Wild horses of the Pryor Mountains stand along Bighorn Reservoir. Dave Reese photos
BY DAVID REESE/Montana Living
A cloud of dust billowed up in the distance in the dry desert landscape of the Pryor Mountain National Wild Horse Management area in southeast Montana.
Far away, like the screech of a hawk on the warm summer wind, came the sound of a helicopter.
Although you couldn’t see the helicopter, the cloud of dust betrayed the air ship’s location in the tight draws and valleys of this scrubby terrain.
The helicopter reared back, high into the hot morning sky.
And then they appeared from the draw: a line of about 15 horses, making their way through a creek bottom, toward a set of camouflaged corrals. Ahead of them was a Judas or “pirata” horse — a trained, domestic horse placed there to lure the wild horses into the corrals.
Several horses paused to eat or browse, while others moved on deliberately at a slow trot. Some walked.
When the wild horses approached the pirata horse, it was released and immediately ran back toward the corrals, luring the wild horses into the final stretch — and into the corrals.
The gate clanged shut on the corrals, and the wild horses milled about, kicking up clouds of dust. One man, alone on a ridge, knelt in the dry dust and prayed quietly for the horses.
This was the scene at the August 2009 roundup at the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Management area — a scene where range science and biology collide with the myth of America’s west. The Pryor Mountains are home to about 190 horses that are said to be descendants of Spanish mustangs left in north America centuries ago.
In this high desert landscape, there’s not much for the horses to eat, and range managers want to reduce the herd size to about 120 horses.
That was accomplished over two days of gathering in September 2009 near Lovell, Wyoming, a town about two hours’ drive from Red Lodge, Montana.
Once in the corrals the horses, which have had to struggle for their meals in the wild, took quickly to the lush green hay offered them. The horses were checked for disease and the ones that weren’t selected for being available for adoption were put in trailers and released back into the wild.
CONTROVERSY SURROUNDS the gathering process. Animal-rights advocates arrived by the dozens to protest the 2009 roundup, and halted the gathering, temporarily, in a Billings court.
The gatherings have drawn criticism from animal-rights advocates who say the gatherings are costly, hurt the animals, reduce genetic purity and are unnecessary. To them, the horses should be left alone as symbols of the wild, wild west.
Elyse Gardner arrived from California at the 2009 gathering to act as a humane observer. Her personal mission was to ensure that the horses were treated well during the gathering.
Though she had no previous experience with the Pryor Mountain horses, she said “I feel like I know them well from the Cloud films.”
These videos are produced by the Cloud Foundation, a conservation group adamantly opposed to the roundups. Film crews from the Cloud Foundation monitored nearly every step of the gathering, at times visibly irritating the range managers and wranglers, who tried patiently to put up with their demands.
“The wild horses are really important to me, because roundups are pretty brutal affairs,” Gardner said. “It’s all about sweating, frightened, terrorized horses.”
Gardner said her goal was to observe what speed the horses are gathered at, and whether certain horses are kept apart during the gatherings. “They’ve done a good job here, from what I’ve seen,” she said, although she cited horror stories from other gatherings around the country where horses died or were injured.
She claims the herd’s long-term viability is “in jeopardy because of the low numbers BLM has chosen. It’s very sad that BLM has chosen a course that puts the horses at risk.”
Gardner looked strangely out of place at the 2009 gathering. Among crews of cowboys and wranglers, her lipstick and colorful hat gave her away. But she made no pretense about fitting in. She’ was there to protest and observe closely.
At the Britton Springs ranger station, just north of Lovell, Wyoming, Gardner winced as she looked into the corral where three young horses were jostling about.
For people who have been around horses, the loud noises that horses make in corrals — especially for the first time — don’t seem so out of place. But for Gardner, the sight was frightening and ghastly. “These horses are being abused!” she yelled to the handlers as they pushed the horses into a squeeze chute for inoculation and testing.
The horses had been in the corrals for a few days now, eating green hay — something they’ve not had much of during their lives on the Pryor Mountains.
While Gardner and others say the range can support up to 200 horses, range managers and biologists think otherwise.
They know how much forage is available on this land, and how many horses it can support, and by law passed in 1971, it is up to them to manage the herds.
