Loading Selected Work...
Menu

Mustang Chronicles 005: Rawlins

Yesterday Christi Chapman of Rawlins, Wyoming took me on a 200 mile drive through her wild horse home range.

Christi and had hit it off at one of the gathers. She grew up on a ranch in Rawlins and has been making monthly, sometimes daily trips, even in winter, to observe these horses for several years. She knows the individual members and their relationships in the many family bands that live here, as well as being a dog trainer and running the local rescue, Caring-Learning-Connecting, so she has a good foundation in animal behavior. She, along with several other locals have documented and amassed a great deal of information about these horses. I appreciated her first hand knowledge and we found we shared a common vision.

The BLM manager for this area is forward thinking and open to using citizen volunteers to collect research data such as genetic information, which now can be gathered from dung. This is the kind of data gathering that volunteers who know the herds and individuals can do, takes thousands of hours to accomplish, and that the BLM and researchers, do not have the time or resources to fund. Unlike Divide Basin, Salt Wells Creek and Adobe Town, this area is smaller and more manageable; therefor it might work better here than in the huge, multi-million acre HMAs, but you never know. I just received an email from Wild Horse Preservation Campaign stating that trained volunteers are being used to dart horses with the contraceptive PZP in Fish Springs, NV.

CoyoteSunrise now is about 7am, so we met at 6 and Christi drove north of town to the Stewart Creek Horse Management Area. The Red Desert is high desert, at about 7,000 feet and the weather system that came through last night had dropped moisture and temperatures. It was in the low 40’s and flooded in the low-lying areas.

We moved slowly toward higher ground and after twenty miles or so spotted a herd of about forty horses. Christi knew the herd well but they were very far and galloped away from their watering hole. To conserve energy horses don’t do a lot of galloping, but they were frisky in the cold under the clearing skies, playing with each other and playing with us as well. Christi decided to go higher to look for another band and we would look for these guys on the way back.

We headed north toward the mountains. It was the first time since I’ve been in Wyoming I’ve seen trees not part of suburban landscaping. Scattered junipers appeared, getting thicker as we rose. The tree line here is down to about ten thousand feet, so there’s only a couple of thousand feet of scrappy forest between the desert sagebrush and upper tree line. We passed a hunter’s camper, a reminder that it is hunting season. I was informed that the horses get more skittish during the season. They are also much harder to spot in the trees. The military preferred black and dark bay horses since they were harder to spot, but here in the desert the fabulous variation in color help to camouflage the horses in the landscape, especially the buckskins, duns, dark greys, appaloosas and grullos. There is such a variety of color it’s mind blowing. One never sees these colors, in this much abundance in domestic horses. There were black, brown and gray paints, dark greys with black points, greys with white points, a stunning palomino stud, buckskins, duns, seal browns, claybanks, grullos, red, blue and grey roans, blanket, snowflake and roan appaloosas… The variety is endless.

Color-2BVariation

For a good look at color variations click here. We speculated whether the color variation could be from close breeding or just an adaptation to the environment.

Colors
A little research revealed that the dun gene, which is considered a primitive and dominant dilution gene, will lighten brown and black colors and also bring in the primitive buckskin dorsal stripe and sometimes striping on the legs or even shoulders. In the famous Soviet experiment in which scientists attempted to domesticate foxes for the fur trade, they selected for tame, easily handled foxes. Within two generations the foxes exhibited spotted fur, and tails as well as floppy ears. Not only did this make them useless for the fur trade, it revolutionized thinking about how long it might have taken to domesticate the dog.

No luck up high. The combination of cold weather, rain, hunting season has shifted the horses to their coming winter movements. We did see amazing vistas and the unsettled weather made for incredibly dramatic skies.

Clouds-2Bon-2Bthe-2Bland

Because one can see vast, uninterrupted vistas, the sky is huge and the clouds hung low over the land, while a fog line rose up between the low hills in front of us and the mountains behind to the east.

Clouds-2Bon-2Broad

A small band of dark horses rode the ridgeline, silhouetted by the while fog. I scrambled for my camera, but they were very far away and had dropped off the ridgeline before I could get a decent shot.

Sillhoette-2BPan

The county roads are long, straight dirt roads that cut across the desert. Dry you can travel at sixty mph on the packed clay, but today was muddy so caution was needed. There were deep, serpentine tire tracks where people had hit the mud going too fast. The last thing we wanted was to slip off into the deep, muddy ditches off the shoulders.

We finally found the morning’s herd on our return in the afternoon. Now it was even larger, other bands having joined. We watched, approached, sat, photographed until they settled, then approached, sat, photographed, chatted until they settled a half dozen times or more. Christi told me the history of many of the horses she knew.

Navajo-3ALightningFor example Navajo, a stunning brown paint with a lightning stripe of white down both shoulders and forelegs is a young stud which keeps slightly away from his band. Last year his nose had a severe injury, possibly a snake bite. He survived and this year is looking good. Anther grey was very lame last year, but now is doing well. She pointed out which adult horses were the colts and fillies of which mare or stallion, including who’s young studs had been driven off into bachelor bands. The herd let us know their boundary and after an hour or so had had enough and slowly moved off. We were done.

I’m very impressed with Christi’s 4WD Jeep Grand Cherokee. She was able to follow these barely discernible two tracks all over the dang desert. At one point we crossed what was either the Oregon or Overland Trail. I could see the faint rows of wagon wheel tracks going west. Once again I felt a bit of a shiver to be walking in the footsteps of history. By the time the pioneers crossed this desert the wild ponies of the Spanish were mostly gone, captured by Native Americans. By then they knew the value of and measured their wealth in those scrappy survivors of the Spanish ponies who had so successfully adapted to this harsh landscape.

This day we saw some foals only a month or two old and it’s already late September. To survive the sub zero winters, the horses will gather in a tight herd against the weather, taking turns on the outside, then pushing into the center to warm themselves. Ever protective of the foals, they keep them in the center of the circle. I fear that the oldest and weakest of the horses will be pushed to the outside of the herd and not be able force their way in to warm themselves, but I’m not so sure about this. The way they protect the foals, and their general cooperation makes me question whether this is true or not.

