On Tuesday, Sept. 13, a group of concerned individuals arrived in the basin to document the proceedings and to say goodbye to those whose fate hung precariously in the hands of those who walk on two legs. A smoothly graded road surface, courtesy of San Miguel County, passed under their wheels. Gone were the deep ruts from the rainstorm just days before, inches of dry clay having been stripped away.
The evening’s full moon offered a last chance to view the basin in its tranquility; a glowing ring of hope surrounded its brilliance; rain was not far off.
Freshly placed survey stakes, appearing with the dawn, stood like sentinels across the landscape. A small section of the survey representing the block of uranium claims that blanketed the heart of the herd area had been recreated in the night; fluorescent orange ribbon called out the ever-so-real threat to the HMA to all who had doubted their existence.
The trap site for the gather was occupied by Bureau of Land Management vehicles and trailers; uniformed government employees stood nearby, coffees in hand, awaiting the arrival of the contractors. The activists’ morning horseback ride through the main arroyo revealed hazards unseen by the BLM personnel and their collaborators. Wads of old barbed wire lay alongside the horses’ probable path, waiting to ensnare their fear-driven numbers, two-foot-deep pockets of silt dotted the wet streambed and a barely exposed, broken-log covered pit lay at the bottom of the horses’ route down the long steep incline into the Spring Creek gorge. Information was shared, minds alerted to the danger, coffee set aside, and wire cutters employed.
Rain began to fall, the road slickened; wild horses roamed, oblivious to their future. BLM officials and law enforcement slid into the basin, their numbers growing by the hour. Gather contractors arrived, scouting the conditions. An official appeal and request of stay to the gather remained in limbo, unheard and unseen by those who make decisions, the start of the gather but hours away. Night came on and with it more rain. Lightning and thunder pounded the basin.
The new day brought clearing skies, the arrival of the contractors’ equipment and more BLM officials. The trap site had turned into a quagmire. More witnessing eyes arrived, along with more law enforcement. The trap site was relocated, and its viewing area disclosed; its inadequacies all to apparent, spurred some media to protest. Their requests for better access were denied. Horseback ride goodbyes to the wild ones were taken. A closure order, prepared a month in advance, was issued, and all public removed from the herd area at sundown.
More rain fell; mud deepened. Hopes rose on one side, frustrations on the other.
The morning arrived, but without the helicopter; everything was in place but the tool most needed. People waited, riding the seesaw of an uncertain and unstoppable future. The stay portion of the appeal remained unheard. Continued requests for reasonable alternate viewing locations were denied. Requests turned to demands, first amendment rights employed, only to run aground on the contractor’s fear threshold of potential lawsuits revolving around helicopter safety concerns. In the end, fear trumped the first amendment.
The helicopter arrived, freshly repaired, and the gather commenced. Wild horses started filling the pens, distant viewers commenting on their calm appearance, but not all remained so. A gray stallion tried to jump and climb his way over the top of the six foot high enclosure, teetering at its top, at the very point of escape, only to fall back inside his newfound prison.
A plane circled the basin, observing and documenting the events below. The clouds thickened as thunderstorms gathered their strength. The stay portion of the appeal was finally heard and consequently denied. The helicopter remained busy; more horses were brought in. The plane continued its documentation, a cameraman visible in its doorway. The day’s gather activities came to an end with some two-dozen formerly wild horses standing heads down in the pens. Lightning flashed inside an approaching storm as rain began to fall over the trap site. Within minutes another deluge would envelope the basin. An investigation into the plane and its occupants had begun..
The skies cleared as darkness fell, while lightning over the LaSals filled the sky, revealing the shapes of massive thunderstorms to the northwest. The wind shifted. Within an hour the herd area was engulfed once again. Lightning hammered the basin relentlessly as rain poured out of the sky. Wild ones stood captive under the onslaught.
The morning broke clear and bright. Chained front wheels of 4x4 BLM vehicles made their way into the basin. The gather continued, the helicopter working the terrain, as nervous horses paced inside their pens. Soon 18 more formerly wild ones stood captive along side the others.
The remaining uncaptured horses, becoming savvy, would no longer yield easily. The pilot worked a group of eight, but the eight turned to three as the band split. An hour later the pilot had the three running toward the wings of the trap. The Judas horse was released, but his traitorous run towards the pen was not followed. The wild ones darted away. The helicopter bore down, its rotor driving the horses before it. The Judas was repositioned and its treason invoked again, but freedom’s love reigned.