The southern portion of the refuge is dry, barren terrain, and the horses prefer the northern portion of the refuge. There’s a problem with that, however. That land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which also leases its land for cattle grazing. In Montana, animals grazing on a neighbor’s land isn’t tolerated. The geography changes greatly throughout the Pryor Mountain horse range — from arid, near-desert conditions in the south of the range, to mountainous, timbered terrain in the north. The Bighorn Canyon reservoir forms a large border on the east.
“The range condition is flat out not in good shape,” Jim Sparks, Billings field manager for the BLM, said.
Much of the public opposition focuses on the amount of forage available to the horses. “That’s where the biggest divisions (in opinion) seem to be,” Sparks said. “We’re trying to make a complex thing simple, so people can understand it. But I don’t think we’ll ever bring a halt to the opposition. There are just some philosophical differences” between the opponents and managers.
Some people say there’s enough food; range managers say there’s only enough for 100 to 120 horses on the 30,000 acres, and even that’s pushing it.
Sparks has studied the forage conditions at the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range for several years, and said “I know as much about range conditions here as anyone in the BLM, and this range isn’t in that great of shape.”
There hadn’t been a roundup on the Pryor Range since 2006. That bait gather brought in 22 horses. Sparks said the 2009 gather may have marked the end of the era of large gathers. “Hopefully we won’t ever have to do another large gather of this kind,” he said. “We’ll likely do a bait trap if we have to do another gather.”
The Pryor Mountain Horse Range management plan calls for trying to get the horses to use the middle part of the range. Horses tend to use the northern end of the range because there’s more food and water, so managers this year began installing water troughs in the middle portion of the range to encourage increased use. If horses begin to use this part of the range more, Sparks said, herd levels could be adjusted.
“If we can handle more, we will,” he said. “If it’s less, there will be less.”
Even the method of gathering the horses by luring them in with water and hay has been disputed by conservation groups and temporarily halted by court injunction.
While animal-rights groups seek to halt the wild horse gatherings, there is also the matter of federal law.
The Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 governs how the federal Bureau of Land Management cares for wild horses and burros at nearly five million acres of refuges around the United States.
Under that law, state and federal biologists dictate management of each wild horse herd. The law also stipulates that no horses can be placed on public land where they did not exist at the time of the law’s passage in 1971.
By law, the animals' range is limited to their 1971 levels, and federal money cannot be used to kill animals the government considers in excess of healthy grazing levels.
Nearly 37,000 wild horses and burros live on BLM-managed land in 10 western states, which is about 10,000 more than the agency considers healthy.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has recognized the problem of the wild horse program and is proposing that new wild horse refuges be created to handle the burgeoning populations.
The Government Accountability Office also noted in a 2009 memo that the wild horse program is at a critical crossroads and mandated that the BLM and Congress find a way to manage the horses that do not get adopted out of the wild horse roundups.
Many of out-of-state organizations that do not know the biology that governs wild horse herds seem to be captivated by the emotional lure of wild horses. Even Hollywood celebrities have lined up behind the cause.
Still, law and science dictate how the herds are to be managed.
“The current path of the wild horse and burro program is not sustainable for the animals, the environment, or the taxpayer,” Secretary of State Ken Salazar said in a letter to U.S. House majority leader Harry Reid in October 2009.
Salazar said he’d like to create new wild horse refuges on private land around the country, in areas where grazing and water exist. He said these preserves would be a boon to local tourism and would help alleviate the problem of overcrowding on existing holding facilities.
A new facility was created in winter 2009 — the first one in Montana — to hold horses waiting for adoption.
The Bureau of Land Management last winter began moving forward with a plan to place up to 805 wild horses on the 16,000-acre Spanish Q Ranch in Madison County.
The leased ranch will hold horses that have been captured to control population levels on public land – such as those from the Pryor Mountains.
Even though the BLM pared back the proposed herd size for the Ennis facility, concerns remain about the effects the horses will have on wildlife and the costs associated with placing the animals on private land.
The average cost for long-term holding pastures is around $1.30 per horse per day, putting the cost of holding 805 horses at the Ennis facility at $40,000 per year.
The BLM has defended its decision to lease land for the horses, given the tight parameters Congress has put on the agency when it comes to managing wild horses.
The issue is gaining the attention of Congress. The Senate Committee on Appropriations report for the BLM for 2010 said that gathering and holding costs of the wild horses have “risen beyond sustainable levels” and directed the BLM to prepare a long-term plan for the wild horse and burro program.