Christi told of a domestic grey with a brand in very poor condition that was with the herd last year. In a winter snow, he did not follow the herd down into a draw to seek protection from the wind. Another bachelor repeatedly went back to him, trying to get him to follow into the draw, nuzzling, walking away, looking back, and going back and forth between the grey and the herd. Finally, the grey followed, but Christi had not seen him with the herd this year.

It was getting late so we followed yet another faint two track in attempt to get back to the main two track! Cutting cross country, we came up on the south side of the herd we had been observing, and found another herd south of the road, this time with more blacks, and bays, slowly moving to join the main herd. We stopped and spent more time with these, letting them cross, get used to the car, then getting out to photograph and catalog.

Striped-2BMountains

The Ferris Mountains to the east were catching the late afternoon light, their long, white white stripe running the length of the range along the uplift.
Finally we made it back to the county road. Christi stopped when she saw the domestic grey from last year, off to the right by himself. Alone, but in very good condition, he had made it through last winter, though heavily scarred. Hopefully he’ll join the herd again this winter.

Christi dropped me back at my rig. I was exhausted both from being out from 6 to 6, and also full from the amount of verbal, visual and visceral information that had been uploaded. Always these days outdoors on the range, coupled with the amount of observational data and information gathered from the people I meet is more than I can process the same day.

Much thanks to Christi for her generous sharing of information, experience and landscape as well as a fabulous lunch at Huckleberry’s.

Goodbye Green River

I love this place. I love the open space and the incredible light. I like the people for the most part, even though many have strongly expressed some outrageously erroneous ideas about wildlife and the environment.

View-2Bfrom-2BtrailerI’m finding that most Wyoming-ans have an irrational hatred of wolves and blame them alone for diminishing game, refusing to believe that it could have anything to do with the changing environment or, just maybe, being a lousy hunter. “The only good wolf is a dead wolf” seems to be the prevailing view, even among certain wild horse specialists.

ATV2

Every day here has an incredible sunrise and sunset and I am reluctant to leave my awesome (free) camp. I can see the next cold, wet weather system coming up from the Uintas and patchy grey-blue clouds are smearing across the sky.
Cloud

I’d prefer a safer, lower elevation.

Find my trailer on the skyline about 1/3 from left margin.

Find my trailer on the skyline about 1/3 from left margin.

A call to my friends Julie and Jerry in Green River for advice results in an invitation to park next to their house for the night. Once again, their generosity has fulfilled a need that I didn’t have to express. I admire their “git ‘er done” ethic.

Trailer

I first met Julie and her friend Aileen when I was trying unsuccessfully to get water from the city pump. Turns out you need “the code,” which they had and proceeded to generously fill my jerry cans, invited me for a girls’ wine and manicure session at Aileen’s followed by dinner at Julie’s where I met her husband Jerry and their eleven year old daughter Jayden.
Jerry works at the Bridger Power Plant, built next to the rich, high grade Rock Springs coal mine, which has been giving it up for over a century and supplies power to ten western states. He gave me the numbers for the plant coal consumption, which boggle the mind.
When all four units are running the plant burns 1,200 tons of coal per hour. In 2013 they burned 8 million tons of coal. He put that in perspective for me: one rail car holds 110 tons of coal and a coal train is 100 cars. The plant uses one entire train of coal every 11 hours, 365 days a year. Which is why they built the plant at the mouth of the mine. Saves on shipping.
To my surprise I saw a Wired Magazine’s April 2014 cover story “Coal: It’s Dirty, It’s Dangerous and It’s the Future of Clean Energy,” promptly rebutted by Sierra Magazine’s April 03, 2014 answer Sorry Wired, Coal Isn’t the “Future of Clean Energy.” As usual, it’s hard for a citizen to know what the heck is going on. Which is why I am doing my own research on the wild horse debacle.

A few days ago Julie, Jaydan, Aileen and I went out on ATV’s. I never thought I’d ride one of those noisy abominations, but I reluctantly admit it was fun, and we traversed terrain I could never have accessed otherwise. It was a golden late afternoon.

ATV

We were in search of the spring that the Pilot Butte horses go to for water. I was told to go due west from an old wellhead a few miles past my camp. I had ridden (pushed) my bike at least fifteen miles one hot day searching for it unsuccessfully. We rode for probably thirty miles that afternoon, finally finding the spring, dropping down to the floor and following a long canyon. The earth here is thick adobe clay and down near the spring it was even more alkali, the white dust rising and then hanging in the air, especially deep in the canyon where there’s not much breeze to blow it off. I inhaled a lot of dust that afternoon. The spring is basically a giant mud pit since all the hoofed animals tear up any vegetation surrounding it. You can tell when the horses have been to the spring the previous night because they are caked with mud from rolling.

Several locals had told me they see a hundred horses at the spring but today was not that day. We continued south from the spring, back toward civilization and noticed that there were hoof prints leading into and back out of the spring on the south side so we still hoped to see horses.

Finally Julie spotted a few on a distant hillside, then further along another three. We shut down the ATV’s and Julie and Jaydan walked slowly toward the horses. They got very close and one of the two mares slowly grazed her way toward them. Later Julie said, “They aren’t wild horses, they’re horses in the wild.” She told me that the stallion had a very badly infected penis. We tend to think it’s all fun and games out there for the horses, running wild and free, but it’s not. It’s tough.

Trailer-2BSunset

Aileen wanted to try one more place so we circled back up to near my camp and off to the north we spotted part of the band that has been hanging out around camp. We watched yet another stunning sunset, and headed back to town. Can’t say an ATV is high on my want list, but it was a great way to experience in a few hours stunning country I could not have reached otherwise, except by backpacking and over several days.

The wind is picking up bringing the wet weather system sooner than later. I need to get off this mesa now. Overnight and then goodbye to Green River and off to Rawlins where Christie from Carbon County’s only no-kill rescue, www.caringlearningconnection.orgwill take me Monday to find some wild horses she has been observing for years.

