SUPERIOR – With their manes and tails flying through the air, the wild horses trot, gallop and gallop past the buzzing and weaving helicopter.
The gang of five dodges and jukes as the helicopter spins back and forth trying to lead them towards two hundred meter long jute fences arranged in a “V” shape. At the end of the V is the trap corral where their freedom to roam and impact would end.
Once in the corral with the door closed behind them, the wild horses on the loose are said to be part of the Bureau of Land Management’s removal and reduction program, which aims to herd 4,300 wild horses in the coming months.
But this group will not bite.
After being pushed by the helicopter for miles, the party charges away from the mouth of the trap, splits up, climbs a steep hill, and regroups. He is only pushed back to the trap to escape, over and over again, the herd pilot’s goal.
Finally, the Contract Merchants and the BLM cancel the chase, presumably to avoid exhausting the group, as outlined in the roundup guidelines.
This group will be free, at least today.
Wild horses and mustangs are culturally marked in myth, reality and American hearts. On Thursday, this “awesome” group entered the lexicon of legend alongside Ficka, Whiskey and Misty of Chincoteague, earning the nickname “The Defiant Five” from wild horse lawyer Lynn Hanson.
“The Defiant 5s were chased up and down over rocky hills and terrain for about an hour,” Hanson wrote in a report for the American Wild Horse Campaign. “[E]As soon as they approached the trap site, the horses brilliantly separated and ran in different directions.
Brad Purdy, a spokesperson for Cheyenne’s BLM, arranges the public screening of the roundups – they will go on for weeks, if not months – by meeting with civilians, activists, journalists and photographers in Rock Springs before dawn . He walks a tightrope between âme-Brad and BLM-Brad,â building relationships with his guests and explaining agency policy and round-up tactics.
âI’m not a fan of one side or the other,â he says with a caveat: he wants BLM’s work to be done effectively.
This work is carried out under intense national public scrutiny. Hanson has a popular Instagram account with his artful photographs of wild horses. The American Wild Horse Campaign, with which she collaborates, claims nearly 20,000 signatures on a petition opposing the Wyoming BLM rally.
This group condemned the raid which it said would “wipe out” half of Wyoming’s wild horses through a “brutal … inhuman” helicopter raid. The group is calling the rally “extreme action” which uses high-tension prods for cattle and “leaves orphaned foals on the beach.”
Purdy dismisses the cruelty charges. âI find it rather offensive when they accuse me or my colleagues of being some kind of monster who doesn’t care about these animals,â he says. “Every BLM employee I’ve metâ¦ we care about these animals, we care about these horses.”
He pointed to a mare herded together last week and found with an injury that appeared to have been inflicted by a bite or kick – not ‘picking related’. BLM kept the mare and her foal together and specially took them to a Rock Springs corral where a vet could take care of her.
âTo me, this is a perfect example of how BLM employees feel and the type of work they do,â he said.
A 20 page list of “welfare assessment standards” shows how wild horses are herded and handled. The helicopter pilot “should not repeatedly bring up erratic behavior … causing injury or exhaustion,” he said.
The standards require effort to keep mares and foals together and to set the pace, distance and time of training by the abilities of the weakest horse in the pack.
Electric prods are allowed, but only “after three attempts using other handling aids (flag, shaker paddle, voice or body position),” the guidelines say. Handlers cannot wear prods all the time and are not expected to hide them or shock an animal that has no space in front of them to move around, by standards.
The BLM first moves the trapped horses to a temporary holding pen – last week near Interstate 80 – where they are freeze-marked on the necks, watered, fed and monitored. They are then moved to more permanent enclosures.
âAll I thought was it was less than an hour ago that these horses were enjoying their lives in the most beautiful scenery you have ever seen,â Hanson wrote. “And just like that, their life has changed dramatically,” with the horses “screaming at each other amid the roar of the motorway engine.”