The conservation groups claim that the horses are descendants of those horses left in North America by Spanish conquistadors, and they should be left alone, saying their genetic strains are at risk. However, it’s common knowledge that owners of domestic horses have released their unwanted horses on the ranges, allowing them to interbreed with the wild horse herd.
“There are some Spanish genes in these horses, but a lot of other horses have those gene markers,” the BLM’s Jim Sparks said.
Wild-horse advocates also say helicopters should not be used in the gatherings. But for management officials like Sparks, they are the most effective way to gather the horses. Other techniques like baiting the horses into corrals or using riders on horseback are not as effective, and they cost about the same as a helicopter gather.
In this steep, mountainous terrain of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, a horseback roundup would be dangerous not only to the cowboys, but to all the horses involved, said Sue Cattoor, whose family has made a living as one of two national Bureau of Land Management contractors that perform the helicopter gathers.
When gathering horses by horseback, the horses have to be kept at a run, to keep them moving in the direction the cowboys want them to, Cattoor said.
“It’s hard on the saddle horses and the wild horses,” she said. “With a helicopter you can herd them, not run them. On horseback, you have to run them and wear them down because they’ll just go where they want to go.
“People that want to outlaw the helicopters should come out and watch and compare.”
The Cattoor family, based out of Nephi, Utah, is one of the pioneers of wild horse roundups. When the federal law was enacted in 1971, the Cattoors began offering their services for horseback roundups. They moved into helicopter roundups as a safer method for the cowboys and the wild horses. Now, even the helicopter pilot is a former wrangler who spent plenty of time on the ground and in the saddle, getting to know wild horse behavior.
“You have to know what the horse is going to do,” Cattoor said. “You have to have a lot of patience, be able to understand the horse and be able to read them.”
Cattoor has been on wild horse gatherings around the United States and says the Pryor Mountain horses are unique — for their tameness.
“The horses are used to people,” she said. “They are not your typical wild horse. They live where there’s lots of people, cars, and they are much gentler than your typical wild horse.
“On other gathers, when you release the horses out of the trailer, they’re gone.”
Troy Cattoor, 40, started with his father in the business in the early 1970s. He was still in a car seat when he began accompanying his family on wild horse gathers.
At the 2009 gather in the Pryor Mountains, hot midday heat kept the wranglers to working only in the early morning to reduce stress on the horses. He said the gathering went smoothly, and the horses did just about what they wanted them to.
“It was easy trailing,” he said. “When the helicopter found them, they never did run from it. They were on a trot to a walk all the way in. They swished their tails and ate grass all the way down the hill.”
The gathering at the southern end of the Pryor Mountains was quite different from a gathering the following day at the northern end of the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range. In the in the deep, timbered draws of the northern portion of the range it was harder to find the horses.
As cowboys set up the corrals on a ridge overlooking the forest landscape, a helicopter sat in a grassy field nearby.
A helicopter pilot climbed aboard and the engine whined as it began to roar to life. The helicopter was quickly airborne, the pilot scanning the terrain for the wild horses.
The helicopter moved in and out of tight draws and deep canyons, low to the ground. After about an hour, the horses came trickling up the hillside and into the corrals. Done for the day, the workers loaded the horses into trailers and took the horses back to the Britton Springs ranger station, where they were kept until the adoption.
The 2009 roundup brought in about 146 out of the 195 horses on the range. Of those, 54 adults and three foals were adopted out. Those that weren’t sold were to be transferred to a federal holding facility where they’ll stay until they can be adopted.
For Jim and Rose McIntosh of Billings, the 2009 gathering was a chance to add a new member to their family.
The couple adopted a pregnant mare and a colt. By the markings on her coat, it was obvious the mare had been in a fight. Her ribcage show clearly. “She’s pretty poor,” Jim McIntosh said just moments after adopting the pair. “But in 30 days hopefully she’ll have all her weight back” and will be able to successfully deliver her foal. “She’ll get oats, pellets, and all the hay she can eat,” he said. “In two weeks you won’t recognize her. But she doesn’t have a chance to survive out there.”
He has adopted two Pryor horses before, and one from Utah, and they have successfully become part of his domestic stock that he cares for on 1,300 acres near Billings.
He is able to ride them or pull a buggy with them. “Because they’re wild you’re able to make a friend with them,” he said. “They’re amazing how loving they are. Within about a week, you can do most anything with them.”