Moonrise-2BHorses1

Mustang Chronicles 004: Divide Basin Gather-Adobe Town Lovers

Divide Basin Gather-Adobe Town Lovers

9-16-14 Woke at 4:30 in order to be at BLM at 6:15. It’s a solid ten minutes to get to the hard road and then another 25 to BLM. After being late yesterday as well as very disorganized about getting all my stuff into Norbert’s car, I’m trying to adhere to the adage, “If you’re on time, you’re late.” I organized the night before, so I was happy to be the second arrival and introduced myself to Jennifer, all the way from Culver City, a citizen observer! Another citizen observer would join us, Brian, a retired gentleman from Ogden, UT who does volunteer work with BLM there, observing horses. He has been following this a long time and is quite knowledgeable. Also with us were the New York Times, Carol, Ginger, Linda and Norbert who I would ride with again. It’s wonderful conversing with Norbert and getting his view on things like eating horsemeat. He told me only one place in Germany serves it as a sauerbraten in Cologne. However it is eaten all over Europe, especially France and Italy. He has the same conflicted feelings as I about how and why one species is considered so differently than another depending on culture. In many cultures dogs and cats are food. I woman I know told me as a child she ate dog tacos in Tijuana and they were very good. She didn’t know until the vendor was arrested for it and she saw him on TV. Ew.

In cultures where dogs are a surplus, they eat dog. Here, horses are in surplus. There are many thousands of wild horses in holding pens around the U.S. (as well as abandoned domestic horses in animal shelters). The numbers differ, but I have read that holding costs are as much as $46M a year. Gathered horses more than ten years old, or who have been passed over three times for adoption go to permanent long term holding. Because the numbers are increasing due to the gathers, I have heard some talk of euthanizing them but BLM denies this. Technically BLM cannot, since they are mandated to protect them, but laws can be changed. Once a horse or burro is adopted from the BLM the new owner cannot sell it for at least a year. But they can and have sold at least a hundred to buyers who state one intended use, pack horses for instance, keep them in holding for a year and then sell them to slaughter. While the horses are in the buyer’s “care,” many have died from neglect. Just this year some forty horses that were collected that ended up crossing the border to Canada for slaughter before the required announcement of availability for adoption and waiting period. It is my understanding that the mandate to protect is for horses on BLM land. Horses collected off Indian Reservations or private land can be sold to slaughter. Since horse slaughter is currently illegal in the U.S., these horses go to Canada or worse, Mexico, where the regulations regarding humane slaughter are not anything like what they are in the U.S. And we still have a long way to go in that department. However tracking a captured wild horse or burro for life is beyond the means of the BLM program. Additionally 1,200 horses have recently been returned to BLM from a prison program at Gunnison, CO do to a corruption issue and one of the largest long term holding facilities has recently closed because the price of beef is up and it is more profitable for the owner to hold cattle. That, along with the every increasing numbers in the herds means there are thousands more horses for which there are neither homes nor holding facilities.

I have to say once again, that the BLM people I have spoken to on the ground care very much about the animals in their care, but they are not the ones making the decisions. The gathering contractor, as much as I could witness seems to be adhering absolutely to the humane guidelines established by BLM and posted on their website and can also be seen here. What happens on the bureaucratic end desperately needs improvement.

Perhaps a well-administered PZP contraceptive program to hold the existing populations in check would do it, but there are problems with the program I will get into in another post. I’m told that in the Prior Mountain herd it is working well and the herd is stable. There they are also using citizen volunteers, something I think could be used to greater benefit, to dart the mares with the contraceptive. It’s said that the mountain terrain allows for easier access to the horses, however yesterday I was shooting (with a camera) horses in Salt Wells Creek and Adobe Town that came within twenty five feet of me on open rangeland.

Yesterday’s gather of some of the Divide Basin horses was a total bust. This time we were several miles from the trap site and it was not visible. Troy Cattoor visited us on his 6-year-old palomino, looking for all the world like TV cowboy. He has been called a sadist. To me he seemed arrogant. In subsequent days I would change my opinion. About 1pm many of us were tired of baking in the sun. The Times guys and Norbert decided to wait it out. Late in the day they would finally get their shots, which I was to miss as I hitched a ride with Jennifer who wanted to go down into Salt Wells and look for horses. It was a good choice. We went deep into that HMA, all the way to Adobe Town, where I had not wanted to take the van on Saturday.

After about thirty miles, we spotted a herd of maybe fifteen horses. We got out to shoot, she walking directly to them. I went up into the wind and came down from the west into drainage and was able to sit there while she pushed the horses to me. Once I was spotted I sat still and let them come to me, which they did. Unfortunately there were stallions on either end of the herd, which kept me pinned down for a good long while. When they finally settled I came toward them a few steps at a time. Jennifer had advised me, quite rightly to clear all the settings on my camera and it was behaving SO much better, the bracketed shots coming off much quicker and I FINALLY found the spot focus adjustment. Now, finally, after losing so many great shots to fuzz, I could focus on their eyes!

The horses played around and did their “curiosity” thing, their “trying to scare” me thing and then settled again. There was the oddest little foal, a dappled palomino and cream pinto. He was funny looking until he got close and you could see what the coloring actually was. I have never seen anything like it.

IMG_7215-2B-2BVersion-2B3Eventually the herd moved off, but one older, dark chestnut stallion with a big, thick neck stayed with his under age girlfriend. A little yearling filly, cream colored with a narrow muzzle and huge, soft doe eyes. Jennifer called her a faun. They nuzzled and posed for the camera for a good five minutes before he walked away and she followed. They are so love drunk they walked to within 25 feet of me.
I’m always a little nervous about getting between horses or splitting a herd, but I wasn’t frightened of these guys. They were calm. They walked around me to join the disap-pearing herd and I called it a day, went back to Jennifer and the car and we continued back to the hard road.

IMG_7260-2B-2BVersion-2B2The country here is breathtaking. Living in a city or place with short sight lines, you can’t comprehend the sense of space. Our eyes physiologically adapt to the perspective of our environment. In a famous example forest people in Africa were shown an elephant in the far, far distance. They refused to believe it was a large animal, insisting that it was a little, tiny animal not that far away because in their forest one could not see more than a few paces. They had never encountered that kind of distance. The late afternoon light came sideways under huge, white clouds and lit Kinney Rim’s red stripes. There were showers all around with blue-grey rain lines not quite reaching the ground.

