Michael Blake, 69, author of the novel and screenplay Dances With Wolves, died on May 2, 2015 in Tucson, Arizona, his longtime home.
The capsule biographies accompanying Blake’s publications for more than 20 years mentioned not only his Oscar and Golden Globe awards for Dances With Wolves, but also that he had once been named “Humanitarian of the Year” for the Animal Protection Institute.
Most obituaries for Blake mentioned the API award, too, as did his personal web site and a Wikipedia entry distilled largely from the web site.
Contributed to wild horse research
None, however, mentioned why Blake had been “Humanitarian of the Year”––and it was far from just the typical instance of a celebrity being honored for lending his/her name to an already popular cause.
Rather, Blake made a material contribution to wild horse research with repercussions still echoing from the box canyons of the Nevada Range to the halls of Congress, and in the comment sections accompanying ANIMALS 24-7 wild horse coverage, too, though none of the people indirectly referencing Blake’s work in recent postings mentioned his name, what his contribution was, or when and how he did the work.
The Nevada range
Founded in Sacramento, California, in 1968, merged into Born Free USA in 2008, the Animal Protection Institute took a particular interest in wild horses, especially the wild horses of the Nevada range, a region accessible by driving just a few hours east through the Donner Pass.
Mark Twain observed and written about the wild horses of the Nevada range in 1863-1865 as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise.
Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston, a lifelong resident of Washoe County, Nevada, discovered the persecution of wild horses by local ranchers as a young secretary in 1952, founded the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros to do something about it, and in 1971 won passage of the federal Wild & Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Protection Act.
Her effort both inspired the 1961 film The Misfits and won a big boost in public recognition from it. Scripted by Arthur Miller, directed by John Huston, starring Montgomery Clift, The Misfits is remembered as the last screen appearance of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.
In short, the wild horses of the Nevada range were sometime celebrities long before any others––even, to some extent, before Mary O’Hara published My Friend Flicka in 1941 and Marguerite Henry wrote Misty of Chincoteague in 1947, introducing wild horses to generations of school children, and decades before the 1995 documentary film Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies and sequels rallied much of the present generation of wild horse activists.
But the wild horses of the Nevada range were––and are––particularly controversial and have at times experienced particularly harsh treatment. This has been partly because of the same land use conflicts with ranchers and bighorn sheep hunters that wild horses encounter elsewhere, partly because the Nevada horses are among the most easily observed by both those who love them and those who hate them.
Toward the southern end of the Nevada range, west of Las Vegas, hundreds and perhaps thousands of wild horses––the numbers have always been bitterly disputed––died from thirst and starvation in 1990-1991 after new security fencing around remote parts of Nellis Air Force Base cut off their access to water.
“The severity of the situation came to light gradually,” reported Jane Gross of the New York Times. “In July 1990, a census showed 6,200 horses on the range. In January 1991, another census showed 4,300 horses, but neither the BLM, the Air Force nor wild-horse advocates immediately concluded that the difference was the result of death.
“The BLM and the Air Force said they assumed that the missing animals had migrated to areas that are off-limits to the helicopters used for counting horses,” Gross continued. “The advocates said they ignored the discrepancy because they never put much stock in the official numbers. Finally, in late spring, both the government and the advocates noticed there were no colts and yearlings–a sure sign that the range could not support the herd. The Air Force began hauling water, and the BLM built pens to trap the horses for transport to the adoption corrals.
The incident became the pretext for the BLM removing 2,300 wild horses designated “surplus” from the adjacent range.
Blake & Twelve
Michael Blake was at the time just becoming involved with wild horses, adopting a wild horse named Twelve.
Remembered Karen Sussman, who succeeded Velma Johnston as president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros and Johnston’s death from cancer in 1977, “This beautiful black horse, although castrated by the BLM, never lost his regal stallion characteristics. He was tattooed on his left hind flank with the number 1202. Michael related that it was not the number that Twelve was named after, but that on a scale from one to ten, Michael rated his horse a 12. He also adopted a mare, Samantha, whose spirit was as free as Twelve, and who would keep this once great stallion company. Both of these horses changed Michael’s life and directed him into a course of action saving America’s wild horses for the next two decades.”
Dances With Wolves
Adopting Twelve was among Blake’s first indulgences after Dances With Wolves brought him financial security, following years of hardscrabble knocking about.
Recalled his longtime friend and colleague Walter Brasch, “He was born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina; his father was in the Army, and later became a telephone executive. But it was his mother, Sally, who dominated his life. It was her last name, Blake, that he adopted as his own, pushing aside his father’s name, Webb.
“Michael Blake studied journalism at the University of New Mexico, dropping out in his senior year; he would later study film at the Berkeley Film Institute. His semi-autobiographical novel, Airman Mortensen, talked about life in the Air Force. His autobiography, Like a Running Dog, revealed his life in the 1970s, sometimes homeless and hungry, living in cars, living on friends’ and acquaintances’ sofas, hanging out with musicians, writers, actors, and others in the creative arts, working at odd jobs, sometimes selling features and investigative stories to the alternative press, which were publishing stories of importance in the 1960s, stories the mainstream media would never touch. Eventually, he would be hired full-time at the Los Angeles Free Press, one of the most important alternative newspapers of the era. Even with a steady paycheck, albeit it not a large one, he usually ate only one meal a day, often a sandwich from a Jewish deli near the newspaper’s office.”
But Blake left the Los Angeles Free Press in 1972; it folded in 1978, leaving Blake again scrambling to earn a living.
In 1983 Blake at last enjoyed one modest success, Stacy’s Knights, a screenplay about the Las Vegas gambling scene that starred the then little-known Kevin Costner.
