New York Times reporter, David Philipps, is the author of Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustangs.
Taking on a topic that is rife with politics, intransigence, and polarizing factions, Philipps manages the near-impossible: an intriguing through-narrative with fair and compelling chapters. “Fair” is a small, modest word to describe a thoughtful, thorough look at a complicated, often misunderstood, and storied topic. Watch Philipps in this promotional video here
We spoke by phone.
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Maddy Butcher: One reviewer called it advocacy journalism. Do you call Wild Horse advocacy journalism?
David Philipps: I would say that there are a number of advocates who say that I don’t go far enough or am too sympathetic to ranching and BLM concerns. So, if you are getting criticized by both sides, you probably did OK.
My goal was to advocate for some kind of sensible solution that would protect both the herds and the reason we’re protecting the herds in the first place, the idea. And I didn’t see anyone really trying to think that through long term. I wanted to explore it and come up with what I thought was a good solution. So, I guess in that sense, I’m advocating for the horses. At the same time, though, I think there are a lot of advocates who think I’m a jerk.
MB: How has it been received overall?
DP: I would say, I’ve had some really great reception. My biggest frustration is that in general, it’s an issue the American public at large isn’t particularly interested in engaging on. It will get worse for years before they pay attention.
For me, I felt like we’re at a critical point. We’ve got a non-functional federal agency trying to take care of this problem that doesn’t have any plan that’s going to work. We’ve got no political leadership on it. We’ve got serious issues on the ground. But there is no public interest in finding a solution. And I think that’s what it’s going to take. I don’t think it’s going to take a new BLM Wild Horse leader or a new Secretary of the Interior. I think it’s going to take much more than that.
MB: Do you think the situation has been made worse by current Administration?
DP: No, I think it was plenty bad under the old Administration. So, what has the current Administration done that the Obama Administration hadn’t done already? Basically nothing. With the exception of putting in Ryan Zinke, who seems like he’s much more in the court of Western ranchers. But have they actually done anything? From my point of view, the last couple years of the Obama Administration were ridiculously bad.
They kept storing and storing more horses until they said, ‘Ok, we don’t have any more money to do that. So, we’re just going to do nothing.”
They started using less and less PZP (Porcine Zona Pellucida Vaccine, currently used as a birth control for wild horse herds in a very limited fashion)
They were leaving more and more animals on the ground. And I know there are a lot of people who say, ‘well, there’s no problem with that.’
But I think there is a problem with having zero management plan.
They threw their hands up and said, ‘we’re not going to gather anything except the very minimal amount.’ I think all that does is set us up for trouble down the road because no one is proactively trying to find solutions.
MB: Ben Masters, who serves on the BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, voted to recommend euthanizing horses in holding. What did you think of that board’s recommendation?
Read Philipps’ response and more in Part II, coming soon.