Thursday, April 27, 2017

Let the Adventure Begin!

Dear Friends,

We are leaving Sierra Vista, Arizona, this morning after a wonderful conference with our RMOWP friends (Rocky Mountain Outdoor Writers and Photographers, rmowp.org).

From here we will visit our wild horse herd in Utah, then head straight to Washington state.  After two nights with former neighbors, we board the Vancouver ferry.  Our hope this year is to ride the BC and Alaska ferry system and island hop our way to Haines, Alaska.  If all works well, we will visit Haida Gwaii in the Queen Charlotte Islands, then take the Alaska ferry from Prince Rupert up the inward passage, with stops at Prince of Wales Island, Petersburg, Ketchikan, and Juneau.  Depending on ferry availability, we will stop at a few other ports.

We have a young friend who will join us for three weeks, beginning in mid-June.  Morgan will meet us in Anchorage.  From there... who knows?  We'll see where the wind takes us!

We invite each of you to join us... let the adventure begin!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The White Mountain Wild Horse Herd

White Mountain wild horses graze in front of Pilot Butte
We arrived in the White Mountains and entered the Wild Horse Loop from Rock Springs, Wyoming.  The road was fairly rough from the Rock Springs entrance but not too rutted for a SUV.  Deep ruts in lower areas of the road did, however, indicate that the road was probably impassable when wet.

The White Mountain Horse Management Area encompasses 392,000 acres and has a planned population of 250 wild horses.  We found these horses to be quite elusive and skittish.   Even at 100 yards, most of the horses would begin to trot away once they saw the truck stop.

Shy White Mountain wild horses trot away at the sight of us.
It was getting pretty late in the afternoon.  With few bands near the roadside, we decided to hike over the ridge on the south side of the road to see if horses might be hiding below it.  Unfortunately, they were not.  The wind, however, was blowing so hard that it was impossible to keep my cap on my head.  We figured it would be best to try to find a protected area to set camp.  We took a dirt road that seemed to lead to a lower area.  Even there, however, the wind was easily gusting 30 to 40 miles per hour.  We tucked our chairs close to the truck, but the dust was blowing too badly.  We finally gave up and dove inside the camper.

Campsite in White Mountains
After the sun set, the winds died down substantially, and we had a restful night, drifting to sleep with a coyote lullabye.  We broke camp the next morning, hoping to find more horses.  A small band grazed near Pilot Butte.  At 7,932 feet, Pilot Butte is the highest point in the White Mountains and was used as a landmark for travelers on the Oregon and Overland Trails.

The closer we drove toward Green River, the better the road became.  In fact, a sedan could easily traverse this section of the road.  As we turned the corner towards the end of the White Mountain Wild Horse Loop, we spied a band of about fifteen horses grazing on the hillside.  While cautious of us, they were definitely less skittish than the other bands we had encountered.  They allowed us to walk within about 30 yards of the band before they started moving away.  I was glad to take at least a couple of closer photographs with the long-range lens.



We planned to stop for breakfast in Green River and determine our next route.  With fall colors beginning to show and the Grand Tetons within a day's drive, we had decided to veer from our wild horse tour to make a stop at one of our favorite national parks.

For more information about the White Mountain wild horses and to learn about their advocacy group, please click here:  https://www.facebook.com/whitemountainwildhorses/

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Challenge of Wild Horses and What You Can Do To Help

Wild mare from Spring Creek Basin herd, Colorado
In 1971, President Nixon signed into law the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.  Its purpose was...  To require the protection, management, and control of wild free- roaming horses and burros on public lands. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.

While this Act was hailed as the answer for protection of wild horse and burro herds, we find ourselves over 45 years later with huge issues.  The problem surrounding wild horses is real.   I am happy to report that approximately 58,000 horses live wild and free in America.  Unfortunately, an additional 45,000 once-wild horses are now confined in corrals.  These once-wild horses have been captured and removed from their territories in order to maintain BLM's accessed optimal herd size for their respective horse management areas (HMAs).