Blake then wrote the first draft of Dances With Wolves, but “Kevin Costner wanted him to rewrite it as a novel,” remembered Brasch, “believing that a book would have more impact.”
According to the www.AuthorsRoad.com web site maintained by Willamette Writers, “Michael wrote the book Dances with Wolves, while homeless, living out of his car, and staying a few days at a time with various friends.”
“About three dozen publishers rejected it,” recalled Brasch. “Fawcett published it,” as a 1988 paperback, “but gave it little promotion.”
Back to a screenplay
Then, Brasch continued, “Blake took the basis of the novel, and rewrote the original screenplay––but studios didn’t want to take a chance on the project.”
Elaborated AuthorsRoad, “He had just been fired from his job washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant in Bisbee, Arizona for asking for a pair of rubber gloves when Costner asked him to return to L.A. to work [again] on the screenplay of the book.”
Resumed Brasch, “Costner, fresh from starring roles in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, along with his friends Blake and producer Jim Wilson, produced the film themselves, staying true to the writer’s intent, something rare in the film industry. The film earned seven Oscars, including Best Film.
“Only after the film became a mega-hit, eventually earning more than $400 million, more than 20 times the production costs, did the book become popular,” selling circa 3.5 million copies.”
Blake bought a 36-acre ranchette near Tucson where he and his wife, artist Marianne Mortensen, raised three children and spent the rest of his life.
Aerial wild horse survey
As the BLM wild horse removals from the Nevada range accelerated in 1991-1992, frequently including helicopter roundups, Blake recognized that the critical weakness in animal advocates’ arguments against the removals was a lack of independently gathered horse population data. The only numbers available for most herd areas were the numbers produced by government agencies which were themselves involved in removals: chiefly the BLM, and sometimes also the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, and the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, whose training facilities often overlap wild horse habitat.
“There has been great controversy over the number of wild horses in Nevada,” Blake wrote for the Los Angeles Times in February 1993. “Estimates for 1992 ran as high as 75,000, but the government agency directly responsible, the Bureau of Land Management, has most often estimated 30,000 to 35,000. The government has said it will forcibly remove 14,000 ‘excess’ wild horses from public lands this year. Last August, I helped commission the first comprehensive aerial census of wild horses in Nevada. In almost every herd area, the horses were far less numerous than BLM estimates. The final count in our survey was 8,324.”
Blake accepted 45,000 as the best available government estimate of the wild horse population on all public lands combined. His own data, he believed, showed that the actual wild horse population might have been as low as 20,000.
The validity of Blake’s aerial census was much disputed. Much has been learned about aerial wildlife surveying since 1992, including about factors which may have contributed to the low count. Horses might, for instance, have moved away from the sound of aircraft without leaving plumes of dust that could easily be distinguished from the trails left by motor vehicles. A parallel night infrared photography survey, had one been done, might have picked up the heat signatures of horses who were in shadows beneath tree canopy during the day.
A good aerial survey meeting the standards of today would be expected to post to a web site a set of continuously rolling night-and-day high-resolution images, with computer-generated grid squares that could be pegged to fixed landmarks, to demonstrate complete coverage of the survey area. Ideally the images could be enlarged onscreen so that anyone with web access could cross-check the findings.
But the Blake survey predated the debut of the World Wide Web by more than two years, and predated the debut of Google Earth by 24 years. Even if Blake had begun with the advantages of Google Earth, which built on technology developed by the CIA, that technology did not yet exist in 1992.
Independent data point
Whatever deficiencies the Blake survey might have had, it provided an independent data point that could be used to contest BLM claims, including in court in lawsuits against specific roundups, and––probably most usefully––to compel the BLN and other government agencies to produce more convincing documentation for claims about alleged horse overpopulation and damage to drought-stricken rangeland.
Blake put his money behind his findings for months after publishing his survey data by maintaining billboards in Denver, Los Angeles, Reno, and Tucson protesting against BLM wild horse removals from the range.
Often spoke out
Blake went on to speak out passionately against wild horse removals at every opportunity for the rest of his life, including in speaking roles in the 2010 James Kleinert documentary Disappointment Valley: A Modern-Day Western and the 2011 Katia Louise documentary Saving America’s Horses: A Nation Betrayed.
Blake in 2009 served on the founding advisory board for Madeleine Pickens’ Saving America’s Mustangs Foundation, then joined the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs & Burros board in 2010. After his death, his family asked that memorial contributions by made to ISPMB in his name.
Also in 2010, Blake reprised his 1993 Los Angeles Times exposé in an op-ed distributed by In Defense of Animals, surprisingly little of which needed updating even after 17 years.
“Since 1971,” Blake alleged, “our horses have been given no protection at all. They have been shot to death, poisoned, rustled for slaughter and captured in the tens of thousands by a government charged with protecting them.
“ The BLM claims that the last of our wild horses are being captured to protect them from starvation, lack of water, over-breeding and disruption of cattle ranching. The only wild horses I have seen in starvation are those in captivity. On many occasions I have witnessed wild horses having to travel twenty or thirty miles a day for water because ranchers and the government have denied them water by fencing off access to streams.
“If the American laws we depend on were fair and equal, the Secretary of the Interior and the BLM squads involved in the roundups and killings would be defending themselves in court.”
Blake continued his writing career, producing 16 books altogether, mostly about the American West.
“His health deteriorated,” finished Brasch. “He had multiple sclerosis. He needed a heart bypass. Cancer spread through his body. Once robust, he was now gaunt. But, he would summon what strength he had left to write and to travel the country, speaking out about issues that mattered.”