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
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
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,
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
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