A shriek reverberates through the forest and onto the fog laden sub-alpine meadows. The shrill call is unlike any in nature – the unforgettable battle cry of a wild horse stallion. The fog rises from the teacup shaped bowl, revealing two stallions standing toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose. Repeating their screams in unison, the two magnificent males rear and lash out with lightning fast hooves as hard as steel.
This dramatic ritual of spring has been played out for centuries on the high meadows and in the maze of isolated canyons on the Pryor Mountains of southern Montana. It is the time when mustang stallions go on high alert, protecting their family bands of mares, newborns, and yearlings from marauding bachelor stallions trying to win a female. It is also a time when a band stallion may try to expand his harem of mares by stealing a female from another family group.
Just over the hilltop below a gigantic wall of melting snow, wild horses seem to be running in every direction, under attack by a group of six marauding bachelors. In the center of the chaos, the pale palomino stallion, Cloud, stands calmly with his family and studies a dun-colored band stallion who has come under relentless pressure from this cadre of bachelor stallions. The young males circle the dun’s family like wolves. The dun is tiring and Cloud knows it. Cloud is joined by his stalwart lead mare, the old blue roan named Sitka. Together they watch the battle. Sitka’s son and Cloud’s light roan filly graze peacefully as if nothing is happening.
Cloud is a confident stallion in his prime. No bachelor challenges him, no band stallion dares move too close to his family. Still, Cloud is watchful.
The dun stallion’s ribs show under his golden brown coat. He dashes at the bachelors when they rush in and scatter his band. His mares, yearlings and especially the young foal are exhausted from running. Every time the family tries to rest, one or more bachelors makes a rush for the mares.
Ignoring the battling bachelors, Cloud rushes to confront the dun stallion, rearing and lashing out with front leg strikes. Then he goes after the stallion’s dark blue roan mare, Velvet. He cuts her out from the rest of the family and a mad chase ensues in which Cloud has to knock off attacking bachelors one after another while dodging the kicks of the unwilling mare.
In the melee, two bachelors move in on Cloud’s family and, despite Sitka’s objections, succeed in driving the family away. But old Sitka has her own plan in mind. While Cloud separates Velvet, Sitka leads Cloud’s family in an arc back toward her stallion with two bachelors in hot pursuit. With his band racing toward him, Cloud charges out, scattering the bachelors like leaves in the wind.
Surprisingly, Velvet’s yearling black daughter sees her mother with Cloud and tries to join her but is stolen by a bachelor. Cloud reads the situation and goes for the bachelor, successfully driving him off and returning with both Velvet and her black daughter. At sunset, Cloud breeds Velvet.
Dusty is born
Over 11 months later on a relatively warm May morning, just as the sun is cresting the Bighorn Mountains, Velvet gives birth. As she licks the birth fluid from the colt’s nose and face, his ears perk up and he stares into the face of the first horse he will see and the only one that will matter to him over the course of his first few days on earth. When the foal begins to dry out, his true color emerges. He isn’t dark at all but a light tan color like his great grandmother. His birth marks the return of this pale buckskin color to his herd. Had he been born a Crow Indian pony instead of a wild mustang, only the wife of the chief would have been allowed to ride him. His pale buckskin color was special to the Crow, who called it Claybank because it matched the color of the soil along the banks of the nearby Bighorn and Little Bighorn Rivers Sitka had disappeared just a week before. The old mare died in the land where she ran free her entire life.
Within a half hour, Dusty tries to unfold his long legs and stand. He crashes numerous times before he succeeds. Once on his feet he begins to look for his first taste of milk, actually colostrum, the rich fluid that will shore up his immune system and keep him free of disease. First he tries to suckle under Velvet’s neck and then behind her front legs. Finally he moves rearward and finds success.
Within a few hours of birth Dusty totters at his mother’s side to a nearby snow bank where the mare eats mouthfuls of melting show. Cloud and his grulla filly join them. The grulla, like the duns, are primitively marked horses, reminiscent of the ancient horses that may have roamed this country 10,000 years ago before a massive mammalian die off. The horse returned to its native home with the Spanish in the 1500s when they conquered Mexico and South America.