They are actually smiling.

They are actually smiling.

IMG_7269-2B-2BVersion-2B5No stops on the way home. Exhaustion. It was a stunning sunset. I think I got the best photo ever of the butte across the way. The light here just doesn’t stop!!! They are moving the trap tomorrow and I am glad of the rest.

IMG_7237

Mustang Chronicles 003:First Gather

When I was packing for this trip my friend Karen and I went back and forth about why I should/shouldn’t bring my old chaps or riding leggins. I told her, as I had been saying for some months, “I feel horses in my future.”

If you had told me then, that today I would be standing shoulder to shoulder with Ginger Kathrens, the filmmaker who did the PBS Nature films, Cloud, Wild Stallion of the Rockies and Carol Walker of Living Images shooting wild horses in the Wyoming desert, I would have said, “GET OUT!” But this morning at 7:30 am found me sitting in a rented SUV belonging to Norbert Hoefler, a tall, thin German journalist who writes for Stern, a German human interest magazine similar to Time with a readership of seven million. Soft spoken, intelligent and thoughtful, I liked him immediately. We were on our way to the first gather of the Salt Creek Horses. I prayed that it wouldn’t be the group I had photographed on Saturday. We had met in the Rock Springs BLM parking lot at 6:45. Besides the BLM handlers there wered  a young local journalist, Ginger Kathrens, her friend Linda, Carol Walker, Norbert and me. I thought there would have been more public.
We drove to the Bitter Creek exit, 19S and turned off very soon into one of the oil & gas roads. We passed the trucks and trailers of the Cattoor family, the contractors who conduct the gathers. These days they are the only game in town. It’s expensive operation with two helicopters and two backups, drivers and a number of people on the ground. There were two medium and one small corrals set up at the end of a cut through two hills. After being gathered, the horses would be separated into stallions, mares and foals before being loaded. On the other side of the cut were long, jute snow fences narrowing into the cut into which the horses would be driven by helicopter. We drove up over a ridge, out of site of the trap and walked back a short way to the prescribed viewing area. It was at least half a mile away. There was much grumbling from those who had been to gathers before. Ginger has been documenting the wild horses for over twenty years, Carol since 2004 and Linda 2010. The subjects were specs in my new 400mm lens.
We waited for a long time listening for the helicopter that would signal the arrival of horses. The morning air was chilly. After a while we heard the helicopter and saw dust clouds. The fist group was arriving. About ten horses appeared in the distance being led by a Pinto stallion. They were herded uneventfully into the trap. Truly, it was very hard to see what was going on. There were a couple of foals with the group. The pinto was very upset in the corrals and once they got the stallions loaded they took him out of the trailer again as he was so distraught. The stallions were fighting in the trailer and at one point one went down. They were in the trailer for a long time, well over a half hour before being hauled down to the short term holding to be sorted and vetted, but the morning air was still chilly. The BLM vet catalogues each horse by sex, color, markings, vets them for infectious disease and vaccinates there. Every attempt is made to keep foals with their mothers unless they are old enough to be weaned and then they are kept with other weanlings.
A long time later the next group came in. We could hear the helicopter to the south below a ridge. This group was not coming so easily. There was some back and forth and finally a small family band of five horses appeared trailing a very young foal.

They had come a long way and were all tired. I have to say the helicopter pilot seemed to be doing a good job of letting them move at a pace that allowed the foal to keep up. Ginger and Carol thought the foal was only a week or two old. I thought a bit older, but they have much more experience than I. The foal was separated for safekeeping and every attempt is made to reunite them with their mare. In this case very likely since there is only one nursing foal and will most likely be only one lactating mare. Still, the separation must be terrifying. Horses have strong family bonds and mares and stallions are both very protective of foals.
 

 


We heard the helicopter go back out and work the draw on the other side of the ridge, out of sight of us. After a very long time we saw that he was bringing in a lone stallion who had most likely escaped the little family band that had just come in. He was shiny black with a wide white blaze and two white boots. Ginger named him Blaze Two Boots. The helicopter pushed him in between the fences toward the Judas horse, a domestic horse trained to run back to the trap in hopes that the wild horses will follow. The BLM prefers to use the term “pilot horse” but, hey… Two Boots took one look at the Judas horse, turned tail and headed out of the trap. The helicopter pilot tried to push him back, but Two Boots kept evading it, finally challenging the helicopter! Once I saw that he was no longer afraid of the helicopter I knew it was game over. The group was elated. They wisely decided to let Two Boots get away. He cantered back behind the ridge he came from.

We walked back to the cars discussing the days events when I heard Jay say, “There’s your money shot.” On the top of the ridge, staring intently at us, ears pricked, was Two Boots. I fumbled with my camera and was just able to get a few shots off before he turned tail and trotted out of sight. I thought I had gotten the only shot and was disappointed to see my photo on the front page of the next day’s paper. Apparently Shelley, the BLM communications gal who had been standing beside me also got the shot and the credit. Boo hoo. Still, it was a great ending to a sad story.

There was much grumbling among those more experienced than me about how far we were from the trap. Apparently the trap was on private land and we must be kept on public land. Also, these horses are no dummies. Horses are very xenophobic and if they sense anything out of the ordinary it makes the job that much harder. Thankfully, this was not the herd I shot on Saturday.

Mustang Chronicles 002:Salt Wells Creek

After visiting the Salt Wells Creek HMA yesterday I’m starting to have a LOT of questions. It is an extremely sparse area. I only got maybe twenty miles into it south of I 80 on a dirt road used mainly by eighteen wheelers attached to oil and gas concerns there. It seems all this area is leased to them for what’s below ground, and to the ranchers for what’s above. Oil, gas (including fracking) and mining are the local industries and employers. People here can afford new pick ups and SUV’s and prices are comparable with L.A. The Salt Wells Creek area is barren with beautiful striated grey and red hills. The dust is, well let’s say my van will never be the same. I wanted a bandana over my nose and mouth like in old time westerns, and I kept my camera in a plastic bag. It was slow going on those roads for my van, but the big trucks fly down them raising enormous dust clouds that hang in the air as they slowly move east with the wind before dissipating, leaving a thick film over every surface of the van and grit in my eyes. And that’s with windows closed.

