Rawlins Field Office

The Legacy of Desert Dust

painting of Desert Dust

Few individual wild horses have made history, but one Wyoming horse made quite a name for himself more than half a century ago. From the fall of 1945 to June 1946, the Rawlins (Wyoming) Republican-Bulletin ran several stories about a particular wild horse from southern Wyoming.

It seems that in those days, ranchers, and probably others, helped themselves to the unbranded horses roaming federal lands both in and outside of the grazing districts. A Glenrock, Wyoming, rancher rounded up horses as a business, using an airplane to spot and then haze the horses into a trap. Traps from this era often used three sides of a draw or canyon with the fourth side made of fencing. Once rounded up, the horses were shipped to eastern markets for slaughter.

This particular spring, the rancher was rounding up about 40 miles south of Wamsutter, Wyoming, and invited Verne Wood, a Rawlins photographer, to accompany him for a day. One band of horses rounded up that day belonged to a beautiful palomino stallion. The rancher decided to keep the stallion for breeding and show purposes. Mr. Wood took several photos of the horses that day and obtained what all photographers hope for, a one-in-a-million photograph.

"With long, white mane and tail again against the rugged background of the corral, Mr. Wood's picture showed the stallion as it turned his head. All of the beauty, wildness and alertness was caught,." reported the newspaper. A few weeks later, Wood's picture was featured in the rotogravure section of the Denver Post. Wood had already enlarged, tinted, and sold several photos of the stallion, but after the photo appeared in the Post, the inquiries began to roll in. National Geographic, Western Natural Life, and Eastman Kodak all secured prints of the stallion.
In April of 1946, Wood announced that a 40x50 oil color print of the stallion, which by that time had acquired the name "Desert Dust," would be hung in the Wyoming Capitol in Cheyenne. A second enlargement was given to Sen. Joseph C. O'Mahoney for presentation to the national capitol. According to the Rawlins paper, "Prints of the original photo have gone throughout the world and it has become one of the most famous wildlife pictures ever snapped. The May [although it was actually June] issue of Wyoming Wildlife will feature the picture on its cover and carry a story of the wild horse chase which trapped Desert Dust. The feature article will be illustrated with other pictures of wild horses taken by Wood." It was estimated at that time that about 20 oil paintings of the horse by different artists had already been completed.

old horse trap in Adobe Town

Desert Dust's fame resulted in the Glenrock rancher being invited to New York to appear on a radio program describing airplane roundups of wild horses. On his way to New York, the rancher stopped in Cheyenne and told reporters that only about 2,000 horses remained in the Red Desert area--about one summer's worth of roundups. The rancher estimated that six to seven thousand horses once roamed that part of Wyoming. Wood began receiving numerous letters favoring a program of protection for the animals. One stated that the "horses should be preserved as a symbol of the west and one of the last remnants of traditional western wild life." Proponents of protection urged immediate action since an airplane roundup scheduled for that summer was expected to almost eliminate the herd.

In 1959, passage of the Wild Horse Protection Act prohibited the roundup of wild horses by aircraft and motor vehicles. The 1971 Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act provided for protection and management of these animals on federal lands. In 1969, the BLM's first wild horse range was established in the Pryor Mountains along the Montana-Wyoming border. The BLM inaugurated its nationwide Adopt-A-Horse program in 1976 in an effort to resolve overcrowding of the public range by wild horses and burros. Since the program' inception, over 100,000 horses have been adopted across the nation (over 3,000 in Wyoming). Desert Dust may have started it all.