Dayton O. Hyde pets a horse. (Courtesy Running Wild Film 2013)
Dayton O. Hyde is a cowboy, an author and a conservationist. Originally from Michigan, he migrated west to Oregon as a teenager, where, eventually, he and his wife bought his uncle’s ranch and worked the land. In his early sixties, he decided to reinvent himself. Fascinated by the wild mustangs that roam much of the West, he grew despairing about federal round-ups that resulted in the slaughter of these wild animals. His solution, which he developed with single-minded dedication, was to buy a large ranch in the Black Wild Hills of South Dakota, establish a mustang sanctuary, and lobby the feds to deliver corralled animals from Nevada and elsewhere to his land rather than to the knacker’s yard.
Today, hundreds of the wild horses roam Hyde’s 13,000 acres of land. It is an epic environmental success story. Yet his sanctuary is now threatened by a uranium mine that, if it goes ahead, will, he contends, irreparably damage the aquifer upon which the sanctuary relies.
Hyde, who has long worked to save endangered species and to preserve the wilderness of the West, is involved in a long-shot battle against the mine, rallying his neighbors to oppose it.
Now eighty-eight years old, his story has recently been brought to the big screen, in the form of a documentary, Running Wild, by director Suzanne Mitchell. The film, which arrived in movie theaters earlier this month, was described by New York Times reviewer Anita Gates as “quietly grand.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sasha Abramsky: What motivates you to continue fighting the good fight? You’re 88 years old. Why not relax?
Dayton O. Hyde:
I’m only 88 years old. There’s lots of time left. I have lots to do. Lots of things disturb me about what’s going on in the natural world. So I look forward to doing battle on my various causes, most of which have to do with nature and what we’re doing to the wildlife in the country.
What about horses? They clearly have a special place in your heart.
I had no horses in my life when I was a boy in northern Michigan. My uncle was a rancher in Oregon. He wrote a letter saying his crew had run in 30 wild horses and were in the process of training them. What kind of letter is that for a young boy if you don’t expect him on your doorstep? So I soon left home and went to Oregon and became a cowboy for most of my life. I felt so deeply about things happening in the natural world that I started writing about it, and wrote several books.
[He coughs. Then he says in explanation of his coughing:]
I’m allergic to horses. I’m allergic to everything there is to be allergic to.
Apart from being allergic, what do you feel when you see a horse?
Just intense love. I’ve grown up with horses now and trained lots of them and the worst thing about old age is I could no longer ride safely. I’ve got too much to do, though, to get hurt. One day, I had my horse saddled and was going to ride. I thought ‘if this horse stumbled and fell and I got hurt I’d no longer be able to fight the uranium miners.’ There were so many projects I had in the works, I thought it wasn’t worth the gamble that nothing would happen.
Let’s talk about the uranium mining. Why is this an issue you’ve turned into your own?
It concerns the water in the West. We live in an area of the Black Hills where there isn’t a lot of great water. And the uranium miners from Canada and China have decided to mine an aquifer than runs right under our ranch, and it’s the only water we have for 600 head of horses and 100 head of cattle.