The problem is exacerbated when we learn that while over 235,000 horse and burros have been adopted since 1971, in recent years adoptions have substantially decreased.  Additionally, many of the horses now held in corrals have either been returned from adoptions or deemed unadoptable because of age, health, or temperament.  The BLM estimates it spends $5.50 per day per horse (or $48,000 during the lifetime of each corralled horse), costing a total of $49 million taxpayer dollars annually.

Horses often live between 20 and 30 years.  Additionally, horses are prolific and have few predators.  The BLM asserts that horse populations can double within four years.  To curtail population growth, the BLM has instituted fertility control darting programs for wild mares.  Every stallion taken from BLM land is gelded.

Many wild horse advocates differ with the BLM's dire predictions of ecological damage and their forecast of wild horse populations doubling in four years.  They feel that the BLM has an agenda, preferring cattle and/or sheep grazing or natural gas and oil production on government lands.  Many feel the BLM has underestimated the number of horses many HMAs can handle.  They also feel the BLM too often cites the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, favoring livestock grazing over wild horse protection. We invite you to click these two sites to read a few of these alternative view:
  • http://www.habitatforhorses.org/a-biologists-response-to-the-blms-wild-horse-problem/
  • http://www.wildhorsepreservation.org/issue
Over the past several years, we have seen contentious wild horse advocacy groups as well as government representatives who clearly do not have the best interest of wild horse protection in mind.  One thing is for certain... advocacy group leaders and BLM representatives who partner together find better solutions for the challenges facing these horses, their environment, and the judicious spending of taxpayer dollars.  It was evident during our SWAT Rendezvous that the Sand Wash Basin Advocacy Team and local BLM leaders work in a cooperative and supportive partnership.

Outside of these beneficial partnerships, however, remains the challenge of what to do with and for 45,000 once-wild horses.  Just weeks ago, media reported that the BLM had voted to euthanize these corralled horses.  Thankfully, the reports were false.  I cringe at the idea of these amazing, once-wild horses now crammed in corrals, which are basically no more than cattle feedlots devoid of protection from hot summers and harsh winters.  The sheer number of corralled horses is unconscionable, and the cost to provide even rudimentary care for them is enormous.  I have no answers, only feelings of what I would wish for myself if placed in a corral.

The wild horse challenge is not insurmountable... if we are willing to pull together to make a difference.  What can you do to help?
  • If you have a ranch or know of a rancher who could pasture 100 or more of these horses, the BLM is seeking contractors to ease the burden in corrals and to offer these horses a better life.  To apply, please click here :  http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/newsroom/2016/march/nr_03_11_2016.html
  • Join an advocacy group, such as the Sand Wash Basin Advocacy Team (http://greatescapesanctuary.org/on-the-range/), Spring Creek Basin Mustangs (https://springcreekbasinmustangs.com), The Cloud Foundation (http://www.thecloudfoundation.org), North Dakota Badlands Horses (http://ndbh.org), and other groups (see http://www.kbrhorse.net/whb/whbgroup.html).  Wild horses with advocacy groups helping to oversee their numbers and care fare much better than their counterparts without an advocacy team.
  • Become a darter, administering fertility control to mares on HMAs.  To learn how, get connected with an advocacy group for training.
  • Adopt a horse or burro.  For more information, click here:  https://www.blm.gov/adoptahorse/
  • Support organizations like Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary (see http://greatescapesanctuary.org) or similar organizations dedicated to providing sanctuaries and promoting adoptions for wild horses removed from BLM land.  
I have had the privilege to watch a wild horse running free.  There is a beauty in it that I simply cannot describe.  Let's join together to find solutions to help those that once ran free to lead better lives. 

Grey Ghost, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Day with SWAT

SWAT Rendevous, September 2016
We anxiously anticipated what we would find when we visited the Sand Wash Basin wild horse herd.  The Sand Wash Basin area appears to be the largest Horse Management Area (HMA) in Colorado, including 157,000 acres and nearly 600 wild horses.  TJ from the Spring Creek Basin herd had invited us to the SWAT Rendevous…. a work day with the Sand Wash Basin Advocacy Team.  We were interested in finding out more about their work with wild horses, particularly after a dear friend texted me that a Colorado newspaper had just reported the BLM had voted to euthanize 45,000 wild horses.

