As she left her ranch to drive to work outside Reno, Nevada, in 1950, Velma Johnson saw a disturbing sight. Blood dripped out of a horse trailer as it pulled in front of her. Horrified, Johnson followed the trailer. When it pulled into a slaughterhouse on the Nevada-California border, she discovered that the trailer contained wild mustangs that had been brutally captured and were now headed to become dog food. This chance encounter inspired Johnston, or "Wild Horse Annie" as she came to be known, to launch a twenty-seven year crusade to preserve, protect, and manage the wild mustangs that roamed the rangeland of the arid West. Wild Horse Annie: Velma Johnston and her Fight to Save the Mustang weaves a biography of Johnston into a larger account of the legislative and legal battles surrounding the fate of these iconic animals. Alan J. Kania, a close friend of Johnston, draws heavily on her extensive personal records as he traces the often heated confrontations between the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB) and ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which supported their interests. Johnston and her allies spent years fighting to pass state and federal legislation to protect the mustangs from capture and to pressure the BLM to manage [End Page 225] and protect these animals on public land. The BLM's intransigence and the ranchers' entrenched political power, their commitment to maximizing the number of cattle on the public range, and their stiff opposition to mustang preservation will come as no surprise to students of the region.
What makes this conservation history so fascinating is the mustang's uniquely complex status. The ISPMB's preservation argument could never rest on the demands of ecology or calls to return the land to a natural state. Like the ranchers and cattle that dominated the range, the mustangs were not native to the region. Unlike cattle, mustangs made a poor commodity. To cattlemen, these were "unclaimed and abandoned horses," free to those who claimed them (38). To the BLM, these horses were feral and an undesirable competitor with game animals and cattle. To their defenders, however, these were wild mustangs whose deep ties to the mythic Wild West made them a part of the American heritage to be protected for future generations. As Johnston put it, the mustang "uniquely represent[ed] the American spirit—freedom, pride, independence, endurance and the ability to survive against unbelievable odds" (191). The mustang was part domestic and part wild. This hybrid status inspired the diverse cross-section of animal welfare, western heritage, and conservation groups to come to its defense. It also inspired persistent conflicts among these defenders over how to manage these iconic horses.
Kania raises interesting questions about the nature of conservation and federal range management in the West. He is most concerned, however, with capturing the restless energy, the rugged determination, and the more subtle vulnerabilities of Velma Johnston that lay behind Wild Horse Annie. Johnston's was a distinct brand of western, conservative environmental activism. This self-described "lowly housewife" (21) embraced the mythos, politics, and gender roles of the hyper-individualistic even as she went toe-to-toe with the powerful men that dominated ranching and federal land management. She represents a brand of 1950s conservation rapidly eclipsed by changes in the environmental movement in the 1970s. Kania has written a fascinating biography about a major figure in the environmental history of the West. Wild Horse Annie is her story and it is engagingly and affectionately told.