A symbol of freedom stirs controversy
PHOTOGRAPHY Elissa Kline
(page 3 of 3)
A National Issue
Since the 1971 bill was passed into law, roughly 300,000 wild horses have been adopted nationwide, said BLM Idaho State Director Tom Dyer in an October interview. “We do have horses in long-term holding, but every year we try to come up with new solutions,” he said. “The desire is to maintain a balance without a serious impact to the range, or the animals themselves, without gathering. That’s one of our goals for the future.”
The BLM wants no more than 253 wild horses in the Challis zone. The July 2009 roundup gathered 366 horses and re-released 155. Eleven died in the process.
“There is a certain amount of mortality in the roundup. It’s traumatic,” Dyer conceded.
In the past two years, 255 wild horses died in roundups throughout the West. For the July roundup in Challis, Kline toted video and still cameras back to the familiar sagebrush hills as a small helicopter chased the horses—often flying within feet of the frightened animals—into holding pens.
“This was happening to them,” she explained. “The least I could do was document it. I knew it would be tough, but I had no idea how hard and how bad.”
For her documentary on the roundup, Kline interviewed Kenny Bradshaw, an 87-year-old rancher who has lived his whole life in and around Challis. He gave a powerful testimonial. In the slow twang of an old rancher, Bradshaw said there was no reason to take those horses off the range. “There’s plenty of feed for both horses and cattle. They weren’t hurting anyone. This is just a bad deal, and I don’t like it one bit.”
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.
In October, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar proposed moving some herds from their home ranges to holding facilities, renamed “refuges,” in the Midwest and East. Citing a recent decline in the number of wild horses and burros being adopted because of the economic downturn, Salazar said the BLM maintains nearly 32,000 wild horses and burros in holding, including more than 9,500 in expensive, short-term corrals. In 2009, the program cost the government $29 million.
Salazar, in an October letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, maintained that the status quo is “not sustainable for the animals, the environment, or the taxpayer.” The relocation plan, he wrote, would “enhance the conservation for this iconic animal and provide better value for the taxpayer.”
Following Salazar’s announcement, an alliance of more than 60 organizations called for suspension of all wild horse gathers in the United States. The Equine Welfare Alliance called for an immediate moratorium by all government agencies.
After the July 2009 roundup, Herlich, Kline and Lohmann took action on a local level. Lohmann found a ranch for the adopted horses to roam. Kline maintained communications with the BLM. And Herlich wrote letters seeking funding. “We fell into our places, and we have gotten quite a nice response from people who care,” Herlich said.
Lohmann’s nonprofit, Silent Voices, had established a solid track record of saving and advocating for mistreated domestic horses and, in an unprecedented move last October, the BLM permitted her to adopt 19 wild mares (the 1971 law had capped adoptions at four horses per citizen). Before Lohmann stepped in, the mares had been held captive for four months and were scheduled to be shipped to a holding facility in Oklahoma.
“We can go out and bitch about it, or we can create a format that will work for the horses, and include the BLM,” Lohmann said. The mares, now living here in the southern Wood River Valley, were transported by the BLM in mid-October.
“I think they know they are safe, and I think they know they won’t be harmed anymore, and they also know they will never go back home,” she said. “They seem confused about how to interact with each other properly, lacking a functioning family dynamic. They are broken, some of them deeply sad and lost, but they are hopeful.”
By late-fall, the horses began establishing small groups even though none belonged to the same herd in the wild.
The white mare, that Lohmann first saw nosing its mate through the fence in Kline’s photograph, is here as well. Lohmann is still drawn to her and, at one point, the mare to Lohmann.
“She allowed me to feed her hay and touch her face,” Lohmann said. “She is the only one I have named: Sabia, ‘the wise one.’ I believe that this mare had reached out to us and talked to me. She had managed to make a connection with me, and that is what brought all the mares to us.”
And here the mares live for the time being, almost, but not quite, wild.
Click here to read the Local Buzz blog: Not So Free to Roam