For the last two weeks, the BLM has been rounding up the horses in the Adobe Town Herd in southwestern Wyoming using helicopters. The vast majority of the horses in this half million acre herd area have been removed from their homes, their families and their freedom. 851 wild horses were shipped to the BLM holding facility in Canon City, Colorado – but more important than the sheer numbers of horses is the stories of these horses I witnessed as they were losing their freedom. These horses are individuals, and deserve to be remembered.
I met the public observation team complete with 4 BLM rangers at 6 am on the first day of the roundup. I was escorted out to the trap site through the area I had been photographing wild horses in for the last 3 months. When we arrived at an oil pad, we were told to park and I looked for the trap. I could not see the Willow Creek trap, as it was over a mile away and the entrance was hidden around a curve. When we asked if we could move closer we were told it was for our safety and the safety of the horses that we were placed here. This became a familiar refrain over the next two weeks every time we asked why we could not do just about anything.
Although we could not see the horses entering the trap, the site did allow us a good 360 degree view of the helicopter working the horses on the way to the trap. The first thing that I noticed was how varied in color all the horses were. I knew there were lots of greys in this area, but I witnessed a river of colors flowing across the landscape. Red roans, sorrels, bays, blacks, palominos, buckskins, and even some vividly colored pintos filled out the desert pallet, and I found myself captivated by the beauty and variety of the horses. They were healthy, strong and some were even fat – they were NOT in need of rescue because of poor condition.
One of the first groups brought in consisted of at least 6 different family bands. I was touched by a beautiful red roan stallion who was defiant in the face of the helicopter driving his family. He had two mares who each had a foal, and it was his palomino pinto mare who drew my attention. She and her red roan colt were having difficulty keeping up, and they lagged behind. The stallion kept stopping to wait for them, and at one point when they were out of sight he stopped and called to them. Both mare and colt were dripping with sweat despite the cool temperature, and I wondered how far they had been drive. Finally the helicopter had to drive them at a walk toward the trap, and their stallion waited despite ending up nearly directly underneath the helicopter several times. Soon he would be separated from them forever, as he entered the trap.
Later in the morning, as a group of about 20 horses headed for the trap, a group of eight horse headed directly up a very steep cliff on a rock formation. They scrambled to keep their footing at the top, and I held my breath hoping they would not fall. A chestnut stallion did fall, and then caught himself, and stood legs splayed out not moving, clearly terrified. The horses at the top of the hill stood still until the helicopter was directly over their heads. They ran along the top of the formation until finally they ran over the hill, and the chestnut stallion pulled up the rear.
At the end of each day we had the opportunity to tour the horses in the pens, and to ask questions about the day’s operations. Seeing these beautiful horses through the mesh on the fences, some stallions scrapping, others standing listless, was one of the most awful sites I had seen. Where were the proud beings who recklessly ran away from the helicopter, heads held high? Something essential was lost as they were held in the pens, separated from their families.
Early the next morning, as a large group was headed toward the trap, suddenly a black mare wheeled away from the entrance, and her black foal followed. After a bit of hesitation, her chestnut stallion darted out and followed her. I had never seen a mare run out of a trap at the last minute before – it is usually a stallion that will bolt, but she probably was remembering the trap from a previous roundup. The helicopter kept up the relentless chase until finally she and her foal and stallion were driven into the trap.
I was invited to come up top nearer the trap in the afternoon – I was placed way back behind everything and could see the horses just as they ran into the trap, but now could not see the helicopter working the horses. At one point we heard the helicopter flying back and forth and hovering and the wranglers rushed out on horseback. The wait seemed to be an eternity, and we later found out an older mare who had dropped behind her family on the way to the trap had dropped dead, the first fatality of this roundup.
The next morning, I saw the two week old bay colt that I had warned the Cattoors about being driven into the trap. His beautiful family, black mare and sorrel, palomino and greys all went together. Luckily they were not driven far, and the colt looked good. As they entered the trap, one of the most dramatic escape attempts was made by three bachelor stallions, two greys and a black. They went straight up the cliff in a line and the helicopter chased them along the edge. I chanted “go, go” under my breath as I watched, rooting for the horses. Soon they were out of sight, but I could till hear the helicopter. Suddenly I could see only two horses, one grey and one black – they were tiring, slowing almost to a walk as they were inevitably driven into the trap. But we never saw the other grey again – he escaped!
