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Horse Power

A symbol of freedom stirs controversy

Horses of the Challis herd ran at full gallop during a July 2009 roundup. Once the herding begins, horses of a herd tend to run together. A “Judas horse,” contracted by the BLM, will guide the wild horses into a funnel fence leading to mobile corrals.

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There’s a dustup in the sage-covered hills of central Idaho. Wild horses, a fixture on the landscape for decades, are at the center of a struggle as old as the West itself, an argument between the federal government and the people who call this harsh land their home. The animals caught in the middle are, as usual, innocent to the trouble that surrounds them.

The Challis Herd Management Area (HMA) comprises 163,720 acres of BLM-managed, Idaho state-owned and private land. The Challis herd claims no specific location within the HMA, but roams in small groups throughout its sage plains, grass meadows and high desert mountains. For a roundup like the one pictured here, helicopters can run the horses upwards of seven miles to their mobile corrals. The Challis HMA is bordered on the north by the Salmon River, on the west by the East Fork of the Salmon River, on the south by the ridgeline between Herd Creek and Road Creek, and on the east by U.S. Highway 93 and the watershed boundary between the Salmon River drainage and the Lost River drainage.


And because this is a modern take on an old story, it starts with a photograph. Well composed and powerful, it changed the lives of three Sun Valley-area women and 19 wild horses.The photo captured a wild mare and stallion in a sentimental moment, holding their soft noses together through the hard metal frame of a rangeland corral. They were about to be forever separated.

Doro Lohmann, a Hailey-based horse trainer and founder of Silent Voices Equine Horse Rescue, sought out the photographer, Elissa Kline, after viewing the image. “I told her, ‘I want to do something so I can sleep at night,’” Lohmann said.

The photograph was taken following the July 2009 roundup of 366 wild horses on U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public range near Challis, Idaho. Such roundups, says the BLM, are necessary to control expanding populations of a non-native wild species. Such roundups, say wild horse activists, are cruel and unnecessary and run contrary to the spirit of a federal law designed specifically to protect the herds.

Wild horse roundups—always fast-paced, sometimes violent and often controversial—are the reason the three women united, and Kline’s emotive photography is the thread that stitched them together.

Jodi Herlich, a volunteer with the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley and manager of Ketchum’s Jensen Stern jewelry store, launched a letter-writing campaign in 2008 after Kline showed her photos of the horrors of an earlier roundup. When the BLM postponed a roundup that summer, Herlich attributed the decision to her grassroots effort. “I had a huge response,” she said. “People [copied] me on letters they wrote to their senators and congressmen. They were so heartfelt. It’s an issue that touches us on a core level,” she said.

First Encounters

Kline first visited the Challis herd after a 2004 BLM roundup horrified her friend and Challis area homeowner, Bonnie Garman. Kline was working as a ranch manager near Clayton, a pinprick of a town about 20 miles southwest of Challis, and said her friend’s “passion and horror” drew her in. After that first meeting she returned to the herd time and again.

“I probably photographed 150 horses over the course of five years,” she said. “They were thriving. Their hooves were strong. They were beautiful beyond words. I’d see the same families season after season, year after year, and they were still together.” To familiarize herself with the herd, she established a routine, always wearing the same jacket and hat and keeping a respectful distance.

“I would talk to them and tell them, ‘I’m not going to hurt you. Maybe I can help you stay on the land,’” she said. “That was my goal, to bring more public awareness to their plight.”

Kline had a bold vision for her photos: silk-screen them onto seven-foot fabric panels. Hung in the middle of a gallery space, Kline recreated the cherished herd as a life-size installation. She hoped people would walk among them and feel their power and beauty.

Shown first at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in 2006, the exhibit, “Herd but not Seen,” has since been exhibited at venues in four Western states and during talks she’s given alongside Deanne Stillman, author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.

While she reached hundreds through her exhibition, the powers she wished to influence carried on. In July 2009, despite citizen protests, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management returned to Challis for another roundup. >>>



Sun Valley Magazine encourages its readers to post thoughtful and respectful comments on all of our online stories. Your comments may be edited for length and language.

Old to new | New to old
Dec 27, 2009 02:27 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

After 255 equine fatalities last year directly due to round ups, two foals died in a winter "gather" in Oregon last week.

Tomorrow, Dec. 28th, the largest round up in Nevada's history, 2,800 horses, will begin in the dead of winter. The Calico Complex round up was delayed by animal right s group In Defense of Animals lawsuit against the BLM, but a Federal Judge ruled that the round up could continue while admitting that warehousing horses is a violation of the law.

What is going on here, people? We are speaking out and no one is listening. The BLM seems to be out of control and above the law - the round up tomorrow begins on private land so there will not be any humane observers allowed to witness...

So much for transparency in this administration.

Dec 30, 2009 07:13 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

"The issue has lawmakers’ attention. A rider attached to a bill by former U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, R-Montana, in 2004, proposed rewriting the more than 30-year-old Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act. Burns proposed that wild horses over the age of 10, or those that had been unsuccessfully offered for adoption three times, could be sold “without limitations” to the highest bidder. The failed measure would have opened the slaughterhouse door."

This is a wonderful, heartrenching piece but I must point out one error. The "Burns Amendment" DID NOT fail. It was silently attached to an appropriations bill in the middle of the night and passed without the knowledge of most of the senators who voted for it. It DID open the slaughterhouse door as a group of mustangs were purchased by an Oklahoma church camp and sent to the slaughter plant in Illinois before it was shut down. An embarrassed BLM added language to their sale contract to prevent purchasing for slaughter but even thay admit it's unenforceable. Just search on "Burns Amendment" to research this horrible truth.

As a resident of the state of Montana I'm truly thankful Conrad Burns no longer represents me in Washington!

Apr 20, 2012 01:53 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

There is considerable evidence that the horse who evolved in North America did not die out 7,000 years ago. There is considerable evidence that small groups of indigenous horses survived the Ice Age and were here when the Vikings landed and when the Spanish brought their long legged horses to North America.

The lobbyists in Washington and cattlemen influence in agencies of Washington find it convenient to continue with the myth that horses are a non-native invasive species because that belief will help them eradicate the horse from his rightful homeland. This prejudice they think will give more forage and water to their livestock who wind up on dinner plates.

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