We spent Friday afternoon traveling the wildlife loop.  The loop was gravel, rutted in many places, and required a high-clearance vehicle.  Within minutes, we discovered our first wild horse band.  


Sand Wash Basin wild horse band
Sand Wash Basin foal

Sand Wash Basin stallion
Invited by photographer and SWAT member Patti Moseby to join her at their camp.  Once we settled in, Patti invited us over for a fajita dinner… what hospitality!  It was a wonderful time and great food.  We spent the evening overlooking the Little Snake River and watching a full moon rise over the mountains. 

Camp at Sand Wash Basin
Little Snake River Overlook
Moon rise over Little Snake River
The next morning, we headed to the Rendevous.  Nearly 50 folks joined us, hailing from Colorado to Canada to Kansas to Texas (us).  Several other advocacy groups also joined the group, including TJ representing the Spring Creek Basin herd, Ginger representing Wyoming’s Pryor Mountain herd, and Michelle from Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary.  Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also attended the event.

We began the day with a local park ranger speaking about the archaeology that could be found in the Sand Wash Basin.  Next, the group added a brochure box to an informational kiosk.  We then caravanned to and removed the remains of an old corral, cutting and gathering barbed and woven wire.  We learned that removing wire has become a tradition with SWAT after a beloved stallion named Greasewood became entangled in wire, resulting in injuries that required his being put down.  We gathered and compressed two pickup loads of wire from the old corral.





BLM truck loaded with recovered barbed and woven wire
Our next task was unexpected.  We came upon a mare that had managed to cross outside the HMA fence during winter.  The group decided to try to herd her back into the HMA.  Our first attempt failed miserably.  We were able to herd her in the right direction, but she bolted at the sight of too many people near the gate.

Sand Wash Basin mare bolts from capture
Another attempt… another failure.  The mare ran along the fence line, hundreds of yards from the gate.  One of the volunteers found a weak spot in the fence and dropped it.  Several of us fanned out, attempting to form a line to keep her along the fence, hoping to drive her into the opening.  She again broke the line.  We made one last attempt.  I watched as David and Steve dipped over a rise, trying to herd the mare back again to the fence opening.  Several of us fanned out, attempting to look like a formidable line to prevent her bolting again.  The majority of the group, however, must have felt that the task was impossible.  They began leaving.  Now only five of us remained. 

The mare came over the rise and bolted away from the fence.  It was obvious that she had no intentions of being part of our rescue plan.  We bid her farewell, fixed the fence, and walked back to our vehicles.  Already plans were being made to find a better way to reintroduce her into the herd.

Sand Wash Basin mare outside HMA
SWAT ended the event and evening with a wonderful hamburger cookout.  One member even brought skewers of rattlesnake, mushrooms, and green peppers to place on the grill.   (Tastes like chicken!) 

The local BLM branch manager spoke after we ate.  He reassured everyone that in spite of newspaper reports, the BLM had voted against euthanizing the 45,000 wild horses held in corrals.  I leaned over and asked the lady sitting next to me if I had heard the numbers correctly.  Yes.  The BLM currently holds 45,000 formerly wild-roaming horses in corrals.  This number was more than a shock to me. 

We also learned that the Sand Wash Basin herd, which numbers approximately 560, has a 360-horse limit for current management levels.  Rather than a “gathering,” which we learned was driving horses by helicopter… a traumatic and dangerous reduction method… the BLM branch manager said that they planned their first bait trap in October to capture approximately 200 SWB horses.  The bait trap method uses pens that surround watering holes.  Once penned, the BLM planned to dart mares with fertility control and remove about 50 young horses and place them with the Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary for gentling and, hopefully, adoption.

The evening ended on a positive note.  The BLM folks thanked SWAT for their continuing efforts to work with them, including the volunteers who dart mares with fertility drugs, those who help maintain the Sand Wash Basin HMA, and for their efforts in finding homes for displaced horses.  It appeared to us that the Sand Wash Basin Advocacy Team and the BLM were working closely together to solve a complex and challenging issue to preserve these wild horses.

Wild horses… a symbol of the American West.  We had no idea about the controversy, about the numbers of wild horses in holding corrals, about the challenges facing those trying to save them and the BLM trying to care for them.  Our wild horse tour is definitely not turning out as expected.  It was turning out to be so much more. 




