Blithe Spirits of the White Clouds
Photograhy: Elissa Kline
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We have been searching for almost a week now. The horses were lost during a pack trip in the White Cloud Mountains northeast of Sun Valley. Three of our group’s horses bolted from our camp near the base of Castle Peak. We haven’t seen my mare or the two geldings since. I imagine her, loping along unfettered, without my voice to summon her back. After so many days, I wonder if she’s frightened. My husband and I have a ranch at the base of these mountains near Challis, Idaho, and through countless forays into the canyons and sage-covered prairie, we have come to know its beauty and its dangers. If our horses cross from the White Cloud Range east into the high desert, they will enter the rangeland of the Challis wild horses. If they happen onto one of these bands, and they will, the geldings will be driven off, but my little mare will become embraced into one of the free-roaming herds. There she will face the reality of becoming truly wild. The stallions will fight over her and the wild mares will test her, seeing where she belongs in the pecking order of the herd. Will she be strong enough to survive in the hot desert heat? Will her hooves hold together after galloping over miles of rocky terrain without the help of metal shoes? Will she learn to find water in a land where little is to be had? This I wonder. Like a mother worried about her runaway child, I’m afraid she will fail the tests. It was midnight, seven days after losing our horses, when the phone rang. It was a bow hunter saying he had spotted three horses standing at a cattle guard near the end of a canyon close to our home. My husband and I drove there and found one of them, weary and ready to be rescued. We tracked the other two with flashlights, but it wasn’t until morning, miles from where we started, that we found them—their halters and lead ropes missing, heads low from exhaustion, their legs bleeding from scrapes and scratches. They were headed into wild horse country. Whether or not they had the mettle to survive being free, we will never know.
As recently as the 1800s, 2 million wild horses roamed the American West. Since then, the encroachment of man, competition for rangeland, and the introduction of barbed wire have chipped away at their existence. An estimated 32,000 undomesticated horses remain today, relegated by federal law to designated parcels across the West. Their quality of life has diminished due to competition for rangeland and the overall shifting priorities of man.
What nature doesn’t cull, humans do. Every few years the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), caretakers of the wild horse ranges, hold roundups under the auspices of reducing demand on the food and water supply. Horses, buzzed into corrals and chutes by helicopter and horsemen, are evaluated and most often placed up for adoption. Some go to sanctuaries, some are believed to end up at one of the few remaining slaughterhouses in the U.S. although the House of Representatives voted recently to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption under HR 503 The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.
Some of the BLM’s techniques may be modern, but roundups are not new. For decades, cowboys have caught their own stock from among the bands, or gathered them up for sale in the same way someone might collect antlers for profit. >>>