With 55 years of wild and domestic horse advocacy experience — including the rescue of wild horses and burros and the acquisition of dozens of government-relinquished horses and mules — Jim Clapp was dedicated to defending horses everywhere and anywhere he could — and he had an impressive resume to prove it.
A former government contractor, Jim was the first to catch wild horses for the U.S. Forest Service. But after the animals he caught were destroyed, he decided to begin rescuing wild horses instead. Thus began his northern California Wild Horse Sanctuary, which he operated for more than three decades; the Sanctuary is still in operation today.
Jim also had extensive experience in wild horse capture, transportation, care, shelter, and history. He was active on behalf of wild horses and their plight since the late 1970s. He was Founder and President of the National Wild Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, which oversaw the capture of 236 horses from the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southeastern Oregon. Thirty of those horses were donated to Neda Demayo, founder of Return to Freedom (RTF), and were the beginnings of RTF’s invaluable work in both rescuing and harboring intact herd structures, as well as defending wild horses on public lands.
Jim also retrieved government surplus horses from around the country, animals discarded from U.S. agencies after they became too old or injured for use. He has qualified for this distinction under the nonprofit organizations The Wild Horse Sanctuary, the Kern River Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Heritage Discovery Center — all of which are still open to the public and rescuing equines.
Jim has worked with The Animals Voice, Return to Freedom, Horse Nation, Shilo’s Inn, and other wild horse advocacy organizations, in saving the lives of thousands of horses throughout his lifetime.
Jim passed away on March 6, 2016, at the age of 72. By donating to Return to Freedom in his name, you continue his lifelong work and passion. You keep his spirit alive!
I saw God today. And, given that I’ve been an unmovable atheist since the age of nine, that says a lot. But I did see God today.
I had joined Jim Clapp, my friend (and, for a while, my husband) on long, seemingly endless and barren desert highways in Arizona. We were on a mission — to save the life of a lone doomed mule who was currently working for the government as a pack animal in a national park outside Tucson.
Merle Haggard played on the radio. Marlboro cigarette smoke filled the cab. And cactus, tumbleweeds and sage grass could be seen as far as one could see.
But like all missions, we were sidetracked — in this case, by the romantic idea of visiting one of the seven wonders of the natural world: the Grand Canyon.
The sun was nearly gone that late afternoon; we were tired, exhausted, and the drive had been so monotonous and long, we joked about it being just our luck to arrive at the canyon in pitch blackness.
I mocked our soon-to-come conversation. “We’ll be standing on the edge — seeing absolutely nothing because nighttime — that stark devouring black — will have swallowed the canyon, and I’ll say, ‘Do you suppose they’re right, I mean, about it being huge and all?’”
Jim was too tired from hours and hours of driving, pulling a stock trailer at a required reduced speed, to find my comment anything but amusing. Besides, he had grown reluctantly fond of my sarcasm. It broke the boredom. “Calm yourself,” he said.
Twenty dollars got us into the park just before the sun disappeared. In a bend in the nearly deserted roadway, I caught a glimpse of the canyon’s rim through the trees. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was seeing the far side of the chasm, some eight miles away — and just the tip top of it. Maybe it was a sixth sense I had of its impending affect on my life. Maybe it was just the fact that I was that close to something as grand as I had imagined it was. Or maybe it was simply God. Real God. The kind Dante wrote about: “Nature is the art of God.” Or Millay: “God, I can push the grass apart / and lay my finger on thy heart!” No. More like Nietzsche: “Nature is God.”
It must have been, don’t you see? Because, even before I laid eyes on its colossal void, I had been taken by the Grand Canyon — my soul, I mean. I was already moved to tears as I scrambled out of the truck and headed for the rim, but I was not prepared for what I was about to see.
The Canyon opened unexpectedly before me, as if a gigantic quake had blown past the Richter scale and ripped the earth apart — as if it had emptied the oceans right there beneath me. I was emotionally stunned. And speechless. I was minimized.
The Grand Canyon is a gargantuan abyss. More than one mile deep, 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide. There is absolutely nothing else on earth like it (that isn’t covered by an ocean of ice — or an ocean, for that matter).
