Range Rider
Les Gilliland
Interviewed by Paul Vee
I am essentially a cowboy for the White Sands Missile Range, which is U.S. Army property in south-central New Mexico. I'm not in the army, I only work for them. The army has contracts with the ranchers living on the west and the north sides of the missile range. These contracts allow 'em to evacuate the ranchers during some of the test firing missions so we can use that land as an extra safety area. We call those extension areas. There's 2500 square miles total out there of extensions and there's over 150 ranchers living on them. What we do is we get the warnings out to the ranchers before the missions get started. We take a card around that tells them when they're gonna have to evacuate. Ranchers are a different breed. You know, they've had this land all their life. It isn't always easy to go in and tell them when they have to leave. I've had hard times with some of them. I've been called everything in the books. Of course, we pay 'em for it, but still, there's times they just don't want to go. It's not so bad, though, really. I mean, when the ranchers get evacuated, they go to town and get a motel. We pay 'em so much a year, leasing the land. And then, on top of that, every time we evacuate, we pay 'em so much a mile and so much a person, which adds up--they can go to town, get a motel and eat in a restaurant. Seems alright to me. How'd I get this job? Just happened to show up at the right time. A friend of mine told me about the opening and so I inquired about it. Then I went and talked to a couple of ranchers, got recommendations from them. I didn't have any special training. This job covers what I've done all my life. All it is is ranching. Government ranching. When we aren't helping out with the evacuations, we are keeping the cows off the missile range. Sometimes, if there's a big fence break, we escort the ranchers onto the range to get their cows. And then, in the hunting seasons, we escort hunters around. We have to be out there during the missile tests. The boss wants to be the first to know if we hit something of the ranchers'. He doesn't want to have to hear it from the rancher, he wants us to be there and call him, tell him how much damage has been done. The contracts specify that we will fix or pay for anything damaged during those tests. So I'll drive around a lot if we have a mission. Sometimes, I'll have to leave at twelve o'clock in the morning or earlier to get across the range before the roadblocks go in. Probably eighty percent of my job is driving. I have a one-ton flatbed pickup. I spend a lot of time in that truck. Typical day, if there's not a mission to worry about, we patrol the fence lines, keep the fences up, keep the cattle out. We gather the cows sometimes in our pickup trucks. When they go off-road, we take a four-wheeler and gather 'em. Sometimes, when the terrain gets too rough, we even take horses and gather 'em. We have six horses here that belong to the government. I've been doing this kind of thing basically all my life. My granddad had a place up here on the range. Just a ranching family. I was born there. I was three years old when they moved us off. There were a bunch of ranches here before the government came in during World War Two and moved people out. They blew off the first atomic bomb here in 1945--up at the northern end on the Trinity Site. Then in the early 50s, they moved even more ranches out to form the whole missile range and do the longer range missile testing that they do now. So a lot of families were affected, and lot of those same people ended up working for the missile range. Originally, it was supposed to be a temporary thing. They had a twenty-five year lease on the land and they were going to give it back to the ranchers when they finished all the testing. But of course they never finished the testing, at least not yet. My family lost its ranch in the '50s. I'm still working on that (laughs). There's a lot of ranchers that're really bitter over it even today. But actually, my daddy, they did him a favor. He's retired. If they wouldn't have took the ranch, he'd still be out there scratching a living out. And there's a lot of ranchers like my daddy, so not everyone's bitter. We just finished our feral horse project. That's one of the bigger things we do every year--Feral Horses Week. It's an adoption project for the wild horses on the range. What we do is we round them up--we take a four-wheeler and just drive them into a pen. It can be tough to gather these horses--sometimes they get away. You have to read your animals. They'll tell you what they're going to do. But we catch most of 'em, that's where the lifelong experience comes into it (laughs). And after we round 'em up, we test 'em and vaccinate 'em. Then we have our adoptions. It's a hundred and twenty five dollars per horse. You can adopt up to four horses as long as you sign a contract saying you will not use 'em for rodeo, render, or slaughter. It's a good deal. Hunting is only allowed on certain parts of the range. We have deer hunts, oryx hunts, a lot of hunting. An oryx is an African antelope. There's one on the wall