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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!


  1. jill Stanley
    September 12, 2014

    not sure i could watch the roundup- exciting yes,but too hard, traumatic on the horses. not only the chase but as you state, the fate that awaits them….

  2. Cindra Lee Henry
    September 14, 2014

    Thank you for such a clear-headed neutral perspective. This is a sad situation that it seems could have been avoided completely with a little better planning. My only wish now (since the even it sure to take place) is that the horses be as safe as possible and that what ever the conditions they must endure in confinment that those conditions be as humane as possible. It is unfortunate that there isn’t somewhere where they could simply be allowed to roam unfettered as they have been able to do up to now.


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