It is not something that can be seen in photographs or on videotape. It is something that can only be felt by standing on its rim overlooking its sheer cliffs of multi-colored rock that have formed over millions and millions of years. It is something that can only be understood in its almighty presence.
The Grand Canyon is a teacher. It reminds us that we are alone on this planet — and that we are not. It strips us of our importance — and yet begs us for stewardship. It opens the soul. And the mind. And, in so doing, it undermines our arrogance. “I have survived without you. I will survive without you.”
“Humbling,” Jim whispered as he stood beside me in the setting sun, on the edge of a four-million-year-old cliff, hearing the voice I had just heard come up from the grandest of the grand.
Is this work for naught? She’ll go on without us, this earth. The dinosaurs faded away. So will we — at this rate, the rate we’re killing ourselves and each other. But she’ll survive. Some other fantastic creature will emerge from the rubble. Maybe one smart enough to last longer. But we are mere nothings in the grand scheme of things.
We nicknamed the mule “Mo” after me — but not before the animal dragged Jim several times into the desert while we tried to load him in the trailer. Mo couldn’t know he was on his way to slaughter had we not arrived on the scene. Mo couldn’t know he was now on his way to horse heaven where he would live out the remainder of his life among his own, without human interference, at our sanctuary. In the end, intelligence over muscle won the day and Mo was loaded.
Merle Haggard and Marlboro cigarettes. And vast open prairies of desert cactus. One life saved, pulled back from the edge. And for what, I could only wonder?
We stopped in the middle of the night to fill a bucket with water for the mule. I offered him apple pie through the trailer slats, but he didn’t bite. He seemed timid. Restless. Tired of us humans. I climbed on the side of the trailer and peered at him through a higher slot. He lifted his head and met my gaze. “Calm yourself,” I whispered. “You’re going home.”
I can’t assimilate the whys. I don’t know why I’m compelled to save one life, to pull one lone living being back from the edge, to do what I feel I must do, that I have no choice in doing.
No, no, wait a minute. I do know why. Of course! Why hadn’t it been clear before? The Hebrew proverb: “He who saves one life, saves the world entire.” We are all connected. I understood that again when the light shone in the mule’s eyes — and in them I could see the depths of the Grand Canyon.
I could see God.
Come on, Mister. Do what you do best. Bring the ponies home.
I have come to Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southeastern Oregon’s outback to participate in yet another roundup of wild horses. If we can’t catch the animals, the government will shoot them. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service claims the horses are competing with the Refuge’s endangered pronghorn antelope — though it doesn’t close its bow-and-arrow and rifle hunting seasons on the latter.
Hart Mountain is a rugged landscape covered in lava rock and sage grass, with an occasional juniper tree silhouetted on a dark and distant horizon. I am in a blind at the mouth of a box canyon which we’re using as a trap. After hours in that makeshift cave, I am deafened by the desert’s silence. I can no longer hear freeway traffic, no jumbo jets overhead, no car alarms or garbage trucks coming up the roadway.
Not too far away another sound catches my attention: the clacking of grasshopper wings. On second look, Hart Mountain is abuzz with life. Pronghorn antelope litter the prairie. Coyotes yap, spurring a chorus, on a not-to-distant ridge. There are rattlesnakes and ground squirrels, mountain lions and mule deer.
And there are, of course, wild horses — 270 of them, to be exact, but not a single one in sight. On this day about half of them are being driven south from Desert Lake toward the trap site by a handful of mounted cowboys led by Jim Clapp. Any minute they’ll come thundering over the ridge that lays out before me. I can almost see their dust, hear the pounding of their hooves, feel the wind in their streaming manes. I can feel the heat from their fire.
My Hero, the Marlboro Man
In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, wild horse roundups were made all the more possible by the use of a highly specialized trap gate-closing device. The “Capture Closure System” — triggered by horses’ body heat in 100-foot openings — was designed by government animal hunter-turned-wild horse savior Jim Clapp. No one could capture horses better than he could — and still no one else can. His uncanny ability to accurately read the mind of a horse came from six years working as a government hitman; his targets: mountain lions, coyotes, and bear. He believed in “knowing thine enemy,” and he knew them — well enough to effectively annihilate them. Or, in the case of horses, to round them up off the public domain.