The pilot would not relent, his stubborn desire challenging the horses’ will. One of the three split away and gained the outside of the near wing of the trap, finding escape. The pilot pressured the remaining two until he cut one from the other, driving her into the trap. Another attempt an hour later on the last of the three failed once again, while a lone witness watched, up close and personal, hidden at the wire’s edge. The Judas horse, unable to lure the wild one away from his freedom, stood uselessly along the trap’s edge as the pilot landed, the gather ending for the day.
The sky threatened as clouds built at day’s end, only to dissipate in the early evening; no more rain would bless the basin.
Another 10 horses were gathered under sunny skies the following day. The lone witness watched again from the wire as band after band escaped behind the hill that denied the others a view so desperately needed. He witnessed a gray stallion escape the squeeze chute by jumping into the mare and foal pen. Later as the contractors tried to cut him out of the pen, the stallion tried to jump the outside fence repeatedly, until he ended up in the water trough, finally falling over backwards onto its edge, bending it to the ground. He regained his feet and melded into the herd. Twice, two different foals fell in the melee, and were trampled under foot by the rest of the horses; somehow they survived unscathed.
Another horse was not so lucky. A stallion during the same time frame broke its neck and was euthanized on the spot, his body hidden and hauled away in a stock trailer for burial.
In all, 53 horses were rounded up, 13 horses released to join the 29 who had gone uncaptured. The entire herd now consists of 42 horses; its adult population numbering only 37, just two horses over the BLM’s minimal Appropriate Management Level of 35. The five released mares were treated with the fertility drug PZP, which induces temporary sterility.
The cost of the Spring Creek gather is unknown as of this time, but is expected to far exceed the national average of $2,500 per horse.
The stallion who had survived the fall in the mare’s pen was shipped directly to Cañon City prison short-term holding, along with five other stallions, five mares and one foal.
Twenty-five horses were taken to be auctioned in Cortez; 21 were adopted, including seven foals; all under six months of age (unadopted horses will be shipped to Cañon City). In the wild, foals will typically nurse till 1 year of age.
Actual pre-gather horse population of the HMA was 82 horses including 13 foals. Foals do not count against the AML numbers. The adult population was 69 horses, only four over the maximum AML of 65. One branded domestic horse was gathered; another unbranded domestic horse remains at large. Subtract them from the mix, and the adult wild horse population was only two horses over the AML. Because of this two wild horse excess, nearly half the herd was removed, costing an estimated $200,000 dollars, on the low end.
A few good cowboys with lariats could have brought the herd into AML compliance in a matter of hours. End result? The horses would have become a little wilder, the cowboys would have come away with a paycheck and some good stories to tell, a magnificent horse would still be alive, and the taxpayers would have saved a lot of money.
If you followed the numbers closely you will have noticed that 40 horses were removed from the HMA, but the count of 25 to adoption and 12 straight to Cañon City only totals 37; one dead horse plus one removed domestic horse plus one separated and immediately adopted-out foal equals three, bringing the total removed to 40; 40 removed plus 42 remaining equals 82.
During efforts to geld him, the stallion who so valiantly fought for his freedom at the gather was killed after successfully jumping out of the runway leading to the squeeze chute. It was his third attempt of escape after reaching the prison. He died from a broken neck after running into a head high obstacle while being pursued. Another horse, a beautiful white and sorrel paint, was euthanized after injuring a hock at the facility. Still a fourth horse is tentatively scheduled for euthanasia because of a congenital condition that she seemed to have been able to live with in the wild. Local activists are seeking a stay, and have secured a home for her. They have also arranged for all the horses from the herd area that remain in Cañon City to be adopted. All but four of these horses will be trailered from the facility on Friday, Oct. 14. The remaining four will be picked up on Oct. 20. In addition to these horses, two others will be adopted from the facility – a mare from Spring Creek Basin, who has been at the prison for four years, and an unrelated one-eyed filly born at the facility.
Thanks to everyone who has helped with these efforts.
If you wish to donate to Spirit Riders, please visit their website at www.spiritridersmovie.com. Over $25,000 has been donated to date.