Cloud, wild stallion of the Rockies, facing an uncertain future.
Can Cloud's Herd Survive?
Eleven years ago I journeyed into wild horse country with a camera, great enthusiasm and zero knowledge about what made a "natural" horse tick. The journey changed my life.
My sister and I stood in the pre-dawn chill in the red desert at the base of flat-topped mountains the Crow Indians call the Arrowhead Mountains and white people know as the Pryors. We spotted a group of six wild horses near buttes made even redder by the sun inching over the rim of the Bighorn Mountains. I set up my camera and trained my telephoto lens on the colorful group in the distance.
Newborn Cloud, day one, at mother's feet
There were two blacks - a stallion and a yearling male, plus a palomino mare, a grey mare with stripes (a color called grulla), a buckskin mare and her newborn foal who was a soft, pale grey. As he turned I could see his big star, shaped like a diamond. He was the first wild horse foal I had ever seen and I named him Diamond. His father, the black stallion, walked closer to eat snow in a drift at the base of one of the deep red hills. Later I learned that wild horse admirers had named him Raven years ago.
Raven jerked his head up and stood alert. Clearly, he had smelled us. He walked briskly toward us while I filmed. He stopped, stomped a front hoof, shook the long forelock that covered his eyes, then snorted and spun around. In unison the whole band took off, with the little foal leaping over sage to keep up with his mother. It was a moment I will never forget.
Over the next year something strange happened. Every time I ventured onto the mountain Raven and his mares appeared. It was as if they were asking for their story to be told. I was happy and excited to oblige. By late spring, Raven's family had two more babies and Diamond had two little brothers to play with, a grullo and a flashy strawberry roan.
Raven, Cloud's father, in the red desert where I first saw him
I knew nothing about wild horses but Raven's family taught me what their society was all about. I learned about the close bond between the stallion and his mares, about their need to touch, about their rich communication and subtle, consistent discipline with the foals. By following them, I learned where to find most of the waterholes. And, I began to recognize most of the other horses among the 160 or so on the mountain. I thrilled at the sight of them flying across alpine meadows strewn with lupine. And I learned to listen, riveted to the shrill shrieks of stallions whose calls reverberated across the canyons and through the forests.
And most important of all, I came to realize what wild horses value most… family and freedom. Their lives seemed idyllic on the sunny meadows atop the Pryors. But in September the peace of the mountaintop was shattered.
Horses and foals die in BLM roundup
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducted a deadly roundup in which a number of wild horses died. Two of Raven's three foals, the grullo and the strawberry roan, were killed. Only Diamond survived in what was a terrible trauma for Raven's family and a nightmare for me.
The following spring nothing could keep me from returning to the Pryors to look for what remained of Raven's band. By March, two lively fillies were born and gradually they helped dissolve my anger and sadness. I named the fillies Smokey and Mahogany.
Shaman and his mare nuzzling, an expression of closeness.
Cloud is born!
Then, over Memorial Day weekend, something truly amazing happened. I was filming another stallion's group when I caught a flash of white coming through the forest. I panned my camera over to see Raven's youngest mare, the beautiful Palomino. She emerged from the trees with a colt who took my breath away. The tottering newborn by her side was nearly white. He struggled to keep up with his mother as they marched uphill to snow banks under a deep canopy of Douglas firs. I could count the colt's ribs and I feared he might not live. I named the foal who has forever captured my heart, Cloud.
The fragile colt not only lived, he grew into a strong, precocious and charismatic youngster, then a feisty bachelor stallion and finally, a proud band stallion who has fathered his own offspring. Cloud still lives free in his Montana stronghold… at least for now. But a storm is brewing over Cloud's home range and none of the wild horses are safe, not even Cloud and his family.
Cloud relaxes while his mother grazes among the mountain flowers
Herds targeted for unnecessary reduction
An Environmental Assessment (EA), which will come out in a few weeks and will have been issued by the time you read this, will call for a reduction, perhaps a drastic reduction, in the number of wild horses allowed to live free in this spectacular mountain wilderness. The basis for the recommendation comes largely from a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Report released last year. The report is the result of monitoring plants on the horse range in 2002 and 2003, the two driest years since the early 1900's. The report, inaccurately based on these atypical dry years, recommends that as few as 45 horses be managed on the designated horse range.
If the NRCS low level recommendation is accepted, even Cloud could lose his freedom.
A grulla mare on Sykes Ridge looks out over her dramatic wilderness home.
The population of the Pryors herd now stands at only around 140, already 10 horses below the minimum to maintain genetic viability according to Gus Cothran, famed University of Kentucky geneticist. Only 4 years ago this same range sustained over 200 wild horses. But a roundup, the repeated application of birth control to yearling and two year old fillies, and active mountain lion predation on the foals have combined to create a nearly 1/3 population loss in the herd.
For years I have been laughed at when I contended that the wild horses in the Pryor Mountains could be a self-sustaining herd without human intervention. In other words the population would fluctuate naturally within acceptable levels based on predation, weather, and range conditions. Mountain lion predation over the past few years proves that this is the case. It is human intervention which has tipped the balance of nature and thrown the herd into decline.