Ultimately, the government will offer them up for adoption, stipulating that they cannot be immediately resold.
For Rock Springs City Council member Tim Savage, the roundup “isn’t just about moving a number from one side of a ledger to another.”
âMy biggest concern,â he said, âis with horses. They don’t do anything wrong.
As his energy-dependent city struggles to diversify its economy, he’s upset that the BLM’s long-term plan, still being finalized, would wipe out thousands of horses for good. “It would be detrimental to the long term health of the herds because of the birth control they are going to use,” he said.
He also fears that the action of BLM may reduce the attractiveness of the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop near the city, a growing tourist attraction. Sweetwater County Commissioners have approved a plan for a barren herd there, a proposal Savage finds “very artificial.
âIt won’t be a real herd of wild horses if they raise an old mare every now and then,â he said. Lovers of wild horses, âthey won’t be fooledâ by a menagerie, he says. âThey will go elsewhere.
Wild horse advocates are directing some of their anger at the long-term round-up and downsizing plans against those who graze cattle on public lands, including the Rock Springs Grazing Association. This business covers nearly a million acres of surrendered and leased land in the southwestern Wyoming checkerboard land ownership model.
But the BLM has set its limits on wild horses through a public planning process and should stick to its conclusions, said Don Schramm, the association’s land operations manager.
âThey have management plans with defined numbers,â he told WyoFile. “They should do their job and bring it down to the numbers [for which] they plan to manage the horses.
The acting director of state of the BLM in Wyoming told a legislative committee earlier this year that the agency had doubled the number of horses banned from the course – around 7,700, Kim Liebhauser told lawmakers.
As it wraps up the ongoing roundup, the BLM finalizes its long-term plan which calls for removing most of the wild horses from the checkerboard lands near Green River, Rock Springs and Rawlins. The alternating square mile sections of public and private land stretch 20 miles north and south of the Union Pacific Railway line.
An environmental study suggests reductions on 2.8 million acres, of which 1.9 million acres are federal. Approximately 814,086 acres are privately owned.
Governor Mark Gordon has asked the BLM to remove most of the checkerboard land from its horse management areas where wild horses are generally allowed to roam.
To truly comply with federal laws, the management of BLM horses “must also comply with the rights of private landowners,” he wrote to the BLM last year. The government would then have to reallocate the fodder allocated to wild horses, Gordon wrote, suggesting it be designated for ranchers’ cattle.
Another group supporting the ranchers has been more critical of the long-term plan, saying the BLM has “made the Rock Springs Grazing Association the arch enemy of the wild horses.”
âIt seems that the [BLMâs Rock Springs Field Office] has chosen to incite the opposition, to distort historical facts and to sabotage the [Resource Management Plan] revision, “a coalition of county and conservation district commissioners from the counties of Lincoln, Sweetwater and Uinta, as well as the conservation districts of Little Snake and Sublette, wrote the BLM.
The BLM roundup in 2021 will permanently wipe out around 3,500 wild horses, preparing them for adoption. About 800 herded animals will be returned to the course after the mares have been treated with a temporary fertility check.
The roundup covers the Great Divide Basin, Adobe Town, Salt Wells Creek, White Mountain and Little Colorado herd management areas. The aim is to “manage and protect healthy wild horses on healthy public ranges in balance with available water, fodder and other permitted uses of the land,” says the BLM.
Some days, the roundup only brings together a handful of horses. Some days the wranglers gather a lot, some days none. The operation will continue for weeks, maybe months, and could extend until next year. BLM will not come together during foaling periods, Purdy says.
Daily roundups “will be all over the map” in terms of numbers, Purdy says, and geography.
Specialists know where the horses are and where they might cross the hilly sagebrush landscape, Purdy says. It all leads to where they set a trap on any given day.
They are, after all, wild horses.
“The horses go,” Purdy said, “where the horses go.”
WyoFile is an independent, non-profit news organization focused on the people, places, and politics of Wyoming.