Pryor roundup lifts off

Posted 9/10/09

Whether all those horses are adopted remains to be seen.

At least two foals were gathered Thursday. Whether the youngsters are adopted or freed also remains to be seen.

Once all the horses are gathered, it will be decided which will be adopted …

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Pryor roundup lifts off


{gallery}09_08_09/pryor{/gallery}Fifteen Pryor Mountain wild horses were captured Thursday, using a helicopter. The Bureau of Land Management's goal is to capture all 190 horses, adopt out 70 and free the rest. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers Despite a slow start rounding up wild horses in the Pryor Mountain herd north of Lovell, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management still aims to capture all 190 horses in the herd and free 120 within a 10-day window.Staff from the bureau's Billings office rounded up only 15 horses on Thursday with the aid of a helicopter.It was a slow start as observers staked out on a hill in the blistering sun to spy a helicopter driving the horses to a corral at Britton Springs, where they will be sorted. Seventy horses will be put up for adoption there; the rest will be released back to the Pryors.

Whether all those horses are adopted remains to be seen.

At least two foals were gathered Thursday. Whether the youngsters are adopted or freed also remains to be seen.

Once all the horses are gathered, it will be decided which will be adopted and which will be cut loose, said Don Smurthwaite, chief of public affairs from the bureau's Boise, Idaho office. Smurthwaite was helping temporarily with the roundup operation.

“We will try to keep the bands (a small group headed by a patriarchal stallion) together when horses are released,” a bureau news release said.

Efforts will be made to par down the male-female mix. Right now, according to the bureau, 65 percent of the horses are mares. The bureau plans to tweak that to 50-50, removing 50 females and 20 males, the release said.

Females with a return ticket to the Pryors will be injected with an infertility drug good for two years, said Mary Apple, Billings bureau public information officer.

The group, consisting of representatives of the media and the Cloud Foundation, remains on the stony ridge, baking in the sun with bureau minders while awaiting word about the roundup.

“I got eight down here,” comes the helicopter pilot's voice on a two-way radio. “I can't hardly drive them, they're so gentle.”

Gentle, accustomed to people in close proximity. That's the Pryor ponies. But that could be a bit of a blessing.

Traditionally, 2 to 3 percent of horses suffering severe stress actually die during roundups, Smurthwaite said.

However Smurthwaite said they hope that the Pryor horses are comfortable around humans, and no animals will die.

People and horse safety: “That's our goal,” Smurthwaite said.

Meanwhile, on the ridge, Ginger Kathrens of the Cloud Foundation is not happy. The Cloud Foundation recently filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the bureau's management of the Pryor herd, and asked for, but was denied, a temporary restraining order to stall the roundup.

Kathrens said she wants to preserve the equines' Spanish bloodline dating back centuries.

According to Kathrens, Dr. Gus Cothran, a noted equine geneticist, told the bureau the herd must be managed at minimum levels of 150 to 200 to keep the herd viable. Jared Bybee, wild horse and burro specialist at Billings bureau office, said 120 horses is the number that will maintain an ecological balance in the Pryors.

Finally, the helicopter is spotted in the distance, thumping up from the Syke Ridge area.

Four horses and a colt mosey down the draw. In a swirl of dust, the helicopter sways like a tether ball swinging on a line, easing the horses in the preferred direction. Near the trap, a judas horse lures the mustangs to the corral.

The horses amble past while the observers watch, snapping pictures and recording video.

“That was a beautiful job,” Kathrens said of the pilot's work.

Despite the apparently humane helicopter drive of the horses, Kathrens said no one knows what is happening where the public can't view the roundup.

During the roundup, public access to much of the public land here is restricted for the safety of the horses and people, said the bureau.

Six humane observers were scattered about the gather area, said Smurthwaite. One is Matt Dillon, who runs the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center in Lovell and another is his father, Tom Dillon.

If observers have suggestions, the bureau will listen, but the bureau is not bound by those suggestions, Smurthwaite said.

Two horses, Sam and Hightail, trot down the dusty draw next, with the helicopter in tow.

The two equines are a couple, but Hightail has not thrown a colt in five or six years, Kathrens said.

If Sam loses his spouse, Kathrens said she fears he may not survive alone.

Reeve Woolpert, of Santa Barbara, Calif., has visited the range since the 1980s.

Woolpert said the bureau should allow the horses to maintain their own population management level naturally.

“Let them be,” Woolpert said.

Because of temperatures in the 90s, the roundup was halted early Thursday afternoon.

In the corrals, two horses look a bit forlorn behind bars, but appear no worse for wear.

The horses are gently nudged through a gate by a wrangler. One horse bangs the metal, then walks past in an enclosed alley.

A colt exits, uttering a plaintive whinny. In response, another horse neighs.

“Funny, I don't hear them make that sound in the Pryors,” Woolpert quips. “They always sounded a lot happier.”

Finally mamma scampers out, and the colt immediately begins suckling. Mamma's ribs are showing. Next, a stallion marches out and takes the lead a bit huffily, like a father suffering an indignity in a bureaucratic office while his family watches. He looks a bit thin, too.

Dillon would like to see the approximate 39,000 acre range expanded. If there is more grass, perhaps more horses could live in the Pryors.

The primary reason for the gather is the range can't support 190 horses, Smurthwaite said.

“Our studies indicate, and our experience shows, forage is scarce,” Smurthwaite said.