Lawman Len Sims, Alone on the Range, Hunts the Killers of Nevada's Wild Mustangs

updated 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Len Sims came upon the 4-month-old colt, its back leg shot to pieces, as it stumbled across the Nevada high country. He watched it catch up to its mother, nudge the mare, then fall behind. Sims knew the colt wouldn't last. So did the waiting coyotes.

"It had such courage, running after its mother on three legs," says Sims, 49, the chief criminal investigator for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Nevada. Reluctantly, he raised his rifle. "I had to shoot the brave little guy," he says. "That incident doubled my intensity to find these people."

The wild mustangs of Nevada are being slaughtered, and Sims is on the trail of the people responsible, vowing to bring them to justice. Two months ago, in the worst incident thus far, 40 mustangs came to drink at an isolated canyon and were massacred by unknown riflemen. The men rode in, tied their horses to a clump of juniper trees, hid in a patch of purple sage and waited while a stallion led his small herd down to Rosebud Spring. When the horses started drinking, the men opened fire. Sims, who reconstructed the crime but has no leads to the identity of the gunmen, has counted 480 dead horses in the last three months. "Every time I helicopter out there, I find more bodies, usually about 15, 20 at a time. Our wild horses are being destroyed. This is a major catastrophe."

Descendants of steeds brought from Mexico by 16th-century Spanish conquistadores, the herds of mustangs thundering across the open range are a romantic symbol of freedom and all that remains wild in the West. Since 1971, when Congress made it a federal crime to kill, capture or otherwise harm horses, the protected animals have become the focus of a range war pitting conservationists against northern Nevada's ranchers. The ranchers, who pay a fee to graze more than 600,000 cattle and sheep on the same public land that is home to an estimated 28,000 of the free-roaming mustangs, say the horses are pests that eat valuable grass.

Their determination to rid Nevada of the animals seems all but self-incriminating, and Bob Hillman, spokesman for the 180,000-member Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, Calif., says, "I won't point a finger at the cattlemen, but they are high on my list of suspects." Vickie Turner of the Nevada Cattleman's Association rejects the charge. "There are too many horses out there," she says, "but ranchers aren't killing them."

Nearly everybody in Austin, Nev., a crumbling mining town in the heart of wild-horse country, claims to know who is killing the horses, but no one is willing to talk. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, lawman Sims stands alone. "People know who did it," he says, "but they are reluctant to talk to me. They say they don't want to get killed. Out there, you depend on your family and friends for everything. There are so few people in that lonesome country you need everyone. Folks figure a few dead horses aren't worth jeopardizing your life over. I don't agree with that, but then, I don't live out there."

In Austin, the locals aren't shy on the subject of wild horses. At Clara's Golden Club Bar, Art Bergonzoni, 38, the son of a rancher who went broke, thunders, "They should shoot every damn one of them. They eat all the grass. The taxpayers is paying for them suckers and what good is they?" A man hunched over the pool table gets so angry just listening to talk about saving the mustangs that he slams down his cue and stalks out, cursing the horses and nearly tripping over a dog. Outside the Owl Saloon, a rancher snaps, "Whoever is killing those horses should get a medal." He describes the mustangs as "varmints"—no better than rabbits or coyotes.

Not everyone feels the same way. The owner of Clara's is Jimmy Williams, 57, who inherited the business from his mother. Known as Black Jack Granny, she dealt cards in the club for half a century. Until 1971, Williams made his living as a mustanger, legally rounding up wild horses and breaking them for ranch work or selling them to rendering plants for dog food. Then Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, designed to stop the slaughter of the mustangs, which numbered about a million in Nevada alone at the beginning of the century. While Williams has no admiration for the "government pencils" who put him out of business, it breaks his heart to see mustangs shot, poisoned and trapped. "The horses built this country," he says. "They deserve better than this. It just ain't right. It's my way of life they're killing out there." Still, he figures anybody who would turn in the killers just isn't playing with a full deck. "I don't want my bones bleaching out there," he says, gesturing toward the open range.

Only 4,000 people inhabit the 3.5 million acres of Lander County, Nev., and about 400 of them live in Austin, which seems caught in a time warp. "Nevada's changing, the old ways dying out, but some old-timers are fighting it," says Dawn Lappin, 48, director of Wild Horse Organization Assistance (WHOA). Some men routinely carry sidearms into town, and a few weeks ago a gunfight broke out in one of the town's four saloons. The combatants were too drunk to do any harm, but the horse killings have made some people edgy; they wonder if the county isn't getting a little too dangerous. Williams wears a pistol when he goes into the countryside and worries that someone might bushwhack him because he is outspoken. Jim and Ida Gallagher, both 74, live in a sagging ranch house a few miles off Highway 305. A gut-shot mustang mare wandered into their corral a few years back and dropped dead. "I got a good notion who's doing it, but me and Ida gotta live here and we're too old for trouble," says Jim. Like Williams, he carries a gun.

Sims, a 13-year veteran of the Bureau of Land Management who is the agency's expert on gunfighting and sniper tactics, watches the ridges when he ventures out on patrol. "The killers are obsessed with laying these horses down," he says. "I don't think they'd hesitate to kill someone who could put them in jail." Right now, the odds favor the killers. They know the land, they've frightened the people who oppose what they do, and they've got the lawman outnumbered. But Sims has got one important weapon on his side: an unshakable belief that he is doing the right thing. "We'll make an arrest," he says. "Count on it."

—Monty Brower, and Bill Shaw in Austin

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