By Makendra Silverman, Associate Director- The Cloud Foundation- in a Herd-Watch capacity
Today, Wednesday August 18, the helicopter roundup of the Stinkingwater wild horses of central Oregon will begin. I had the pleasure of spending some time in this herd management area last week but with the awareness that the peace I observed would soon be shattered. (Press Release online here: http://bit.ly/stinkingwater).
With directions from a woman who has spent a lot of time in Stinkingwater I drove into Burns, Oregon, passing the then closed wild horse corrals where a large metal, rearing wild horse silhouette marked the entrance.
Bill Andersen, District Rangeland Management Specialist, of the Burns BLM District, and I had a good meeting. Finding the Stinkingwater horses is difficult as there are now only an estimated 214 in the 85,490-acre range (that number is planned to be whittled down to only 40 mustangs this week- more on this later). Bill penciled in on my map where the different groups of horses were and we discussed the history of this range, which is managed principally for livestock and not wild horses. Bill told me that this would never change due to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and the allocation of livestock allotments in the 1960s. There was just a little room left for wild horses (along with elk, pronghorn and deer). I would contend that this will change- but indeed it has proved to be a slow process, stalled by Secretaries of Interior Gale Norton and Ken Salazar who replaced the forward thinking Secretary Bruce Babbit and BLM Director Jim Baca. In the US, not that very long ago, it was believed that slavery would never end and women would never vote. But we don’t have all that many wild horses left.
I enjoyed meeting with Bill – he’s been working in this district for 30 years and knows the area and the range.
After buying a can of soup at the local store, I set out to find the Stinkingwater horses.
Good luck finding the main access road into Stinkingwater if you didn’t have lots of tips before hand. You take Hwy 20 east out of Burns and when you reach the summit and pass a bunch of snow fences you go right across a cattle guard and down an unmarked gravel road. Bill wrote a requirement for signage into the land use plan for all the herd management areas in the District but so far there are no signs, and that was twenty years ago. The reason: money. I suggested to Bill that if the district wasn’t spending millions on roundups, then a few signs to let the public know they were driving past (and could drive into) wild horse ranges could be posted. Without an HMA map I would have driven past Palomino Buttes HMA and Stinkingwater and not known about the Steens Mountain herds including the famous Kiger horses that are also nearby.
So my little dog, Fiddle, and I drove into the range marked by a few welcoming cows and a lot of cow pies along with scattered salt blocks in an area of high impact cow-prints and more cow poop. So far, no sign of wild horses.
I passed several ephemeral waterholes that were dried up this late in the season but were completely stamped with cow prints- not a horse hoof print to be found.
Fiddle and I rounded the corner and saw the main waterhole and, for a moment, my heart lifted. Then a cow lifted its head and the flash of sorrel brown I thought might be a wild horse proved to be quite the opposite. The cows standing around the waterhole, no offense to them, were clearly not the first to use the area. The entire perimeter of the waterhole was a mess of cow prints and the smelly cow poop. The water was not particularly clean smelling and the Stinkingwater title of the range seemed apt. When Fiddle started to wade in to get a drink I called him back. It didn’t seem wise for him to drink there. The cows watched as Fiddle and I looked for horse prints—nothing recent, although I did see some horse manure closer to the road.
I drove around the top in a lightning storm with rain – unwise to go down further into the HMA with the roads already slick. I found and photographed many areas with sharp volcanic rock, more salt blocks, more cow damage, bundles of barbed wire, downed fences, more cows themselves and no horses.
Next I drove down a secondary road (go another 5 miles or so east on hwy 20 and take the first right before you cross Stinkingwater Creek. This is a private road with public access. Go all the way to the closed ranch gate, go back and take the small dirt road south and keep going –looking for wild horses).
I drove past fields of tall grass and saw cows on the horizon. It was beginning to get dark, but I was able to photograph cow poop in the sweet little Clear Creek. Upstream both Fiddle and I approved of the water and he waded in and drank. Many deep cow prints and cropped grass ran along the creek edge.
There were wild horse stud piles near the road and I was hopeful, but still found no horses. Honestly I could have also missed horses as they could disappear in the juniper or far off sage flats—or I could be looking the wrong way in the right place. Fiddle is very smart but he didn’t find any either.
I made camp under a tall, old juniper near a stud pile and a few broken branches where the wild horses had rubbed their necks and backs. Scattered around the tree was sharp volcanic rock the, when cracked open, reveals a glass-like obsidian core.
Darkness in closed quickly with the storm still raging in the far northwest and the sunset lingering over the far off mountains. I love Oregon for its varied landscapes- plus it is my homeland. When the soup was hot and Fiddle fed I listened to coyotes talking in the dark and cows mooing goodnight. The quiet wild horses were out there too—I hoped.
Early the next morning, we emerged from the tent and I was half-hoping to find a curious band of horses nearby, but found only the same seven cows on the same hill where they grazing the previous night. We walked down to Clear Creek—still no horses. I started to drive back out to the main road, but then, after a mile, turned the car around, opting to drive farther down the small dirt road near camp. I was glad I did. Parking near some more downed fence and a loose bundle of barbed wire I stopped to photograph again, I found horses!