At the end of the day I saw one of the most beautiful sights – about 50 horses flowing along the landscape, a colorful contrast to the sagebrush. Suddenly they stopped, and two magnificent grey stallions reared up, challenging each other, disturbed by being driven into such close proximity. But they have a far bigger problem thn each other – the helicopter is relentless and drives them together to the trap.
The last three days of the Adobe Town Roundup are conducted at the Powder Rim trap. At this site, we are only 300 yards from the trap and we can see them driven into the trap and the pens, but much of the landscape they can travel along is out of site. We are instructed to crouch down and get low, but I know the last thing the horses are concerned about is us. So far over 600 horses have been rounded up and only 22 released back into the wild. The plan is to remove over 500 more horses at this trap site, and I am concerned there will be virtually no horses left in the area after this roundup.
Today they are using two helicopters to drive the horses which I have never seen before. This way, one helicopter can be driving a group and the other can head off an escape, or it can be working a different group so they can work with an almost assembly line efficiency. The horses do not have a chance.
Group after group is driven into the trap, and the dust boils up and swallows them. They stand until the wranglers start moving them through the chutes, separating stallions from their mares, mares from the older foals, and grouping them together. The stallions intermittently spar squeal, and some of the mares call to their foals.
One of the most dramatic chases was of a small band with two mares, a foal and a noble old warrior of a grey stallion. He is battle-scarred with hoof prints, and bites and had clearly lived a long eventful life, but was clearly a tender and caring father – his colt ran beside him almost the whole way instead of next to his mother, and he kept close to the colt as he tired. He had probably been trapped before because he put up a valiant fight – dodging and turning and running to evade the helicopter which at some points was directly over his head.
His band headed to the trap, and we saw the mares and foal run in, but no stallion! We were able to hear the helicopter go back and forth but could not see. Two wranglers finally rode out on horseback, and after some more time came back with the grand old stallion, whom they had roped. His sides were heaving, head hanging down, and he finally entered the trap – one of the saddest sights I have seen. I hoped that he would be among the lucky few released at the end.
The next day as we arrived we saw two dappled grey horses in the Cattoors’ stock trailer. Before we could ask, we were told one mare had a “sore stomach” and they had decided to release her with a friend since they thought she would do better moving around. They did not like using the word “colic” even though she had the symptoms and had even received a banamine shot.
After the trailer headed down the road and stopped, waiting for the helicopter to finish its run, a group came in with a young palomino stallion, who veered off and ran from the trap. He headed for the trailer, but did not slow down as he passed the mares.
Later in the day, another grey stallion with a huge presence galloped behind his family. As they passed the pens, he gave an arrogant look at the trapped horses, and veered off, running as fast as he could away from the trap. 10 minutes later I saw him on top of a huge cliff, running from the helicopter. But he escaped, and so did the young palomino stallion who made a run for it.
On this second to last day, we finally had a reporter from Casper channel 13 (NBC) come to the roundup. She starts by interviewing two BLM officials, and she interviewed me as well, as I was surrounded by the BLM. I was not intimidated.
Unfortunately she did not stay to witness two mare being roped later in the day. We say a small sorrel mare roped by a wrangler. She fought the rope, thrashing, and finally fell down. It was very hard to watch her struggle. A helicopter came behind her, finally scaring her into a run, and she and the wrangler weaved toward the trap. We saw a small grey mare captured by another wrangler who put up less of a struggle, but also driven by helicopter. We were very upset by this site, and wondered why they didn’t just let these two go. When we asked at the end of the day we were told that these were mares who had become separated from their foals, then reunited with them at the trap. But most of these foals are at least 4 months old and will be separated from their mothers anyway at their arrival at Canon City.