Any additional pressure from humans could put the herd into a downward spiral from which they cannot fully recover and Cloud's herd could be lost forever. Yet a BLM roundup is planned for the fall. This must be strongly protested.
Raven's band, in the red desert
Turf battles and political agendas
If this weren't bad enough, Cloud has more problems. The issues which will decide the fate of the Pryor horses are complex - multijurisdictional turf battles and political agendas involving the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management still exist, as they have for decades. The BLM and the Custer National Forest Service disagree on whether the horses have the legal right to use Forest Service lands atop the mountain. The outcome will determine how much of the the horses' current and historic homelands they will be allowed to occupy.
Cloud and his mother in the mountains that they call home
To their credit the BLM has asked that the horses' range be legally expanded to encompass the actual, traditional use of the wild horses. The Custer National Forest Service has stubbornly denied that the horses were using the Forest Service lands in question when the Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed in 1971. The Wild Horse and Burro Act ensures the right of the wild horses to use lands they occupied during this time period. Clearly the horses were present in 1971. Legal documents and photographic evidence proves this. The horses have probably used these lands for over 200 years! And they have maintained and sustained themselves at genetically viable and ecologically supportive numbers.
A mountain lion in the red desert stalks.
Yet, the Custer National Forest Service wants to fence the horses out of the mountain top, limiting their ability to go into their higher meadows in July through the time the snows force them to lower elevations. This move will put more pressure on the resources within the limited designated range. Sadly, there are some within the BLM who seem to want just such ammunition to drastically decrease the herd.
If we value Cloud's herd and want it to survive, we cannot allow the Forest Service to fence the horses out!
Proper designation vital to wild horses' survival
The safest place for a wild youngster is next to her mother. Bolder, Cloud's son with Cloud's sister and her foal
Consider some facts about this unusual herd. The Pryor wild horses are the only wild horse herd remaining in Montana, and they are the most Spanish of the wild horse herds remaining in the West. Through DNA analysis, Cloud's herd has been traced to the breeding farms of the Spanish Conquest in the Caribbean. They are the descendants of horses first brought to the America's in the early 1500's by the Conquistadors. Not surprisingly, their closest living relatives are the Puerto Rican Paso Finos.
Four-year-old Cloud baits the band stallion, Mateo, to chase him. (He hoped to wear Mateo down with one long chase after another.)
The Custer National Forest Service has referred to the wild horses as non-native. They conveniently ignore newer science, based on molecular biology, proving that wild horses evolved to a finished form in North America before they disappeared from the continent some 10,000 years ago. Wild horses are a reintroduced native wildlife species in North America, considering that the Equus species that went extinct in North America (E. lambei) is the genetic equivalent to the Equus species that returned with the Spanish (E. caballus).
Wild horses are a native wildlife species and the environment in which they evolved still exists. If they would rightfully receive their proper native species designation from the government, they would qualify as an endangered, or at the very least, a threatened species, and would be protected rather than removed from their homes in the wild.
Cloud's herd cannot speak for themselves, but we can speak for them. If Cloud and his family and the other families of wild horses on the mountain are in jeopardy of losing their freedom, it will not come without a fight. Join me to campaign for their survival.
Please write, email or call those that hold the future of the herd in their hands:
Gail Kimbell, Regional Forester
USDA Forest Service, Northern Region One,
PO Box 7669
Missoula, MT 5907-7669.
Marty Ott, State Director, BLM
Montana State Office
5001 Southgate Dr
Billings, Montana 59101
(406) 896-5298 fax
Sandra S. Brooks, BLM
Field Manager, Billings Field Office
5001 Southgate Drive
PO Box 36800
Billings, MT 59107
Linda Coates-Markle, BLM
Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range Mgr
5001 Southgate Drive
Billings, MT 59107
Your Help Needed - Stop the Pryor Roundup
The Burns Rider to the 2004 Senate Appropriations Bill mandates that captured wild horses over the age of 10 be sold at auction. The vast majority of wild horses sold in this manner will end up going to slaughter. That means that a roundup in the Pryors (which calls for significant reductions in the herd) could result in the removal of many horses over 10 years of age. Cloud's mother, his father Raven, and his brother Diamond could end up on a meat hook in a slaughterhouse. So could Cloud's mare, Sitka and many other Pryor wild horses. Cloud will only be ten. While his freedom could be taken away from him, his life might be spared... at least for now. Please fight to stop the Pryor Roundup and the removal or manipulation of this herd before they are only a memory or images on film! Contact The Cloud Foundation right away - www.thecloudfoundation.org.
Gale A. Norton, Secretary,
US Dept. of the Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240
Kathleen Clark, Director, BLM
1849 C Street NW Rm. 406-LS,
Washington, DC 20240
(202) 452-5124 fax
Jeff Rawson, BLM
Wild Horse & Burro Program Director
1849 C St NW
Washington, DC 20240