A symbol of freedom stirs controversy
PHOTOGRAPHY Elissa Kline
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.
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.
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. >>>