The last day of the Adobe Town Roundup finally arrives. We don’t see much today as the horses are being driven in behind the cliff. At the end of the day, we hear the helicopter and see a tremendous amount of dust flying up. Soon the wranglers ride out. I am concerned. Then the trailer heads out, and when it returns, a foal steps out alone, looking bewildered, obviously having been separated from his mother. He is one of the last horses to be brought in.
I ask about being able to witness the release of the horses that will be left in the area the next day, and am initially told no, which is par for the course, but then Sue Cattoor tells us we can come watch. They end up releasing 41 mares and 57 stallions after giving pzp to all the mares. They release the mares first, and they surge out and are gone in a cloud of dust. Half an hour later the stallions run far and fast in the opposite direction. I wonder if I will ever see any of them again.
When I consider the damage that has been done to this herd – the horses all but eliminated from the area, families torn apart, and the uncertain fate facing the horses travelling to Canon City it is difficult not to cry, or to rage – but the BLM is watching, and I keep my mouth shut. 973 horses were rounded up, 120 were released, 2 died, and 851 were shipped to Canon City. It sounds so sterile when they are reduced to statistics, but these horses will never be just statistics to me.
Yes, this roundup did go as well it could using helicopters. There were no dramatic deaths or injuries. But what kind of a life is left for these horses that are shipped away from the only home they have ever known? When they arrive, the foals will be weaned, the horses vaccinated and freeze branded, and the stallions will be gelded. This is traumatic especially for the older stallions, and some them die. After this, a very lucky few will be adopted – mostly the weanlings, yearlings and two year olds. Some will be shipped to the Honor Farm in Riverton or Steve Mantle’s place for training, some will be trained at Canon City, which will dramatically increase their chances to be adopted. The rest will be shipped to long term holding facilities separated into groups of mares and groups of stallions. They will live out their sterile lives without families. Under the Sale Authority, which allows 10 years old and older as well as those who have not been adopted after 3 attempts to be sold without limitation, some will ultimately end up in slaughterhouses.
The horses left behind in the herd are in disarray, except for the lucky few bands that evaded the helicopter. The plan is to leave 66 % stallions and 34% mares in this herd area, skewing the sex ratio in some untested plan to reduce the population. This ill conceived plan has been implemented in herds all over the west this last year, with no concern for the chaos it creates – stallions constantly fighting over mares, chasing mares, foals getting injured, and because of the use of PZP on the mares, they will continue their heat cycle which keeps the stallions fighting.
I decide to on the way home check on my favorite little band, who I was hoping would escape the roundup as they were between fenced areas. Every time I have been in the are I have seen them – a big grey stallion with an imposing neck, an older flea bitten grey mare, and their beautiful offspring – a tall dark grey yearling with a flowing mane, and this year’s foal, a pale palomino colt. I hope that I will see them on this grim day – and at first I don’t see them, but after climbing a hill, my friends Tamara and Jess call me over – and there they are. As the storm clouds gather, they stand on a hill watching me, untouched by the madness I have just left behind. I approach, and they run along side, watching me, but not running away. I am so happy to see them, and seeing them free reminds me of all the best qualities of wild horses – their pride, beauty, curiosity, and self-sufficiency. They will continue here, where so many of their fellows are gone forever. They are the symbols of why I am am fighting to keep our horses wild and free.
The wild horses of America do NOT belong to the Bureau of Land Management, who is charged with their management and care. They belong to us, the American people, and they are a part of us, our heritage, our history, our land, our freedom. I wish that I will never have to see another roundup, but so far they continue at a great rate. Right now the BLM continues rounding up horses despite its budget for the year not yet being approved. You can help by asking your Senators to stop the passage of their appropriations bill without limitating the money used for roundups to emergencies only: http://www.thecloudfoundation.org/index.php/news-events-a-media/action-alerts/494-rein-in-blm-spending
These Adobe Town horses will be available for adoption at the Canon City holding facility the first week in December. The Salt Wells Herd in the adjoining 1 million acre HMA is being rounded up right now for the next two weeks. Over 800 horses will be removed.