But somewhere, somehow, despite his ingrained conditioning — after all, he was (and is) a man of the West — he found himself on another path. This one took him in the direction of life-saving, not life-taking. And why? He thinks back to those years and shrugs — as if the answer should be as obvious to the questioner as it is to him now. “It’s just wrong to kill.”
But why not just abandon killing? Why devote his life to saving animals? He ponders those questions for a minute, as well. The answer is the only one he has, but he’s not certain it matters — for it speaks to no amends. “I’m just trying to make up for all the killing I’ve done,” he says, and there’s a sorriness in his tone. “As if I can.”
The man in a black hat. He’s like the Marlboro man who’s given up smoking. The Ronald McDonald gone vegetarian. A convert. His world turned right side up in 1974 when he captured 300 wild horses for the U.S. Forest Service. He’d given up his rifle for a trapping fence, but he didn’t want any part of a destruction program. When officials began shooting horses in the corrals — like fish in a barrel — Jim rescued the remaining 80 of them — and thus began his wild horse haven.
Today, he runs his National Wild Horse Rescue & Sanctuary on nearly 10,000 acres in pristine northern California wilderness. The refuge is also home to 300 species of birds, to deer and black bear, coyotes and, yes, even mountain lions; soon there will be American bison and North American elk living in safety on the grounds.
And were it not for him, the last wild horse may have been hunted down by aircraft and slaughtered by now. Every turn the government has taken, Jim has followed, cutting it off at the pass sometimes, throwing wrenches into the loopholes. He has no ulterior motives, no political agenda, no hidden plan of attack. He wants to save horses’ lives and preserve our wild horse heritage, plain and simple. So, for 35 years, he has dedicated his life to saving wild horses from mustangers, from men such as he had been.
Which doesn’t mean the government won’t succeed in its war against the horse (it is so close to succeeding); it merely means he’s bought them time, time he hopes will give him another way to secure their freedom on the public land where he believes they belong.
And where federal law says they belong.
He epitomizes the passage from taker to giver. Compassion, that nature-given human essence, wasn’t something he chose — anymore than any of us choose it. It merely refound him. It’s that compelling. It’s that determined. “The human spirit is not dead,” wrote Dr. Albert Schweitzer. “It lives on in secret.”
Just ask Jim Clapp.
The Numbers and the Name Game
When the horse was brought back to America in the 1600s, it returned in a somewhat different package from whence it had left — but it was a horse nonetheless. In fact, it is believed that the horse is the only domesticated animal capable of reverting to a wild state after escaping human bondage. It did so in the 1600s, and within 200 years, its numbers had reached more than 2 million.
But by the time the wild horse received federal protection some 27 years ago, only 17,000 of them roamed America’s plains. More than one million horses were conscripted for World War I combat; the rest had been hunted for their flesh, for the chicken-feed and dog food companies, and for the sport of it [tires, helicopters, mass graves]. Like the bison, the wild horse had been driven to the edge.
Enter “Wild Horse Annie” (real name Velma Johnson). [tell her story here: born in reno, nevada; saw blood from horse transport and followed it to rendering plant, was motified by what she saw. crusade backed by schoolchilcren and housewives. 1959 saw the legal outlaw of chasing horses with vehicles and airplanes]
Wild Horse Annie’s legislation allowed the mustang (Spanish for mestengo or “stray beast”) to get a desperate foothold in the American West. Wild horse numbers grew to 72,000 by 19XX — and consequently they encouraged the wrath of ranchers who paid to graze their cattle on the public domain, as well as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials who were appointed to managing the West — horses and all.
In the past two and a half decades, then — and in full violation of the law — more than 176,000 horses and burros have been rounded up off America’s public lands and turned over to the BLM Adopt-a-Horse program, which it created in 1976. BLM claims it has adopted out 157,000 of the animals, but many of its captives have been sent on to slaughter — and often with the BLM’s help.