AntelopeI continued to the ruins of Fort LeClede and the Overland Stage, about fifteen miles further. Saw a couple of herds of pronghorn along the way. They require much more distance than the horses do. They don’t have the horses’ native curiosity and playfulness as they are wild, not feral. Fort LeClede and the Overland Stage are indeed ruins, sandstone blocks mortared together with adobe. It must have been no more than a stage stop that needed a fort to defend it. I tried to imagine myself coming from St. Louis or ???, and either over nighting or being stationed here.

Ft.-2BLeClede2Hard to imagine anyone wanting to stay through the seasons here, but again comes my question, “What did this range look like when Euro-Americans first saw it a hundred and seventy five years ago?” Did it look like a great place to ranch with plenty of forage? Now there is lots of barren earth between the scrub and very few grasses. Then there may have even been buffalo and plentiful sage grouse which are now endangered.
Ft.-2BLeClede

The list of sensitive species in this area is long: Pygmy Rabbit, Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, both White and Black Tailed Prairie Dogs, Spotted Bat, Wyoming and Idaho Pocket Gophers, Swift Fox, Northern Goshawk, Baird’s Sparrow, Sage Sparrow, Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Greater Sage Grouse, Mountain Plover, Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Trumpeter Swan, Peregrine Falcon, Loggerhead Shrike, Long Billed Curlew, Sage Thrasher, White Faced Ibis, Brewer’s Sparrow, Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse and fish, amphibians and other indicator species too numerous to list.

Continued back to the main road, the afternoon light hiding behind scattered clouds. Without any obstruction and in the northern latitude, the golden time lasts forever. It wouldn’t be dark until 8:30. I felt disappointed that I had failed once again to find horses and that this might be my last chance. Almost to the main road, off to my right about a mile away, horses! A whole herd! They were grazing on the south side of a shallow slope. If I turned right on the main road I could get above and a little ahead of them. I don’t like to approach from behind. That’s what predators do, so they just take off running. It’s better if I can get them to come to me. So I did just that.

IMG_6131-2B-2BVersion-2B2Once I started trekking cross country I ran into a herd of pronghorn. I hoped seeing them run off wouldn’t spook the horses. Sure enough, the horses had worked their way up-slope and now were coming north toward me. Soon I was spotted by the lead mare and then, when they could see me the whole herd just froze and stared. Horses are so innately curious that their first response is to just look at me like, “What the hell is that?” The bolder ones trotted out toward me, nostrils flaring, manes flying, making themselves very big and proud. It’s just gorgeous to watch. There is a hint of aggression in it, but they are chickens at heart, so they take their shot, I turn my body away from them, and they stop and stare.

IMG_6142-2B-2BVersion-2B3-2B-1- IMG_6189

IMG_6355-2B-2BVersion-2B2Over the next couple of hours we would play the pressure game. They move away, then their curiosity gets the better of them, they turn and stare, decide it’s okay. Then I can get some shots off.

They are very curious about the sound of the camera. Often when they are doing something interesting and I shoot, they stop to stare and I lose the shot. After a while I will turn my body away, pretend to ignore them and move a little closer. They have a definite invisible boundary. When I hit that, they spin, and circle away as one fluid entity, like a school of fish or a murmuration of starlings.

IMG_6202-2B-2BVersion-2B2If you’ve ever seen Cavallo, the feats those horses perform are all natural herd behaviors, shaped into a breathtaking performance. Only that’s a dozen horses on stage and this is twenty or thirty on hundreds of thousands of acres. Repeatedly I think I’ve lost them, but they hit their invisible safety zone, turn and curiously stare.

IMG_6199-2B-2BVersion-2B2

This herd has fabulous colors. Palominos, greys, sorrels, roans that seem mixed with appaloosa, bays, chestnuts.

IMG_6479-2B-2BVersion-2B2
The lead stallion is a dark chestnut with a white blaze who poses very much like a gaited horse. There are several foals and yearlings in the group. The mares are very protective and keep their foals behind them.

GreyThere is also a steel grey stallion with a white mask which I saw first as he was separate from the herd and I was afraid he would tip my hand. As I watch them interact, I see that he is a young bachelor stallion either trying to join the herd, challenge the lead stallion, or both. The lead stallion, possessor of many more battle scars, chases him off repeatedly. After one chase the lead stallion leaves a nice calling card. The grey immediately goes to sniff it, and then leaves his card on top and afterward urinates on the pile for good measure.

IMG_6358-2B-2BVersion-2B2
The lead stallion also has a special interest in young bay. He chases him off and at one point they neigh and rear up, pawing at each other. Whenever there is any ruckus, the rest of the herd watches the politics intently. I notice that this pair is different.

IMG_6360-2B-2BVersion-2B2

There is more neck nuzzling and affection. Then I realize that the bay is not another stallion, but a mare that is getting special attention.

IMG_6205-2B-2BVersion-2B2
So we do our little dance for a couple of hours. Every time I think I’ve blown it, pushed too hard and they’re taking off for good, they simply circle around like a school of fish and come back to watch me. We are in relationship. I am as curious about them as they are of me. I believe their innate curiosity is part of the fondness most people have for horses. For a long while I just sit in the dirt and watch.

IMG_6479-2B-2BVersion-2B2The red hills behind them start to glow with the evening light. I wait for the sun to drop below the clouds for one more round of photos. They have stayed, watching, interested, for two hours. As the light fades and I get up from the dirt and start to leave, they line up on a little ridge, as for a family portrait. I’ve been trying to stay distant and not get pulled into the emotion of this wild horse conflict.

IMG_6599-2B-2BVersion-2B2
Now the sadness wells up within me. I feel that if I could just sit here, that the herd’s curiosity would outweigh their fear and very quickly they would to come investigate me. But then would they still be “wild?”

IMG_6697-2B-2BVersion-2B2

Each time I start to walk away, I have to turn back and I see that they are still intently watching me. I surrender to another wave of sadness, knowing what they do not; that these are their last days of freedom, that their families will be broken, some may be injured or die and their lives will never be the same. I say a long prayer for them. I speak to them and ask of them, if you cannot escape, do not fight too hard. I ask whatever gods watch over us to protect them, ease their way and not let them be too frightened. The twilight spreads intense pinks, oranges and blues over the horizon. I wipe my tears and see cows across the road.

