Thanksgiving is finally here. It’s always been my favorite holiday. I love spending time with my family thinking on how blessed I am.
But as a wild horse advocate, it feels like there is little to be thankful for this year.The Cloud Foundation lost their lawsuit to tear down that eyesore of a Forest Service fence. The Park Service removed over one hundred horses from Teddy Roosevelt National Park. We discovered that Secretary Jewel is proving to be entirely disinterested in protecting our wild horse herds. It’s just been one terrible thing after another lately.
And then there is the Salt Wells roundup.
The Salt Wells roundup has been a particularly painful blow. It always hurts to watch horses that I know and care about rounded up and taken away. Even so, this roundup is different. In most roundups, there is a shred of hope that at least some of the horses will be released and allowed to return to the range. This time around, every single horse who hit the trap was removed, regardless of age, sex, or color.
A roundup is a terrible thing to witness. Horses crest a hill and are driven by a helicopter down towards a trap. Experienced horses will sometimes recognize what is happening and try to turn back, but by then it is too late. Panicked wild horses crash into gate panels and each other, crying out frantically to one another in fear. Stallions suddenly forced into close proximity will fight, adding to the chaos of all the bodies crushed together in a small space. Within moments stallions are separated from mares, and mares from their foals. Within minutes the horses are pushed into a trailer with waving flags and hauled away from their home.
They will never see their families again.
As I type this, the BLM is removing every single horse they capture in the checkerboard area of the Salt Wells horse herd. The checkerboard is a an area of public and private land that runs 20 miles to the north and south of the original Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming. Facing pressure from the local ranching conglomerate, the Rock Springs Grazing Association (RSGA), the BLM caved like a house of cards and agreed to zero out two herds, zero out another herd by making them “non-reproducing”, and drastically reduce the population of still another herd.
They began with Salt Wells.
I arrived on the second day of the roundup. It was bitterly cold. The helicopters began to draw the first group of horses to the trap around 9 a.m. By that time it was a ‘balmy’ 12° F, but the 14 mph winds brought it down so the “feels like” temperature was reported to be -2° F. Dr. Temple Grandin recommends that horses should not be removed when the temperature is at or below 20° F. On a day like this, the horses would normally be staying still and focusing on eating and conserving body heat. Yet this was considered an acceptable temperature to run horses in by the BLM, and the roundup only stopped when the wind grew too strong for the helicopters.
The BLM employees were polite, answering all my questions and providing a surprisingly good observation point. Four other public observers joined me. The atmosphere at the trap was jovial, as if they were watching a grand show. I could only bite my lip against my anger and wonder if I was watching the same thing as everyone else. Was there a way I could change the channel and see the fun and exciting program the others were watching?
What I saw was horses rounding a corner and ending the only life they had ever known. I couldn’t find any beauty in the galloping horses – their eyes were too wide and their necks were too high to fool any horseman into thinking these horses were comfortable with the proceedings. They were terrified and running with all their might trying to escape a fate that humans were forcing on them.
The contractors were efficient and handled the horses with experience that comes from decades of practice. I am grateful that there were no major injuries on this day. However, another observer pointed out that the top bars in the alleyway where horses were being processed were not padded. The Wild Horse and Burro Specialist informed that they were not required to pad these particular bars. I watched as several frightened horses hit their heads against the top bars as they tried to find a way to escape. Adding such padding would be a simple, inexpensive way to spare the horses from head trauma.
The foals were the hardest to watch. One foal, a beautiful paint, was separated in a side pen while his mother, father, and other family members were immediately loaded into a trailer and hauled to another site. The foal remained alone at the trap site for ten minutes, panicking and trying to escape.
This paint foal tried several times to leap the fence to reach its mother, but the fence was too high for the young foal.
Foals are separated from the adult horses for transport. This is meant to avoid the risk of the foals being trampled or otherwise injured on the trailer ride. The youngest foals are reunited with their mothers. But even this relief is a temporary one. This paint foal is considered old enough to be weaned. Once he is processed and branded in Rock Springs, he will be taken from his mother and separated forever.
Another foal faced problems of his own. It took two passes for the helicopter to get the foal’s band into the trap. The dark foal was particularly young and by the time they reached the trap, he was worn out. He gradually fell farther and farther behind the rest of the band. His gray mother tried to slow down to stay with her foal, but the helicopter forced her to continue forward, flying over the foal in pursuit of the band. By the time the foal reached the first gate, the rest of his band was closed off several sections ahead. The confused foal tried to leave, but was finally corralled.
Later this same foal was tripped while trying to get out of the trailer, hitting his head against the gate panels as he fell. Another observer teased me when I expressed concern over the foal, but what else could I do? I hope with all my might that this foal and his mother can find a loving home that can ease the harm he experienced. But the reality takes over in my brain and reminds me that less than 10% of the horses rounded up by the BLM are adopted. What hope does a small, plain colored foal have of escaping the BLM holding pens and going to a new home? Was the forage this foal and his mother took from the mouths of sheep and cattle so great; was the “damage” he caused when drinking at the water holes and springs so terrible that he deserves a life in holding, unloved and forgotten? What does he have to be thankful for?
And thus my the question remains. What can I possibly be thankful for as I sit and watch this roundup, knowing there is nothing I can do to stop it?
I am thankful that I am not alone. I watched these terrible proceedings knowing that thousands of people were with me in spirit, and that together we are bearing witness and fighting to save these horses. Wild horses face an uncertain future. That is especially true of the horses in southwestern Wyoming, where RSGA ranchers are doing everything they can to eliminate the remaining wild horse herds in the area. It is a frustrating, uphill battle that never seems to end.
But it’s not over. Not yet.
To the contrary, the fight to save the four wild horse herds on the checkerboard lands has only just begun. We couldn’t stop this roundup, but we can still save the Salt Wells herd. Please call and email your Senators and Representatives, and ask them to the stop the abuse of power that is happening on your public lands at the hands of the BLM and the directive of the RSGA.
Please also consider donating to The Cloud Foundation’s legal fund. Your donation will go to support the funding of ongoing litigation over the 2013 Consent Decree. The BLM’s plan to zero out the herds in the checkerboard must be stopped. It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but I have faith that we can save these herds.