Dead horses, live issues
“You run them 20 to 30 miles in front of a helicopter. Put them in a corral, run them through chutes, load them on trucks—and they’re pregnant, you know. Some are in their ninth month. Some farther. We had babies dropping before they got here.
"[The Bureau of Land Management] claimed they knew what they were doing. Sometimes you lose some foals anyway. But I understand that several adult horses, like seven, died, as well. These horses are range horses. They’re not used to being penned and fed hay. They’re used to eating the grasses. … They’re beautiful, proud animals to die so senselessly.”
When the lawyer for the Western Shoshone Defense Project talks about the recent deaths of nearly 50 foals and horses belonging to Western Shoshone ranchers Mary and Carrie Dann—and the dumping of these carcasses on public land in northeast Nevada—she gets understandably upset. For Julie Fishel, though, it’s another day of battling mining companies, educating tribal members and lobbying the U.S. Senate to prevent the controversial Western Shoshone Distribution Bill. If passed, the bill would divvy up about $142 million set aside in a trust fund for the Shoshone more than two decades ago.
In February, the BLM removed some 500 horses from the range. The bureau has complained of over-grazing and the fact that the Dann sisters owe millions in fines for grazing their livestock without permits. Most of the horses were sold at an auction to California rancher Slick Gardner. The dead horses found near Eureka likely died of starvation and trampling. The episode is under investigation.
The Danns say the federal government should not be charging them to use the land never ceded by the Western Shoshone. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Western Shoshone can’t claim aboriginal title to ancestral lands.
Fishel notes that the timing of the livestock removals coincides with U.S. congressional consideration of legislation that would force payment of money set aside beginning in 1979 as payment for about 24 million acres of land.
“Along with pushing the distribution bill, [the BLM] is stepping up removal activities,” Fishel says. She points to renewed interest in central Nevada on the part of geothermal-energy and mineral extraction industries, not to mention the licensing of Yucca Mountain as a long-term storage facility for radioactive waste.
“All these things are happening at once,” Fishel says. She questions the motivations of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who supports the bill.
A representative from Sen. Reid’s office, Tessa Hafen, says that Reid was approached by Western Shoshone people who asked for help in getting money to the people. Cited was a poll of about 1,600 tribe members who voted to accept the money. Since the Western Shoshone population is about 6,000 to 10,000, depending on who’s asked, why rely on a poll of 1,600 to gauge support?
Hafen says that this approximates the number of Western Shoshones eligible to vote. At any rate, the tribe conducted the poll by its own methods.
“Sen. Reid has a very clear record of helping Native Americans address their land needs,” Hafen says, pointing to the saving of Pyramid Lake and current efforts to help the recovery of Walker Lake. The claims dispute, she says, is only one step in addressing land use.
"[Reid] is anxious to meet with the Western Shoshone to address land use issues,” Hafen says. “No one has come to him with a reasonable approach. … Honestly, what we wish people would understand is that Sen. Reid wants to work with people. He’s here waiting.”
It’s unlikely that the distribution bill will come before the Senate until after an August recess. Hafen says that there’s no reason to question the timing of the legislation with other land-use issues, like mining.
“There’s absolutely no connection between mineral rights and this bill,” she says. “Sen. Reid is simply trying to distribute the money that is in the account for this purpose, and that’s the beginning and end of what this legislation does.”
Fishel and the Western Shoshone Defense Project are dubious.
“Sen. Reid sure is putting some time into it,” Fishel says. “He’s stepping on some toes. … I find it really hard to believe that he’s doing it because he wants to make sure Shoshone people get $20,000 apiece. There’s something a lot bigger behind it.”
In the meantime, Fishel worries that federal workers will return for another 50 or so horses that are living in the mountains near the Danns’ ranch in Crescent Valley.
“The BLM said they’d be back. The mountain horses don’t come down [into the valley]," Fishel says. "No one knows how long they’ve been there. … We’re always on alert."