Looking out the living-room window of her hilltop house near Reno, Velma Johnston says, "I'm 5'6", 104 pounds, a 62-year-old widow and I'm tired and overworked, but I'm unbelievably tough." Velma Johnston is the heroine of what may well be the final epic Wild West drama. As Wild Horse Annie, she is commander in chief of a crusade to save the last of America's wild mustangs, a saga complete with shotgun blasts, screaming planes, heavy politics, spies and the blood of men and horses.
When Wild Horse Annie answers the door at home it is with a .38 in hand. Anonymous callers phone to tell her, "You'd better lay off, sister." And there are threats that "a tree limb is waiting here for you." In large measure, her battle is foolhardy, for she is greatly outnumbered, woefully underfinanced and totally dedicated to fighting according to the loftiest ethical standards.
Wild Horse Annie is a nickname she got 20 years ago. It was intended to ridicule her but it has merely added an aura of romance to her campaign. Siding with her are a handful of staunch supporters and a Kiddie Cavalry of thousands of school children, most of whom have never seen a wild horse. Annie has instilled in her followers the belief that the mustangs are a national heritage, that they should be granted protection and spared the savage treatment they frequently suffer before they are ground up for pet food and fertilizer.
Aligned against Annie's organization—Wild Horse Organized Assistance (WHOA!)—is a vast phalanx of cattle and sheep ranchers, hunters and bounty seekers. They and their predecessors have been largely responsible for the decline of the wild horse population from 8 million in 1800 to a present low of between 10,000 and 45,000. Exactly how many are left is unknown because counting techniques are imprecise.
Some stockmen graze herds on the public domain, for which they pay a minimal fee to the federal government. These men begrudge every blade of grass nibbled by the mustangs because it leaves that much less for their cattle and sheep, and they say the proliferation of wild horses could "create a serious economic hardship for meat consumers...by causing a major rise in meat prices." There are big-game hunters who want to replace mustangs with trophy animals, such as bighorn sheep. And there are other hunters who receive a bounty for shooting wild horses. They are motivated by money.
While these formidable foes wage combat on the open range with deadly weapons and behind doors with considerable lobbying power, Wild Horse Annie has challenged them armed with little more than what her husband called "the special kind of courage that comes from fear." One of her rebuttals to the livestock industry is that talk of increased prices is a "gross exaggeration. On a nationwide basis, only 1% of food cattle and 6% of food sheep are grazed on public lands." She has also developed a revolutionary philosophy concerning use of the public domain, arguing that ranchers have no right to their long-uncontested belief that livestock is entitled to "dominant use" of public lands. It is Annie's contention that this land "belongs to all Americans, to you and to me."
As for hunters, she feels they have enough game to shoot. And the mere thought of bounty seekers sends shivers through Annie, who realizes that the 25 years she has spent opposing them has resulted in state and federal laws that are only halfheartedly enforced. Despite what she has felt was overwhelming evidence in a number of cases, no one has ever been found guilty of violating a horse-protection law.
For the past two years Wild Horse Annie has been involved in a case concerning a six-week roundup of horses in the rugged Lemhi Mountains near Howe, Idaho. In all, 53 horses were driven by men on horseback and aboard snowmobiles and a helicopter. As they were being driven to a corral, seven suffered grotesque deaths. Annie found out about the incident from an informant who phoned her from Idaho.
The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service investigated and stated there was ample evidence to proceed with a case study. Still, the Justice Department did not prosecute because of "insufficient evidence." That might have been the end of it, except for Annie.
Working in concert with undercover agents and cohorts, she got enough photographs and testimony to have the case reopened. To a large extent the destiny of the wild horses hinges on the outcome of this case, for if a conviction is not obtained it would, as Annie puts it, "mean that rustlers will be able to get away with just about anything."