As summer wears on, Dusty follows his family to a bigger water hole, one that is spring fed and holds water longer than the snow fed ponds. The big hill to the water is a great one to race down and Dusty loves this. After a drink and a bath, the family moves away and out to a huge escarpment overlooking the vast Crow Indian Reservation. Dusty likes the high place where the wind blows, keeping the biting flies away.
Summer passes with Dusty making new discoveries every day. The strangest one of all happens when a human leaves a block of something that smells interesting and is tasty to lick. Dusty can hardly comprehend what the two-leggeds have in mind, but I do.
The BLM Plan
A bait trapping contractor put out the bait to hook the horses on the sweet blocks. He was hired by the Bureau of Land Management, an agency within the Department of the Interior that’s in charge of managing our wild horses on public lands. Eventually he will move the blocks into metal corrals. Then, in the dead of night, wearing night vision goggles, the contractor will spring the traps using strobe lights – another experimental technique to be tried out on the Pryor wild horses.
Twenty two wild horses will lose their freedom forever… and that is just for this year. This is stage one in a plan to remove the horses and decrease the herd to under 100 by 2010. These removals will destroy Cloud’s herd as we know it and render them genetically non-viable. The BLM realizes the danger in reducing the herd to disastrously low numbers so they have created a back up plan. They will bring in horses from Utah, a plan that some have called absurd. Cloud’s herd was at zero population growth until three mountain lions “were successfully killed”, as the BLM puts it in their most recent Environmental Assessment. This simple phrase reveals the disdain the agency has for the natural eco-system management and for predator/prey relationships. Instead of recommending a mountain lion study and a curtailment of hunting lions during the course of the study, they opted for expanded use of infertility drugs and new ways to capture horses.
The Numbers Game
The BLM contends that the nearly 40,000-acre “designated” range cannot support a viable herd of at least 150 adult animals. However, the Bureau ignores the fact that the horses do not use just the designated range of 40,000 acres. For hundreds of years the horses have used adjacent lands which are now managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Some wild horses live on these Forest Service lands all year round. Most of the herd, including Cloud and his family, migrate into these higher elevation meadows in mid-summer through the fall.
These Forest Service lands have not been formally designated as part of the legal wild horse range even though the Wild Horse and Burro Act, passed unanimously by Congress in 1971, specifies that wild horses shall be considered where presently found (the area they were using during the early 1970s). Regardless, the boundaries of the Pryor Wild Horse Range were never expanded to include the area the horses have roamed for hundreds of years.
The Legal Challenge
The Cloud Foundation, a new nonprofit organization based in Colorado Springs, is committed to preventing the destruction of the herd. With the support of Front Range Equine Rescue, also in Colorado Springs, The Cloud Foundation brought suit against both BLM and the Forest Service to stop the removals of horses and to legally expand their range. In addition, the Foundation is also trying to stop extended use of the infertility drug, PZP, which has proven to be totally unpredictable on the Pryor mares, causing years of infertility in young horses as well as lumps on the hips of many injected mares, the result of injections from dart guns.
Even though BLM and Forest Service have received many letters from people all over the country urging them to leave the herd alone, they are proceeding according to their own plan. The Pryors wild horses are like a science project; what one advocate refers to as “BLM’s private little Petri dish.”
Whether Dusty can grow up proud and strong like his famous father is really up to all of us. Here’s what you can do to help save the herd: Send a donation to The Cloud Foundation, our 501(c)3. All gifts are tax deductible. Your contributions will help to carry on the fight. Contact your Congressional Representatives and Senators and politely express your views. Send your letters and emails to the following in BLM and the Forest Service:
U.S. Bureau of Land Management
1849 C St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20240
Sandra S. Brooks
BLM Area Manager
Billings Field Office
5001 Southgate Drive
Billings, MT 59101
Chief, USDA National Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, D.C. 20250-0003
A sad note: As this issue of EW was going into production, we learned that Dusty, as well as a palomino foal, had sadly been killed by a mountain lion. Ginger learned of the news from a bait trapper who had lured all the horses on the mountain to his round pen full of “goodies”. It’s believed that the mountain lion, with kittens in tow, followed this unusual concentration of prey and killed the foals on successive nights. Our condolences go out to Ginger and the other volunteers. We urge you to contact the names on the right to express your wishes that the wild horses be left alone on the land they’ve called home for decades. After losing Dusty, the Cloud Foundation is doubling its efforts to protect future foals and the wild horses’ way of life.