Salt-2BWells-2BSunsetI drive slowly back on the dirt road. The cows move lethargically across to join the others. A coyote crosses in front of me, small, fox-like, with a black tip on his tail. Nothing like the coyotes that stroll boldly up and down the streets of Hollywood. The small creatures of the desert night come to drink from the tire ruts still filled with last week’s small rain. A dwarf rabbit looks up, frightened. It seems to me that in nearly a million acres, there might be room for 300 horses. I have questions.

Mustang Chronicles No. 001

To make it easier to discern the Wild Horse entries from my personal travelogue and essays, I will title the horse entries: Mustang Chronicles No. xxx.

I was notified by BLM (yes, I’m now on the list) late Wednesday night that the “gather” of the Salt Creek, Adobe Town and Divide Basin horses will take place Monday 9/15. I feel fortunate that I happen to be in the right place at the right time to witness something few people get to see and, something that is so contentious and that combines so many of my passions. I’ve been a horse lover since toddlerhood, and have had the opportunity to own a couple and ride many, even riding for a trainer in my twenties, mostly hunter/jumpers, then dabbling in dressage to improve my horsemanship skills. When I was two, my dad made the mistake of putting me on the saddle in front of him on trail rides. My parents told stories of how on “sunday drives” (people did that in the fifties) if they spotted horses on the left, they would say, “Oh Kerry, look over there!” and point my attention to the right, because if I saw horses I would pitch a fit, screaming for them to stop so I could go to the horses. It’s interesting how some kids enter life with strong, seemingly pre-formed traits, talents and identities. I come by it honestly however. The Irish have had a long standing love affair with horses and my paternal grandfather was a jockey in his youth. Quien sabe?

One of the many reasons that this gather is so contentious is that the BLM, under pressure from the Rock Springs Grazing Association (RSGA), is planning not simply to reduce numbers, but zero out the herds in all three Wild Horse Management Areas in question, over 1,700 horses. This may could impact genetic health as it will close some corridors.

Circled are the three WHMA targeted in next week’s gather.

Circled are the three WHMA targeted in next week’s gather.

The Wild Horse and Burro Act was enacted in 1971. In 1979 the RSGA brought suit and it was agreed that the BLM would remove ALL horses from the Checkerboard lands, except those that the RSGA voluntarily agrees to. To date the combined target numbers for the three areas to be gathered next week were a low of 1,276 to high of 1,765 horses. This most recent suit of 4/3/13 brought by RSGA against BLM (I have the actual document), charges that BLM has not kept the herds at or below the level the RSGA agreed in 1979. Now it appears that the RSGA is demanding the zeroing out of all three herds, and maintaining the White Mountain herd at it’s minimum level of 205 head through sterilization, which will eventually zero that herd. I have also heard suggestions that watering stations be installed in the White Mountain management area, which is already has a wild horses viewing loop, essentially turning that into a captive “wild” horse tourist attraction.

The Checkerboard is, in my opinion, one of the more idiotic things our government has ever done, giving Union Pacific Railroad one section (one square mile) of Public Land (yes, yours and mine) for every mile of track laid, every other mile, for twenty miles north and south of the rail lines, creating a checkerboard of private and public land that runs roughly along I 80, mostly in southern Wyoming, but also parts of northern Colorado and Utah. How they ever expected to manage thousands of square miles, where there is not more than one single contiguous mile, falls into the “what were they thinking?” category. At the same time, the BLM is mandated to manage ALL of the checkerboard lands as one piece, even though roughly half is privately owned. This is just one of many areas that get really sticky. You can see how the BLM is between a rock and a hard place on that one. To read more about the Checkerboard and this very influencial but wacky bit of western history, click here: Checkerboard

On the other side, The Wild Horse Preservation Society, The Cloud Foundation, Return to Forever and others have brought counter-suit, seeking an injunction against the gathering on the grounds that the BLM is not meeting it’s obligations, also under the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 as to how they manage the thousands of horses that are already in custody.

The roundups that were scheduled to happen in early August were put on legal hold while the judge reviewed the proposed injunction at which time the BLM voluntarily postponed the roundups until September 12, in order to give the advocates time to gather additional information. I suspect that the additional time generously granted by BLM may also have been because the original round up contractor was no longer available after the postponement. Additionally on July 16, 2014 in Rock Springs, the BLM held an Annual Statewide Public Hearing regarding the Use of Helicopters and Motorized Vehicles in Wild Horse Management Operations. Interestingly there was just one respondent present at that hearing, Don Schramm from the RSGA with no scientific evidence presented. The entire meeting took 10 minutes. As my mom used to say, the thot plickens.

What I have heard damn little discussion of, is what is best for the range? We hear about the desertification of sub Saharan Africa, the Brazilian rain forest, but the dirty little secret is the desertification of the American west in the past hundred and fifty years. I have not got to the bottom of this yet, since the arguments on both sides are completely polarized, emotional and factually incomplete or plain wrong.

Range-2BCondtionHorses are good for the range, cattle and sheep ruin the range. Horses ruin the range, cattle and sheep are good for the range. Horses tear grass up by the roots, cattle don’t and vice versa. I will write more extensively about this soon, but suffice to say the issue is more complicated that either the RSGA or the wild horse advocates are claiming.

The issues of what happens to the horses, thousands of them, after they are captured is another thing entirely. On this I have to fall on the side of the horse advocates. There are big questions about their care and fate after capture. There are currently some 3,400 hundred head of horses in permanent holding near Kansas City.

I am somewhat sympathetic to the BLM. They are being sued by the grazing association on one hand, and the horse advocates on the other, trying to appease both, satisfying neither, and the horses pay the price. In spite of the adoption program, BLM is stuck being responsible for thousands of horses in holding pens, probably for life, costing you and me many millions of dollars. Wild horses reproduce at about 20% a year. Without predators herds double every 3-4 years. Birth control is difficult and according to advocates, mis-managed. There are numerous problems with birth control too complicated to get into here. More on that later.