I saw the back of a roan mare first, drinking in Clear Creek. A dark bay stallion and their roan colt appeared next. I stood still and took photos, happy to be with the wild horses again, in my home state to boot. The stallion seemed to know something wasn’t right (i.e. me) but didn’t see me. The stallion drove another roan mare out of the trees and I took a few steps to see them more clearly. The foal, born in March or early April, I would guess, looked up at me, curious rather than scared. He looked to me, and then back to his mother, and then to me, and then to his father. When they didn’t seem to understand his glances, he looked back at me and then resumed grazing.
I wish I hadn’t taken two more steps. The stallion saw me. He led the band away at a walk and then they all trotted out into the sage flats, looked back and then trotted farther away out of sight.
I returned to the car and continued up past Clear Creek until I reached another closed barbed wire fence—with stud piles on the opposite side of what I knew to be their range. This range is a maze of livestock fences and in-holdings of private land – you wouldn’t want to manage wild horses here either even though the range itself is beautiful (save for cattle damaged areas) with abundant forage and water.
Fiddle and I walked over rocks to the edge of a lookout and were surprised to see two stallions rearing in the not-so-far off distance.
I told Fiddle to lay down and watched as the band (and the bachelor stallion) moved towards me. With them was a foal who I would place at less than one week old. His sorrel coat faded into light socks as he followed his mother on long legs. My first thought was wow. My second thought was damn—do not round up this band. Running this foal over these rocks and rough terrain even a mile would be inhumane and very dangerous, not to mention his mother’s worst nightmare. There is no reason to remove horses from this area. The range damage is due to the 700 or so cattle that are allowed to graze.
I named the colt Pluto, thinking that he is likely the last to be born this year in Stinkingwater.
From my perch I could see Pluto’s band spook when they began to enter the ravine below me. They weren’t looking up at me so I moved quietly and spotted the reason. It was not their natural predator, the mountain lion, but a cow- perhaps their unnatural predator if you consider the range resources cattle are allotted over the wild horses. This cow was standing in the green grass of a mostly dry creekbed. The horses then moved up a fairly steep, rocky, gravel slope quickly. Pluto slipped and scrambled uphill, but handled it well- at a walk. What if BLM makes the mistake of not clearly instructing the Cattoor roundup crew not to drive in this band? Then I am not at all certain he would survive.
I followed the horses, driving slowly on a dirt road through the sage. The bachelor stallion looked back at me, a lone horse on the horizon.
It struck me that this is Secretary of the Interior Salazar’s vision for the wild horses… but it is not mine. America’s last wild horses are revered, yet they have almost disappeared – that rhyme went through my head out on the range.
The Stinkingwater range may be well-managed, but it is managed as a cattle ranch with a string of horses and room for game species (deer, pronghorn and elk). Until Secretary Salazar and the BLM are required to manage wild horses as the principle users of their very limited ranges, we are not going to see an end to BLM’s massive roundups. Wild horse and burros populations have been carved down to a pittance where there should be thriving, self-sustaining herds.
It is hard to swallow all this when you are out on the range, with the wild horses- probably the only human in the vicinity- and the scent of the sage, heating up in the mid-morning sun fills the air and there are deer and antelope. I drove along singing “home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play, where seldom is seen a human being and the wild horses can roam free all day.”
Coming back to reality a more appropriate verse may conclude “where seldom is seen a wild horse herd and the cattle just eat all day.” Final count: 11 wild horses, 3 deer, 3 pronghorn and at least 75 cows… hard to keep track of them.
I returned to Burns to tell Bill about Pluto and request that that band not be brought in. Bill told me that he did not have the authority to instruct the Cattoors not to roundup Pluto’s band (although this has been done in the Pryors and other areas). Bill said that likely what would happen if Pluto was rounded up is that the helicopter pilot would allow Pluto and his mother to fall back when they couldn’t keep up. I don’t know what kind of shape, physical not to mention mental, that Pluto and his mother would be in by the time that happened. If horses were rounded up at a walk and trot, as the national office likes to claim, then they wouldn’t fall back- but that is not the case in reality. I hope that Bill and the Wild Horse and Burro Specialist, Gary McFadden, will instruct the Cattoors not to roundup Pluto and his band- that is the best decision and the safest for Pluto.
No promises have been made but observers on the only observation day this Thursday will be looking out for Pluto and all the other horses. Pluto is at incredible risk because he is so young and his feet so tender- but all the other horses are also at in jeopardy. If they can successfully navigate the sharp volcanic rocks, the numerous barbed wire fences and the downed barbed wire- along all the other threats of a summer helicopter roundup- then they face a life in captivity where very few will be adopted into good homes.
I ended my adventure with a drive through of the BLM Burns wild horses facility where a few hundred captured wild horses and foals are kept in dirt corrals. There were many many foals but most of the corrals were not very full as they had been recently cleared to make way for the Stinkingwater horses and other captured mustangs. Overall the horses looked to be in great health and if you did not know what they had left then the situation would not appear so cruel. There are many in need of adoption along with the rest of the 38,000 in holding pens and pastures. I think that the BLM does a good job with this facility and I heard many positive remarks about the district in general- I hope that proves true in the Stinkingwater roundup but I fear for all the horses, especially Pluto. 40 horses is less than a third of what is needed for a viable herd and I think that the future of these beautiful bands- marked primarily by roans like Pluto’s mother – is in question.
Read the press release on Stinkingwater here— please share this with media and friends in Oregon
Short-link to this blog post: http://bit.ly/VisitSW