The next morning we took another tour around the Sand Wash Basin.  This will definitely be an area to return to.  We made new friends, learned so much, and best of all, have seen wild horses.  Wyoming is next!



Friday, September 16, 2016

Three Wild Horse Herds in One Day

Piceance-East Douglas Stallion
Our next stop was the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Management Area (HMA) in DeBeque Canyon near the town of Cameo.  This wild horse herd is small, about 60 horses, but we had high hopes of viewing some of the bands.

We had assumed these horses, like the Spring Creek Basin herd, would be visible from the roadside.  Instead we found rising cliffs on either side of a deeply rutted 4-wheel-drive road.  We crossed more than a half dozen arroyos in the short distance we traveled through the canyon.  Unfortunately, power lines had been laid along side the roadbed, meandering throughout the canyon as far as the eye could see… hardly the backdrop I had hoped to find.  It is impossible for a photographer to make even a wild horse look wild when a power line is in the background.

The area is quite unlike most of the wild horse herd ranges that we have seen in the past.  Rather than open, arid land and rolling terrain, the canyon walls hemmed any potential view except ahead or behind… unless the horses looked down from the plateaus above us.  Clumps of junipers dotted the landscape, easily high enough to hide several wild horses.  With so many arroyos and a number of dark clouds gathering, flash flooding would be imminent in a hard rain.  We determined that we needed to find other access to these horses.  We discovered as we backtracked that we had passed the Coal Canyon Trailhead.  The trail map indicated that the hike was three miles, one way.  It was already early in the afternoon and too late for us to make a six-mile hike.

The next best access into the Little Book Cliffs range was through the town of DeBeque, nearly an hour’s drive away.  Since this herd was small, we decided to go on to the two wild horse herds between Rifle and Meeker, the Piceance-East Douglas Herd and the White River Wild Horse Herd.

By the time we arrived to the HMA entrance road south of Meeker, it was close to evening.  David was using cryptic notes I had found online to navigate.  The BLM land in this area is replete with new oil and gas wells and operations equipment.  Because of all the industry, we found the gravel roads well groomed and easily accessible by a sedan.  We zigzagged through a myriad of roads, finding only three horses grazing beneath several tanks and more power lines. 

With the sun setting, we found an old hunting camp tucked away off a side road and opted to spend the night there.  It was a trashy area but secure.  

The next morning we saw a lone stallion as we exited the Piceance-East Douglas HMA.  During our travels the evening before, we had found few stud piles or other signs of horses along the roads.  We figured that the oil and gas operations had run the horses into less accessible areas.  We decided to drive into Meeker, hoping to find a BLM office to help us with better directions to view these wild horses. 

Meeker was a most pleasant stop for us.  Folks at the Meeker General Mercantile gave us all the information we needed.  We had a great breakfast, filled our propane and water tanks, and had showers at a local motel.  To our surprise and disappointment, we discovered that Meeker is home to the national sheepdog trials… disappointing only because they had taken place the weekend before we arrived.  What fun it would have been to watch the dogs work!


We drove by the BLM office, but found it closed.  With so much oil and gas industry in the area, we had little hopes of seeing many horses.  Additionally, we found that we should have entered the HMA from the north (from Rangely) rather than the south.  After calculating our drive time to the northern entrance, we decided that in order to make the Sand Wash Basin Rendevous, it would be best to abandon the effort and push northward.

Dear Friends, Please forgive our delay in posting this trip.  We are having extreme difficulty finding internet access or service that will allow photo uploads.  More to come!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Spring Creek Basin Herd

Sunset over Spring Creek Basin
We scooted across Texas, stopping the first night at our favorite Caprock Canyon State Park near Amarillo, then on to Heron Lake in New Mexico… both familiar places.  Our first wild horse herd destination is near Dolores, Colorado. 

A wrong turn took us up an unexpected BLM road, replete with hunters.  We found ourselves on a rutted and muddied road.  With darkness approaching and dark clouds gathering, we receded to a spot just inside the BLM boundaries, surrounded by open range. 