What I have seen here in Rock Springs is that the BLM people on the ground CARE about these horses. They are not ogres, not a bunch of unfeeling bureaucrats. Many of them have adopted wild horses themselves. This is just one of the reasons I am finding this all so fascinating. There are very caring people on all sides of this emotional, high stakes dilemma, and a huge disconnect at the same time. Bureaucracies and democracy are cumbersome, slow and there’s always a good chance of corruption and graft.

Last night to Polar Express blew in from Canada and temperatures dropped over thirty degrees in just a few hours. I check my weather radio several times a day and thankfully this time NOAA was ahead of the game. I spent several hours yesterday draining all water from my trailer and last night I sacrificed the hot water bottle that usually stays near my feet, putting it next to the water pump which is in a stupid place and it’s a hideously awkward job to disconnect and drain. Good thing because when I got home last night it was 28 degrees and hit a low of 22 for much of the night. I tried to park the van as a wind break, but with 35 mile an hour winds, gusting 45 to 50, it didn’t help much. I was plenty warm but I can’t say I got much sleep for the rockin’ and rollin’. There was condensation ice on the inside of west facing window this morning.

Not a great pic but the only one with feet. Look at that chest!

Not a great pic but the only one with feet. Look at that chest!

The fact that the horses have adapted to survive this harsh, desert environment is not insignificant.

Not a great pic but the only one with feet. Look at that chest!
Their legs are thick and straight, their chests wide and deep, their feet large, round, thick walled and well trimmed. They only drink water once every day or two, sheltering deep in the draws and coming up with the sun for warmth. I don’t think a thin skinned Thoroughbred would last long. A local trainer of both domestic and feral horses says his domestic horse is always tripping in holes and such, while his mustang never misses a step. There is something to admire and I think be gained in that.

Today is for more research and possibly scouting the herds in question. I bought the BLM maps for the areas, nothing but a maze of long, deep, convoluted drainages and ridges that fold in on themselves with damn few passable dirt roads. I might even get off this 7000 foot, unprotected mesa if I find the right place. Wish me luck!

The Checkerboard

Roughly half the wild horses in Wyoming are known as the Checkerboard Horses because in the 1800’s when the railroad was being built here the government did something that in my opinion ranks as one of stupidest moves ever, one that has basically destroyed the environment of the west and from which it still has not recovered. This includes the extermination of the buffalo, all the top predators (more on that later) and of course the indigenous people. In addition to the extermination of all large native beings as well as the Passenger Pigeon (at one point one in four birds in the U.S. was a Passenger Pigeon!), a century of overgrazing has turned what once was grassland into the Great Basin desert. Due to the phenomenon of generational amnesia, today we imagine that this area was always a desert except a million years ago when dinosaurs roamed, however most of our deserts were actually created in the last hundred and fifty years, due to poor grazing practices driven by the same (Eurocentric, patriarchal, manifest destiny informed) greed that continues to destroy rather than steward our planet. But I digress.

In order to hurry the settlement (and destruction) of the west the U.S. Government took the view that this land was “vacant” and “uninhabited” conveniently depriving Native Americans, like slaves, of human status. Our government gave Union Pacific as an incentive, (if you recall your American History it was a race, hence the term “railroaded through”) a section of Public Land, or one square mile, for every mile of track it laid. But it wasn’t contiguous land, it was every other mile for first ten, and later twenty miles north and south of the track, resulting in what is now called The Checkerboard.

CheckerboardBecause of the prohibitive cost of fencing this land remains unfenced, as it should for the benefit of wild life and the health of the range and it is my understanding that the BLM is mandated to manage the entire

Dark yellow is BLM. 40 mile swath along I 80 is Checkerboard.

Dark yellow is BLM. 40 mile swath along I 80 is Checkerboard.

Checkerboard as if it is one piece of land. It would follow then, that what is good stewardship for the BLM sections is good for the privately held sections.

This seems simple enough but of course it’s not. The grazing concerns claim that the horses are overgrazing their (government subsidized) allotments. Hunters are concerned that the horses are using resources that should be only for game animals, though populations should be kept in control by the missing top predators, which of course have been eradicated by the grazing concerns. Grazing allotments are for grazing sheep or cattle, which obviously are not native to the landscape. Yet raising buffalo does not get one the allotment or subsidy that cattle do. So the government essentially undercuts anyone trying to raise good meat animals that are indigenous to and help rather than hurt the range and supports and subsidizes ranchers who are grazing animals that are more harmful on Public Lands. Public lands. Now you can take the view that the land belongs to the government, or, I would argue, since it’s public land, it belongs to the public. You and me. Or, that it’s a public land trust, belonging to the public and held in trust by the government. Either way, the government then has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the land in a way that is best for public, not caving into private concerns. The cattle are not owned by the public nor does the public derive profit from them. Cattle are a privately held asset. So to summarize, we’ve got the owners of privately held assets pressuring the BLM to remove horses from public and privately held land that is administered by the government so that they may increase their profits by use of land belonging to you and me, at no benefit to you or me.

Grazing concerns lobbying state and federal government for both use of public land and the removal of all predators is nothing new, but the issue of management of wild horses is complicated by this checkerboard scenario as horses cannot see the imaginary line between public and private square miles.

Moonrise-2BHorses1

From Breckenridge to Rock Springs

Spent a weekend in Breckenridge with my friend Betsy Bracken, a fine jewelry maker who was there for a big arts festival. I helped her set up and then was free to check out the town, whereas she was confined to her booth. It was cold and rainy, down to 32 one night, but in the mountains (9000 feet here) the weather changes every five minutes. Layers are requisite. The play of light and the changing color on the higher eleveations around Breck, including Quandry Peak at 14,265, were breathtaking. This is the land of the 14er’s. Hard to photograph because the light changes from minute to minute.

This lasted about 30 seconds at 6am

This lasted about 30 seconds at 6am

Betsy had a successful show in spite of the rain and it was fun to wander the town which is very cute with expensive shops and high priced real estate as it’s a world class ski destination and only an hour or so from Denver.