Within a few weeks of adopting the horses, Bureau of Land Management officials will check up on the horses to make sure they’re being taken care of properly. Ones that aren’t will be brought back to the refuge or a holding facility. After a year, if the new adoptive owners are taking good care of the horses, they’ll get a certificate of ownership.
McIntosh said he doesn’t plan on breeding his Pryor Mountain mustangs. His horses are members of his family. One of his adoptive mares, Smoky, gave birth in their home, and that horse comes in to the house every day to get a kiss, Rose McIntosh said.
“They’re so smart you can teach them anything,” she said. “They learn and they learn quick. They’re gentle breaking, and they’ve never offered to be mean. Once they trust you, they become your best friend.”
The first horse they adopted, in 2001, is named Buddy.
At that the 2001 adoption, “He walked up to us and picked us out of the crowd,” Rose McIntosh said. “He’s been our best friend since we got him. That’s why we call him Buddy.”
Jim McIntosh described an incident with Smoky that bordered on the spiritual and metaphysical. The horse would often lick the back of his late wife’s head and neck. He said it was the horse’s way of showing his wife she had brain cancer.
McIntosh said he endorses the management plans for the Pryor Mountain horses. “I think you have to thin the herd,” he said. “It doesn’t take a lot to look and see, they’re starving.
“I think they do a good job with the gatherings. And if they didn’t do these, I wouldn’t be able to adopt one.”
For Florence Mouninou, the 2009 gathering gave her the opportunity to adopt a colt stallion, her sixth horse from the Pryor Mountains.
Speaking in a heavy French accent, Mouninou said the Pryor Mountain horses make excellent trail horses, and she plans to breed them in France.
“I like that they are really strong, and well footed.
They are really safe. You are really safe on their back,” said Mouninou, who owns a ranch near Livingston.
She first became enamored with the horses several years ago, before she ever adopted any of them. She would come out to the range in winter and spring to watch them. “It’s fun to see them, and watch their behavior,” she said. “When I started hiking in the Pryor Mountains, that’s when the horses started to really make a passion for me.”
She has three wild horses from Oregon, but prefers the Pryor Mountain breed. “I like the spirit of them, and the quality to be strong, to be willing,” she said.
She could have the horse under saddle within two months, but she’s in no hurry. “I need to build a relationship with this horse, and if I can do that, I’m a winner,” she said. “I have all the time in my life to do it. And I won’t sell that horse, it’s my horse.”
While she is an advocate of being able to adopt a wild, Pryor Mountain horse, she said the genetic purity of the herd may have been compromised by taking too many horses in the 2009 gather.
She said managers could have taken 20 to 30 horses out of the herd, but not the 54 that were adopted out. “To take this many horses, you remove entire families and bloodlines, and I’m against it,” she said.
Here in this dry landscape in southern Montana, reality and fiction collide.
While conservation groups decry the gathering of wild horses, the managers — and most of the people who adopt the horses — say the herd size must match the range conditions.
The issue gets down to how many wild horses federal land can support — and at taxpayer expense. The program in 2009 cost U.S. taxpayers roughly $60 million, according to the BLM.
Many of the horses at the 2009 gathering that weren’t selected for adoption were taken back into the refuge. After they were tested and inoculated, their rumps were painted with blue markings so that range managers would not capture them again during the gathering.
ON a sweltering hot summer afternoon, several horses were dropped off near Bighorn Canyon reservoir. The horses walked out of the trailers and quickly began looking for grass in the dry, barren landscape. They allowed tourists to approach closely and photograph them.
Like tame animals in national parks, these horses were wild only by definition. Unlike their ancestors, they showed little fear of humans.
The horses grazed into the distance, then headed north — perhaps toward better food.
Meanwhile, cameras rolled and people watched, hoping to catch a glimpse of something wild.
Unless the American taxpayers are willing to pay for more wild horse refuges and holding facilities, horses like these in the Pryor Mountains will remain as they are: living free in the outdoors as their ancestors did, a modern-day symbol of the American west.
But for Rose McIntosh, she was grinning ear to ear as her horse trailer pulled out of the Britton Springs ranger station with their pregnant mare and foal.
“There’s no dollar value we’re putting on them, because they’re part of our family,” she said. “They’ll be with us forever.”