SUPERIOR — Their manes and tails flying in the air, the wild horses trot, canter and gallop ahead of the buzzing, weaving helicopter.
The band of five dodges and jukes as the helicopter darts to and fro trying to drive them toward two hundred-yard long jute fences set in a “V”. At the V’s far end stands the trap corral where their freedom to roam, and impact, the range would end.
Once in the corral with the gate shut behind them, the free-ranging feral horses would become part of the Bureau of Land Management’s removal and reduction program, one that seeks to round up 4,300 wild horses in coming months.
But this band won’t bite.
After being pushed by the helicopter for miles, the group charges away from the mouth of the trap, splits apart, runs up a steep hillside and regroups. It’s pushed back toward the trap only to evade, again and again, the aim of the herding pilot.
Finally, contract wranglers and the BLM call off the pursuit, likely to avoid exhausting the band as outlined in roundup guidelines.
This band will go free, at least today.
Wild horses and mustangs are branded culturally in American myth, reality and hearts. Thursday, this “impressive” band made it into the lexicon of legend alongside Ficka, Whiskey and Misty of Chincoteague, earning the nickname “The Defiant Five” from wild horse advocate Lynn Hanson.
“The Defiant 5, were chased up and down rocky hills and terrain for about an hour,” Hanson wrote in a report for the American Wild Horse Campaign. “[E]very time they got near the trap site the horses brilliantly split up and ran in different directions.”
Brad Purdy, a BLM spokesman from Cheyenne, organizes the public viewing of the roundups — they’ll be ongoing for weeks, potentially months — meeting civilians, activists, reporters and photographers in Rock Springs before dawn. He walks a tightrope between the “me-Brad and the BLM-Brad,” building relationships with his guests and explaining agency policy and roundup tactics.
“I’m not rooting for one side or the other,” he says with a caveat: He wants the BLM job done efficiently.
That job is being done under intense national public scrutiny. Hanson has a popular Instagram account featuring her artful photographs of wild horses. The American Wild Horse Campaign, with whom she collaborates, claims almost 20,000 signatures on a petition opposing the Wyoming BLM gather.
That group condemned the roundup it said would “decimate” half of Wyoming’s wild horses through a “brutal … inhumane” helicopter roundup. The group calls the gather “an extreme action” that employs high-voltage cattle prods and “leaves orphaned foals on the range.”
Purdy rejects the cruelty charges. “I find it rather offensive when they accuse me or my co-workers as being some sort of monster that doesn’t care about these animals,” he says. “Every BLM employee I have ever met … we care about these animals, we care about these horses.”
He pointed to a mare rounded up last week and found with an injury that appeared to have been inflicted by a bite or kick — not “gather-related.” BLM kept the mare and its foal together and took them specially to a Rock Springs corral where a veterinarian could treat her.
“To me that is a perfect example of how BLM employees feel and the kind of work that they do,” he said.
A 20-page list of “welfare assessment standards” guides how wild horses are rounded up and handled. The helicopter pilot “should not repeatedly evoke erratic behavior … causing injury or exhaustion,” it states.
Standards call for efforts to keep mares and foals together and set the pace, distance and time of a drive by the abilities of the weakest horse in the band.
Electric prods are allowed, but only “after three attempts using other handling aids (flag, shaker paddle, voice or body position),” guidelines state. Handlers can’t carry prods constantly and aren’t supposed to conceal them or shock an animal that doesn’t have space in front of it to move to, the standards say.
The BLM moves the trapped horses first to a temporary holding pen — last week near Interstate 80 — where they are freeze-branded on their necks, watered, fed and monitored. They are moved later to more permanent corrals.
“All I kept thinking was not more than an hour ago these horses were enjoying their lives in the most beautiful landscape you have ever seen,” Hanson wrote. “And just like that, their lives changed drastically,” with the horses “crying out to each other amidst the roaring engine noise of the freeway.”
Ultimately the government will put them up for adoption, stipulating they can’t immediately be resold.
For Tim Savage, a Rock Springs City Council member, the roundup “isn’t just moving a number from one side of a ledger to another.”
“My biggest concern,” he said, “is for the horses. They aren’t doing anything wrong.”
As his energy-industry-dependent city struggles to diversify its economy, he’s upset that the BLM’s long-range plan, still being finalized, would remove thousands of horses permanently. “It would be detrimental for the long-term health of the herds because of the birth control that they’re going to use,” he said.
He’s also worried BLM action could diminish the attractiveness of the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop near town, a growing visitor attraction. Sweetwater County commissioners endorsed a plan for a sterile herd there, a proposition Savage finds “very artificial.
“It’s not going to be a real wild horse herd if they bring up an old mare once a while,” he said. Wild horse aficionados, “they won’t be fooled” by a menagerie, he said. “They’ll go somewhere else.”
Wild horse advocates direct some of their ire over the roundup and long-range-reduction plans on those who graze stock on the public lands, including the Rock Springs Grazing Association. That enterprise covers nearly 1 million acres of deeded and leased lands in the checkerboard land-ownership pattern of southwestern Wyoming.
But the BLM settled on its wild horse limits through public planning processes and should stick to its conclusions, said Don Schramm, land operations manager for the association.
“They have management plans with defined numbers,” he told WyoFile. “They should do their job and get it back to the numbers [for which] they plan to manage horses.”
The acting state director for the BLM in Wyoming told a legislative committee earlier this year that the agency had double its proscribed number of horses on the range — about 7,700, Kim Liebhauser told the lawmakers.
As it completes the ongoing roundup, the BLM is finalizing its long-range plan that calls for removing most of the wild horses from the checkerboard lands near Green River, Rock Springs and Rawlins. The mile-square alternating sections of public and private lands stretch 20 miles north and south of the Union Pacific railroad line.
An environmental study proposes reductions across 2.8 million acres, 1.9 million acres of which are federal. About 814,086 acres are private property.
Gov. Mark Gordon asked the BLM to remove most checkerboard lands from its horse management areas where wild horses are generally allowed to roam.
To truly meet federal laws, BLM’s horse management “must also conform to the rights of private landowners,” he wrote the BLM last year. The government should then reallocate the forage assigned to wild horses, Gordon wrote, suggesting it be designated for ranchers’ stock.
Another group supporting ranchers was more critical of the long-range plan, saying the BLM has “cast the Rock Springs Grazing Association as the arch enemy to wild horses.
“It appears as though the [BLM’s Rock Springs Field Office] has opted to incite opposition, mischaracterize historical facts and sabotage the [Resource Management Plan] revision,” a coalition of county commissioners and conservation districts in Lincoln, Sweetwater and Uinta counties, along with the Little Snake and Sublette conservation districts, wrote the BLM.
The BLM’s 2021 roundup will permanently remove about 3,500 wild horses, setting them up for adoption. About 800 rounded up animals will be returned to the range after mares are treated with temporary fertility control.
The roundup covers the Great Divide Basin, Adobe Town, Salt Wells Creek, White Mountain and Little Colorado herd management areas. The goal is “managing and protecting healthy wild horses on healthy public rangelands in balance with available water, forage, and other authorized uses of the land,” the BLM states.
Some days the roundup gathers only a handful of horses. Some days wranglers gather many, some days none. The operation will continue for weeks, perhaps months and may extend into next year. BLM will not gather during foaling periods, Purdy says.
Daily roundups are “going to be all over the map” in terms of numbers, Purdy says, and geography.
Specialists know where the horses are and where they might go across the rolling sagebrush landscape, Purdy says. All that leads to where they set a trap on any given day.
They are, after all, wild horses.
“The horses go,” Purdy says, “where the horses go.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.