I decided to leave the cold and rain and head north on Sunday, avoiding Labor Day traffic. First stop only fifteen minutes away, the little town of Frisco offers everything Breck does but with a significant medical community, small town feel, super nice locals and they tell me, no waiting during ski season! Spent a very long time in a coffee shop there abusing their wifi and planning my next stop. I decided to visit Rock Springs, WY and the Wild Horse Management Area at Pilot Butte where it’s said one can see wild horses and the camping is free. Sounds good to me.
So down I go to I 70 and Silverthorne, a large suburban, big box community close to Frisco, making that an even more desirable mountain town, since it’s tucked behind enough land that one can’t hear I 70, but close to every emenity, including Denver, a major air hub. Pretty cool. North of Silverthorne the land opens up. Still major mountains in the 12,000 foot range, but big open meadows and ranches that run along the Blue River for miles. Again, the early evening thunderstorms create a stupendous light show on the peaks.

From there all the way through to Steamboat Springs on 40 along the Yampa River was some of the most incredible mountain country I’ve ever seen. Steamboat was meh for me. Very beautiful, but somehow very white bread. Layers of cookie cutter ski condos. I continued on toward Craig and overnighted at a nice little rest stop on the ??? that I found in an eBook I purchased last year and has been a big help. Just as I was ready to leave, Iggy ran down into the drainage ditch along side the meadow and found something dead to roll in, came back and jumped straight in the van. Ew. I scrubbed his stinky little face and neck with Simple Green and then hosed him with a pressurized hand sprayer that has come in very, very handy, and towelled him off. Cold? Too bad. Stink dog.

As I continued north the land turns into more open range. A historical marker kiosk tells how from the mid 1800’s to the 1930’s the grassland here (and throughout the west) was destroyed in less than a century through overgrazing and greed driven range wars. In 1934 Teddy Roosevelt began to appoint range managers who had the power of law to limit grazing and attempt to restore the grassland. Sadly the same ignorant methodology that caused the Dust Bowl had already begun the desertification of America’s grasslands that continues today.

Continuing on 40 into arid country and Dinosaur National Monument I learned a new word, “hogback” which refers to an area where layers of hard rock and soft sandstone are pushed up and which to some people look like a hog’s back. To me they looked like giant sleeping dinosaurs.

Hogback

Hogback


Now I was in dry country, the Great Basin.

On into Vernal, UT and wanted to look at some highly recommended petroglyphs but I mistook the directions and didn’t realize it until I was well north on 191 toward Flaming Gorge. Neither did I anticipate the strain on the van pulling the trailer up those switchbacks. After getting through Wolf Creek Pass at nearly 11,000 feet on the way to Breckenridge I’d been nervous about the van and this was to be another test. I put on the emergency flashers, geared down to second and chugged up for a half hour at twenty five mph. Fortunately since it was Labor Day all the traffic, giant pick ups with huge trailers and toy haulers, was going the other way, back toward civilization. Flaming Gorge has to be seen. If you want to experience some of the most stunning natural beauty on earth, make it there. Sedimentary rock carved by the Green River over millennia, Flaming Gorge was named by John Wesley Powell in 1869. The folds of red rock, sandstone and green sage canyons top out in the most beautiful aspen forest I’VE ever been in. There was a pull out with a nature walk, and I was grateful to give the van a rest and loose my grip on the wheel. I found myself in a thick grove of aspen and low juniper mixed meadow and forest that was filled with bird song. There were tons of robins there of both sexes and I was glad to see lots of juveniles. I saw many shafted flickers, which are a very atractive bird with barred wings and yellow throats and lots of unidentifiable (by me) little grey birds. This was a joyous place. Next time I’ll leave the dogs in the car.

Flaming Gorge descends as long, winding and steep as it ascends through the Uinta Mountains to the dam that creates Flaming Gorge Reservoir and National Recreation Area. Again, words fail me to describe how spectacular it is. However I can’t help but wonder how beautiful it was once, before the dam building frenzy of the mid twentieth century flooded the gorge and the homes and towns there, damning the magnificent, free flowing Green River which drains five mountain ranges in Wyoming and is the major feed of the Colorado.

I continued my descent on 191 into the town of Rock Springs, WY and then over to Green River, my destination for wild horses. I managed to find the dirt road that leads up to White Mountain, which is actually a high plateau that ranges from 6,300 to 7,900 feet. It was late afternoon by now and the light was getting good. The road is a bit washboard-y which the Casita HATES. I went slowly and topped at a pull out with an expansive view of the oasis town of Green River, it’s railroad line and the bad land buttes to the south and east. To the southwest are the Uintas and Flaming Gorge, far in the distance to the north I can just see the Tetons and to the north/northeast, across the continental divide and Great Divide Basin the Wind River Mountains which include the Prior Mountains, home of the Prior Horses, stars of Ginger Kathrine’s two PBS Nature Documentaries, Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies.

Since the light is simply fabulous, I drop the trailer and only have to drive a quarter of a mile before I find two wild horses. Beginner’s luck! I was surprised to find they are not that “wild.” These two are very accustomed to people and let me get quite close to photograph them. The sorrel is less shy than the nearly black, both bachelor stallions. In the next week I will see them often. They are buddies, always together and for whatever reason not seeking to join the main herd. Since all the “wild” horses are really feral horses descended from domestic stock, they are not nearly as wild as other prey ungulates. These guys look like they could even be someone’s saddle horses that were let go, which is how these horses got here in the first place. By WWII mechanized vehicles and aircraft displaced the horse, military cavalry was disbanded and the horses were released into “the wild.” The horses here are most closely related to the North American gated breeds prized by the cavalry for their smooth ride. Genetic testing relates them to the Rocky Mountain Horse, American Saddlebred, Standardbred and Morgan.

The-2BBoysI shoot until they are done with me and down the road a bit I find another sorrel stallion who requires a larger comfort zone. He is however magnificent and fits every romantic icon of a wild horse. The light fades and I return to settling in. The light takes forever to fade. There is no obstruction. This plateau is the definition of “space.” I feel golden.

Stay tuned for some action photos when I find the herd… Love to hear your comments, suggestions, etc. Subscribe to be notified when there’s a new entry…

Lead-2BStallion