Late that night, we awoke to the camper rocking.  Both of us sat up, more than just a little surprised and trying to determine the cause.  We both laughed once we discovered it was a young, free-ranging calf that had found the truck as a perfect scratching post!

The next morning, we found the Spring Creek Basin herd.  This BLM HMA (Bureau of Land Management Horse Management Area) is adjacent to a wild horse sanctuary owned by the Serengeti Group (see http://www.serengetiusa.com/us-wild-horse-sanctuary.html)  and led by T.J. Holmes. 

While looking for the Spring Creek wild horses, we met T.J., sitting in her truck along the sanctuary road.  What an amazing young woman!  She has dedicated her life to the preservation of wild horses.  She introduced us to several sanctuary band horses and offered information about the adjacent BLM Spring Basin herd and its roads.

T.J.. gentles Spring Creek Basin wild horse sanctuary horses
David and the Spring Creek Basin sanctuary horses

The Spring Creek Basin herd consists of 35-60 wild horses.  Legend has it that these horses are descendants of stolen Morgan and thoroughbred horses captured by a renegade who raised and sold the horses to the cavalry and local ranchers in the early 1900's.  Once law enforcement began to close in, the renegade abandoned his enterprise and the Spring Creek Basin herd began.
As T.J. predicted, we met the stallion Chrome and his band soon after entering the HMA.  While accustomed to humans, the band startles easily.  David knelt to take a photo.  When he adjusted too suddenly, the horses startled and fled about a hundred yards.  We decided to let the band settle and see if we could find other bands. 


The stallion Chrome
Chrome and his band
The roads into Spring Creek Basin are deeply rutted and become terribly mucky and slick during rain.  We recommend a high-clearance vehicle when traveling this HMA.  Roads are definitely impassible when wet and muddied.  Much of the terrain in this HMA is riddled with arroyos and dry rivulets.  This photo shows the depth of the arroyos near the back of the HMA.

Spring Creek Basin Arroyo
After we crossed this arroyo, we found the stallion Sundance confronting two bachelor stallions, keeping them far from his mare and her filly.  Although we were many hundreds of yards from him, he was noticeably not happy with our being in the area.

Sundance confronts two bachelor stallions
We criss-crossed several other roads and arroyos during our day's tour of the Spring Creek basin.  As evening approached, the wind became a formidable presence, probably topping 40-50 miles per hour.  With few trees in the area, we decided to look for a protected area outside the HMA, but found none.  

We returned  to the HMA and finally set up camp at an old hunter’s camp.  We tucked our chairs close to the truck, using it as a shield against the fierce winds.  Thankfully, as the sun began to set, the winds died down.   We watched a magnificent sunset with Chrome's band grazing in the meadow below us.

Suddenly, Chrome began to gallop across the terrain.  We watched him cover an enormous amount of territory in a short amount of time.  The two bachelor stallions that Sundance had encountered earlier in the day, evidently had crossed into Chrome’s territory. 

We watched as he confronted them… not with an attack but with diplomacy.  Within a few minutes of Chrome's arrival, the two bachelors retreated over the hillside.  Chrome quickly rejoined his band. 

It was an amazing night.  As we crawled into bed, Chrome’s herd grazed ever closer to our rig.  David patted me awake so that I, too, could watch the band graze within a foot of our camper.  We sat up in bed and watched as the full moon shown so brightly that the horses cast long shadows.  They sniffed our water bag and grazed within inches of our rig.  We could hear the clumps of their hooves on the ground and their soft blows and snorts as they munched grass around us.

When we awoke, the band grazed below our camp.  It was a beautiful start to a beautiful day.

Chrome and his band
We left the Spring Creek Basin herd the next morning and encountered T.J. again as we crossed into the sanctuary.  She invited us to the Sand Wash Basin Rendezvous that would be held Saturday.  Intrigued, we told her that we would try to join her.   With three wild horse herds between us and Saturday, however, we wondered if we could make the date.  Still, T.J. and her love of wild horses had captivated us.  We knew she had a key we were missing and we wanted to learn more about the plight of these magnificent animals.

To learn more about the Spring Creek Basin herd, please visit T.J.’s blog at https://springcreekbasinmustangs.com