[In 1984, BLM waived adoption fees to counter the lack of adopters; thousands of horses began showing up in slaughterhouses. Mass adoptions were cancelled in 1988; BLM experiments with its own unsuccessful sanctuaries and prison inmate horse-taming programs. Titles are given to adopters after one year of adoption; mention title problems; 1997 API exposé of BLM engaged in slaughter.]
If Jim Clapp could have his way, he’d designate the entire state of Nevada as the “National Wild Horse Refuge.” In the summer of 1993, the BLM estimated the wild horse population in Nevada alone to be 24,000 horses. Clapp logged more than 250 hours in the air, along with Michael Blake, author of Dances With Wolves, counting horses first-hand. They found 300 skulls and only 8,300 horses. Five years later, the current BLM report on Nevada’s wild horse population is still estimated to be roughly 24,000. It recommends the removal of more than 9,600 animals — or 1,300 more than Clapp and Blake could even find on the entire Nevada desert.
Why is there such determination to rid our public lands of wild horses? For many, the wild horse isn’t a wild animal at all, but a domesticated animal gone feral. This mongrel of a horse is not, they argue, native American wildlife. Considered an “exotic,” it competes for habitat with such species as elk and pronghorn antelope, and it decimates rangeland used for domestic livestock. It must be controlled, removed, and, if necessary, gunned down on the run.
Wild horses are eyesores, habitat destroyers, and misfits. In cattlemen terms, they are “sonsofbitches”; in BLM terms, they’re “shitters.” History, on the other hand, will bear them out as scapegoats.
And it’s a war nearly as old as the West itself. What is useful is used, what is not, is destroyed — with contempt. In a mechanized world, not even the cattle industry has a need for living horsepower. In the 1950s, when Wild Horse Annie began her crusade to rescue the last of America’s wild horse heritage, the animals were being rounded up at breakneck speed, sold off to slaughter, or shot on the run, or in corralled bloodbaths, and buried in mass graves.
Public outcry ended the open-faced carnage. In 1971, more letters poured into Congress over the plight of wild horses than had any other issue in U.S. history to date; there wasn’t a single dissenting vote, and one congressman reported having received 14,000 letters. And so the Free-Roaming Wild Horse & Burro Act was passed, declaring that “wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.”
By the people, of the people, for the people. There has never been a truer case.
But the wild horse removal is a tragically grim and deadly tale of systematic elimination. Those entrusted with the power to enforce the people’s law have been using it to the detriment of the horses — and doing so behind the people’s back. In fact, BLM refers to roundups as “gathers,” making them more palatable to public opinion.
Despite numerous attempts by vested interests to cripple the Act itself, not a single amendment has passed. Americans have made their intentions known over and over again: They want wild horses — these feral, exotic, “sonsofbitches” — left in the public domain. And they wrongly believe the government is granting their wish. The Act states, “It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death.” And yet, unabated, the BLM, The U.S. Dept. of the Interior, and The U.S. Forest Service, continue to engage in all those acts without reprimand.
When the law was passed in 1971, wild horses and burros were assigned to 305 Herd Management Areas (HMAs) and given some 80 million acres of public land in 16 states. Regulations — not amendments, mind you — have stripped the horses of their homeland: they are now managed in 186 HMAs on less than 44 million acres in just 10 states.
“This government is taking our horses without our knowledge,” Michael Blake told the press. “This government and the criminals it employs are taking wild horses when and where they please. They are taking them in the dark of night. The wild horses not going to the slaughterhouse floor — where their throats are cut for money — are travelling to points of incarceration.”
In fact, some 10,000 wild horses are currently awaiting their fate in a holding facility outside Susanville in northern California. It’s costing the taxpayer nearly $6 million a year to maintain them. It costs another $18 million a year to allow the BLM to continue to round up, remove, and sell thousands more wild horses — and all of this without the permission of the law.