here--the head of one. Go and look at it. The state imported them back in the early '70s. They felt that there were niches where they could put big game for hunting purposes. I don't know how many there are, maybe 3000--a bunch of them anyway. (Laughs) They don't have no idea themselves. The big game hunts--the oryx, the antelope, and the deer--are very specific hunts, usually a few days or a weekend, something that doesn't interfere with the missions. There is an oryx hunt that takes place in December during our shutdown. It's four days long and the hunters actually camp on the range. So, those are very organized hunts--permits are purchased from the state and all that business. Then there is varmint hunting, quail hunting, dove hunting, stuff like that where people can go on weekends and hunt during season and whatnot. That's a little less regimented. We have some trouble with hunters sometimes. You have hunters that just can't shoot and they get an animal wounded and then you're tracking it, trying to get them close enough to get another shot. That's just a pain. And then you have your more serious trouble--trespassing, poachers, that sort of thing. We've arrested some of them in cooperation with the Game Department. We escort 'em off the range and then the Game Department tickets them. And we're unarmed, so we have to work pretty close with each other in these situations. We deal with some pretty shady characters. We've escorted guys off the range--you know, they're got rifles, pistols, knives--and find out they're convicted felons. They was hunting, and we escorted them off. Game Department run a check on 'em, find out they're convicted, or they're out on parole on felony charges. I don't personally want to be armed. That just throws another liability into the situation. I'm a reserve officer for the Game and Fisheries, and I qualify to carry a weapon, but I found that I really feel safer without one. A weapon's just one more thing that can go wrong. I like my job very much. I like being out in the middle of nowhere. You see all the eagles and hawks and deer and the oryx. And we have any type of terrain you like out here--pinon trees, cedar trees, bluffs, rocky territory, and the desert. I like just the quietness and solitude of it, mainly. When there's a mission and it's all in use, the total land mass of the range is the size of Connecticut. So that's a lot of space. I've never seen the tests up close. We see 'em fire them off from a good distance. The closest was too close. That was when the Navy fired up north, down by Antelope Tank. We evacuated the ranchers and we were out of the area but it was only, like, five miles from us, and when that sucker hit, a ball of fire just rolled down the mountains and then exploded. I don't want to see that again. We don't take the animals into account during tests. We don't go yelling "Get out of the way, sucker!" Our tests are number one. Missions are number one. Feral horses or oryx get in the way, tough. That's a few less we have to worry about. But, you know, the chances of anything falling out of the sky and hitting any of these animals are so miniscule. In fact, I've never heard of us killing a horse or an oryx with a missile. Last year, supposedly, a couple of cows died, but I never found no evidence of it. I got the report and I went out and checked, but I couldn't find 'em. I have been doing this ten years. I don't want to do anything else. You learn something every day. Dealing with the horses I've lived with all my life--they teach me stuff every day. And you hardly ever do the same thing two weeks in a row. There's always something changing. Like, last week, there's gathering horses. Next week, we'll probably be gathering cows. Week after, we might be escorting somebody to Anvil Canyon or some place. All it is is, we're just cowboys. There's a political side that goes along with it. I mean we are working for the army. And things vary depending on who's in charge out here at the range. We get the right general in here, he wants us up next to him. He wants his cowboys around. "These are my boys," he says. But then the next general--he's into missions and the hell with cowboys--and you're back in the back, keep your mouth shut, and stay out of sight. (Laughs) We got a good one in here now though. Things are alright. This is a job for a loner. Rancher type. Somebody that sees something that needs to be done and get it done. If he needs help, he'll call in help, but most of the stuff you can handle yourself, like fix a little piece of fence and move a little bunch of cows off. The only thing I'd want to do differently is work with livestock more and the public less. To me, animals seem to have more sense (laughs). I mean, a horse won't do anything unless he has reason. And he'll let you know before he does it. No matter what they're going to do, a horse'll have some little habit that they'll do to let you know they're fixing to do it. People's not that way. They just be standing there and the next thing you know, they're doing it. I'd rather spend my day with a horse than most any person.

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