Ada Inbody, FOAL treasurer, turns off U.S. Highway 14-16-20 east of Cody with a group of 14 passengers. The destination is Whistle Creek Road, which leads to the heart of wild horse country.
The van tops a gentle rise. A few hundred yards away, 50 or 60 mustangs are leaving a water hole. The horses trot from the tank, kicking up faint dust clouds like rusty exhaust, then begin grazing.
“There’s Tyke with his three girls. Oh, there’s Three Amigos,” said Patricia Hatle, Bureau of Land Management range/wild horse specialist, rattling off mustang names like a list of relatives at a family reunion.
Hatle has been managing the herd since 1992, she said.
“I think there are nine different bands there,” said Marshall Dominick, FOAL board member. “You can see they’ve separated themselves.”
Indeed, the mustangs break into groups in a huge bowl of green grass like competing teams at a track meet resting between events. Piebalds, buckskins and blacks mingle, and a few stallions spar playfully like boys reenacting a fight scene they saw on television the night before.
It’s a truly captivating sight, as though Inbody’s van has transported the group back to the Old West before fences or regulations wrested ascendancy.
Cameras are working overtime and binoculars zoom to one horse after another.
35 harems of horses
The horse management area, or HMA, is around 110,000 acres. Hatle said she is hoping another 13,000 acres will be added, but that would be the first time an HMA has ever been enlarged.
There are approximately 140 adult horses and nine colts now occupying the range. Generally, there are about 35 harems. A dominant stallion supervises his harem with a lieutenant stallion, Hatle said.
All the horses survived the winter, she said.
McCullough horses carry quarter horse, draft and Spanish blood. “There’s a lot of Spanish influence,” Hatle said.
Meanwhile back in the van ...
Tom and Terry Dissinger came to see horses.
“She (Terry) signed me up,” Tom said back in the van. “Technically, this will be our first time.”
From Center Hall, Pa., the Dissingers have lived in Cody two years. Tom said he thought he saw some wild horses once before while hunting, but he wasn’t sure.
Terry and John Livermore of Cody offer the van’s occupants the scoop on “gougers.”
The legs of a gouger are shorter on one side than the other so the animals can deftly negotiate Wyoming’s perpendicular hillsides, John Livermore said.
But customized gouger limbs have their limits.
“They (gougers) only go in one direction,” Terry Livermore said stealing John’s punch line.
Inbody tops a rise, finding a buckskin and a black.
“These guys are a couple bachelors, Romeo and Navigator,” Inbody said.
The stallions, less than 50 yards away, appear unperturbed by the humans scrambling out of the van to snap photos. Navigator jogs along the fence line, his shaggy mane like dreadlocks.
With Hatle acting as the guide, Inbody eases the van over a barely discernible two-track.
Inbody’s son strongly recommended she pack her cell phone when trekking around the range. One day he called asking where she was.
“‘I don’t know, but I can see Heart Mountain,’” she said, recalling her reply and earning good-natured laughs.
At another stop, Inbody parks on a hill overlooking the badlands of rolling hills of pink and white stratum accentuated with patches of grass like lumpy putting greens.
Hatle and Inbody describe the bureau’s birth control program to control the wild horse population.
According to the bureau, the herds appropriate management level is 70 to 140 adults. The bureau has been treating the mustangs for birth control with porcine zona pellucida or PZP since 2004.
The goal is to balance the number of births with deaths from old age, Hatle said.
Hatle and Inbody are inoculating the mares with PZP. The PZP is delivered by a dart fired from a rifle. Inbody is the shooter and Hatle the spotter.
The mares are shot, and 99 percent of the time the dart, after delivering its charge, pops out. “And we retrieve them all,” Inbody said.
PZP is 95 percent effective. The dose they use lasts nine months to one year. If a mare is treated for seven years consecutively with PZP, it will become sterile, Hatley said.
Inbody shoulders the rifle and fires a blank dart into the side of a hill. “Psst,” like the sound of a pistol with a silencer attached, the dart exits the rifle to smack the dirt right on target.
Pipes and reservoirs
There are hundreds of small reservoirs in the McCullough Peaks, but the challenge is locating the reservoirs strategically to capture water from drainages, Dominick said.
A water pipeline project tapping wells in the Dry Creek area will deliver water to at least four lined reservoirs for stock, horses and other large wildlife, Dominick said.
FOAL began the project in 2012, with the bureau, National Wild Turkey Foundation and Marathon Oil Company as partners. “We hope to have a majority of it completed by the summer of 2016,” Dominick said.
Solar panels will produce electricity for the wells. Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust is seeking a grant to help fund the project, Dominick said.
The pipeline should reach two of the reservoirs by this October, Dominick said.