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In new book, former Gazette reporter searches for answers in wild horse country

October 8, 2017 Updated: October 8, 2017 at 7:23 am
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David Philipps Tuesday, January 3, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis

On assignment for The Gazette in 2006, Dave Philipps was in Cañon City to meet people adopting wild horses wrangled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

That's when he noticed something problematic. The horses well outnumbered the people.

"So I just asked the Bureau of Land Management folks: What do you do with the rest of the horses? Where do they go?"

They would be moved to ranches, to land the BLM calls "holding facilities" or "sanctuaries" as part of its Wild Horse and Burro Program, which started in the 1970s and now uses tens of millions of taxpayer dollars a year.

"Isn't that so ridiculous?" Philipps recalled thinking. "These are the very lands wild horses have been removed from a century before, and now we're paying to put them back."

His questions on the program later earned him a threat to be punched in the nose - directly from former Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar.

The reporting also led to the book coming out Tuesday.

"Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, And Future of the Mustang" is Philipps' first since 2010's "Lethal Warriors," a story about troubled Fort Carson soldiers that also came from his 10-year, Pulitzer Prize-winning career at the paper. He's been a national correspondent for The New York Times since 2014.

Longtime Gazette readers will recognize the voice in "Wild Horse Country." Philipps - who wrote in these pages about skiing the state's most wicked terrain, scaling its most feared mountains and riding days on camelback - returns to his outdoor habitat.

The Colorado Springs native explores far reaches to find the once-proud herds. He visits their adoring fans and also their enemies, the ranchers who long have waged war against the animals that dare impede on their property.

Mostly, Philipps is searching for the meaning of the mustang. In the book's introduction, he reflects after witnessing a BLM roundup on a remote Nevada range: "That night as the campfire died, I felt like the long history of the wild horse was at a turning point, where people either had to find a way to live with mustangs, and the wildness they require, or forever lose one of the last untamed parts of the West."

At a coffee shop near his home in town, Philipps explained the concept he developed of the mustang: "The wild horse is an immigrant, it's an outcast. It drives its stature not by anything that was given to it by its ancestors. It just has grit and was able to build what it has from nothing. Sound familiar?"

He recounts in "Wild Horse Country" the legend of the White Stallion that grew "as long as the free and open West existed." The great creature refused to be owned, unlike Silver, the white stallion that becomes the Lone Ranger's steed after being saved from a buffalo attack.

Silver was tamed "by this lonely stranger with a heart of gold, by someone who was deserving," Philipps said. "That essentially is manifest destiny. God gave us permission to subjugate the West."

The journalist does not mask his feelings about the wild horse program. He offers his own solution in the book, one that involves mountain lions and has been soundly rejected by land managers. It's a controversial call to more or less let nature be nature.

In the book he mentions a reporter who in 1928 traveled west "to report on the rapidly disappearing mustang" and "started out determined not to be sentimental." Philipps admits that the wild horses tug his heartstrings.

"I love them, I root for them, because I appreciate all wildness, the uncompromising nature of it," he said. "To see that in such a beautiful form is really something. I don't think anybody can't be moved by it: a wild band running out in the sage..."

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