In most cases, horses are being removed from the public rangeland because they offer no monetary value. One can easily adopt a wild horse for as little as $125 a head. The cost to the taxpayer to remove the animal from the wild? $1,125. Cattle ranchers pay a small grazing fee for each bovine on the range, but there is only so much land to go around, only so much that can be “rented.” Contrary to popular belief, wild horses are not destroying public lands in the ten western states where they’re found — amidst 6 million cattle and sheep; it’s that no one pays to have them there. Or gets paid to keep them there. And what is not useful… In fact, a 1990 Government Accounting Office report showed that livestock consumed 81% of Nevada’s forage in the four studied horse areas.
[gene viability, birth control controversy; BLM feels the pinch]
According to its most recent “Report to Congress on the Administration” of the 1971 Act, the BLM estimates the current American wild horse population to be roughly 36,000 animals, of which X0% can be found in Nevada alone. Further, it estimates an “appropriate management level” of 12,000, suggesting the removal of some 24,000 horses.
“The government is doing the same to wild horses as was done to the bison, the wolf, and the Native American,” says Blake. “It’s exterminating these animals while we watch.”
Come on, Mister, I silently encourage Jim Clapp. Do what you do best. Bring the ponies home.
Clapp’s current struggle to corner more horses grinds slowly away at the impossible: the Oregon desert terrain is hostile, and — unlike BLM-controlled land — motorized vehicles cannot be used to round up wild horses. Clapp has returned to the ways of the West: he’s using horsepower to harness horsepower.
Suddenly, and finally, there is movement on the horizon. At the mouth of the trap, two riderless horses appear, a mare and her foal. Then another, a young roan stallion. Nearly 135 other horses escaped capture that day. But no thundering animals these. They are exhausted from the chase, and timid as they sense fate on the wind.
Behind them a cowboy in a black hat appears, riding a tall gray saddle horse. Operating alone, Clapp pushes them with his presence, and then with his voice, uring them toward the box canyon. I can hear their hard hooves on the lava rock as they reluctantly scramble toward the gates. Clapp cuts from left to right over the hostile terrain as the three wild ones attempt to pass him and return to their beloved mountain.
Bring them home, I hear myself reflect, and yet they are home, they are where they belong. They are wild things.
It is a paradox. To allow these three horses to return to Hart Mountain would give them what they are entitled to: their freedom. But it would cost them their lives. Clapp pushes them into the canyon and seals their fate. They are on their way to his home now: to the largest privately owned, publicly funded wild horse sanctuary in the country.
Misfits Among Us
It can be said that no other animal in human history has had the impact on our lives as much as the horse. Millions have lost their lives in human wars. They have been used to transport us and our belongings across continents, to deliver our mail and network our civilizations, and they have plowed the fields that feed us. In these modern times, the horse is an entertainer, an athlete, an icon, and a friend — more than 11 million of them are now in human bondage.
We have long celebrated the horse: in art and mythology (the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the winged Pegasus, the half-man, half-horse Centaur) and in literature and symbolism (we still measure power in horses). But we have abandoned this animal of the plains. Though we owe them civilization as we know it, we no longer hear the wind in their wild ears; we cannot see the fire in their eyes. In return for the sacrifices of their ancestors, we have done little else but annihilate and degrade them. They are sonsofbitches. Shitters. They are misfits.
And shame on the rest of us. Instead of demanding that Congress enforce the existing law that protects these animals in their homeland — a law brought about by the people, mind you — we sit idly by and accept the government’s portrayal of what is happening in the West; we prefer the taste of hamburger over the image of wild and free-running horses; and we line up at auction yards to adopt what are now fireless wild ponies.
Today, another three of them are removed from freedom.
[to let the government kill these horses sets precedent; he’ll do whatever is physically possible to prevent it…]
I watch as Clapp climbs down from the gray horse and drops to his knees in the rock-covered desert, wiping his brow. The ordeal has nearly killed them both. They are breathing laboriously, dripping sweat, exhausted and drained. They are, I see now and more clearly, the last desperate attempt in this power struggle to preserve America’s wild horse heritage.
David Mallet’s song can’t help but play in the back of my mind:
There are those who would deal in the darkness of life;
There are those who would tear down the sun,
And though most men are ruthless, some will still weep
When the gifts we were given are gone.