist groups philosophies range from those who see a need for humane management, including some removals and fertility control on the remaining herd, to those who want the horses to be truly free with no restrictions, like real wild animals," de Steiguer wrote in an email about the issue.
"In contrast, cattlemen and big-game hunters generally want to see them removed; they feel the horses pose a potential threat to their use of federal lands for grazing and hunting."
Now that his research is complete, de Steiguer has drawn his own conclusions. He favors a policy similar to that advocated by the Humane Society of the United States, in which horses are removed periodically in a humane, non-threatening manner. He doesn't want to see any horses sent to slaughter and wishes efforts to have the horses adopted could be stepped up and fertility control used regularly.
For de Steiguer, the chance to see horses in the wild has been a thrill.
One of his favorite memories is of encountering a wild stallion, with mares and foals in tow, in the Needle Mountains of southwestern Utah. De Steiguer and his wife were camping there, and the two didn't speak long after the stallion, unsure and snorting loudly, turned with his band and ran off.
The sound of their hoofbeats faded slowly.
"Words were not necessary," de Steiguer wrote.
"It was absolutely one of the most magical moments we have ever experienced in nature."
"Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America's Mustangs," $24.95, is published by the University of Arizona Press. Other books by Ed de Steiguer include "Age of Environmentalism" and "Origins of Modern Environmental Thought."
Excerpts from "Wild horses of the West": Very few Americans will ever have the opportunity to see a wild mustang: busy schedules simply do not permit this, and furthermore, these shy animals are very difficult to locate. In fact, I have joked with my camera club colleagues, "You'd have better luck trying to photograph lions in Africa!" Yet despite the fact that city folks may never have the opportunity to see one, Americans nevertheless care very much about their wild horses. Wild horses are part of our heritage and in our blood. They represent America as much as the bald eagle, the bison, or even the stars and stripes. It is my hope that this book will serve to heighten interest in the plight of Annie's "wild ones" and thereby ensure that their hoofbeats will still thunder across the Western range a thousand years from now.
Several years ago, my wife and I attended a federally sponsored mustang adoption in Arizona. A woman we stood next to had just adopted a bay filly yearling. Beaming like a proud parent, she had already named the horse "Shadow." We watched as wranglers singled out the animal for transfer to the woman's horse trailer. They ran the filly from the holding pens into a squeeze-chute, where she was held and fitted with a pink halter. "Here you go, girl, you'll look pretty in this," said a government cowboy to the straining filly, her eyes wild with fear and big as saucers. Shadow was next headed quickly out of the chute directly into the waiting trailer. As the loaded trailer pulled away, the filly let go with a series of lung-bursting whinnies signaling her utter panic and despair. After all, she was a wild horse, just weeks off of the range and almost completely unaccustomed to humans.
Annie and Walter certainly must have rejoiced with the passage of the 1971 act, for it was a supreme achievement for both. Decades of dedication had at last resulted in a law that would provide more security for Annie's wild ones, thus safeguarding the nation's wild equine heritage. Twenty years earlier, such a law would have been unimaginable in the face of organized opposition, hostile legislators, and indifferent bureaucrats. But if Annie did rejoice, there was little evidence of it in her correspondence.
To one friend she wrote only, "We have the very best bill that could be obtained in behalf of the wild horses and burros." It had been a rewarding yet taxing journey for Annie. During the years of struggle, her beloved husband and companion, Charlie, had passed away. Annie now referred to herself as "a widow." In 1973, Walter Baring lost his reelection bid for a seat in the U.S. Congress. And Annie had one more major struggle to face, but unlike her fight to save the horses, this one she would not win. Ill with cancer, Annie passed away on June 27, 1977, and was laid to rest in Mountain View Cemetery in Washoe County, Nevada. Her marker there reads simply, "Velma B. Johnston, 'Wild Horse Annie.' "
Thus, a name first given by enemies in ridicule would serve as her enduring epitaph. Wild Horse Annie must have departed this world knowing that she had done all that she could, that she had achieved her major goal, that she, with Walter's help, had passed a law to protect her wild ones. With the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, Americans had a law to protect those historic animals of the West. The law had a deeper significance, however: it allowed the people to regain a measure of control over an even greater heritage, America's public lands. These were the legacies that Annie left for future generations, and now it was theirs to protect from the many challenges soon to be faced.
• From "Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America's Mustangs" by J. Edward de Steiguer © 2011 J. Edward de Steiguer. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press. www.uapress.arizona.edu/Books/bid2266.htm
Tucson Festival of Books
Edward de Steiguer will be among the hundreds of authors appearing at the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books, March 10-11.
Follow details of the 2012 festival, including the author lineup, at tucsonfestivalofbooks.org
Did you know
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management spends about $40 million each year on its wild-horse program, which is 2 percent of its entire congressional appropriation. About half of that goes to the maintenance of horses in holding facilities. The daily per-horse cost of short-term holding facilities is $5 per horse, while long-term holding costs are $1.25 per horse.
SOURCE: Ed de Steiguer
• The whinny. Long in duration compared to other forms of horse communication, the whinny is high-pitched at first and then suddenly drops in pitch. Horses whinny mostly when they are distressed or trying to locate their herd.
• The snort. A strong exhalation through the nose which horses do when they are uncertain about something and trying to establish whether there is danger.
• The blow. Similar to a snort, but much softer. Horses do this when they are curious about something and are trying to decide, nose-to-nose, if a new horse is a friend.
• The nicker. A vibrating sound through the nose that offers a friendly salute.
• The squeal. A cry of resistance, this sound varies in pitch and and is often used in protest.
• The scream. Domesticated horses rarely scream, but stallions in the wild sometimes scream when they are confronted with a challenge, such as an approaching foe.
Contact reporter Patty Machelor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7754.