Controversial roundup of mustangs begins in Pryor Mountains

2009-09-03T16:00:00Z Controversial roundup of mustangs begins in Pryor MountainsBRETT FRENCH Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
September 03, 2009 4:00 pm  • 

BRITTON SPRINGS, Wyo. - Amid a heavy law enforcement presence and the cameras of filmmakers, protesters and the media, the first Pryor Mountain wild mustangs were rounded up here Thursday.

"It's kind of what I envisioned," said Janet Jankura of Richfield, Ohio, a member of the Bureau of Land Management's national wild horse and burro advisory board.

Clad in a white T-shirt with a pink bull elk's head on the front, she said she wished the roundup hadn't been needed. But she felt the work was done humanely after observing the 12 horses that had been gathered into corrals by 1 p.m., including two foals.

"They look OK, they're not sweaty," she said. "The baby's nursing from its mom. They're drinking. After having gone through that, they're pretty peaceful."

Management plan

BLM is in charge of managing the 38,000-acre Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range about 70 miles south of Billings. The agency plans to round up all 188 animals on the range and adjacent national forest land, cull about 70 from the herd, treat many of the mares with a contraceptive and then release the remaining animals back onto the range.

The removal will be the largest in the herd's history and is meant to reduce pressure on the animal's habitat, mountains that climb to more than 8,000 feet and high desert that receive as little as 6 inches of rain a year. BLM'sexperts say the range cannot support such a large herd without ecological damage. Wild horse advocates claim the horses and the range are doing fine.

The culled animals will be offered for adoption on Sept. 26.

BLM's Billings Field Office Manager Jim Sparks said the roundup could take three weeks, especially with hot weather making conditions difficult for the horses and the helicopter, which pushes the animals toward the corrals.

"My primary concern here is safety with this many people around and a helicopter flying around," Sparks said at a morning briefing.

National draw

The briefing was held on the front porch of BLM's Britton Springs headquarters. About 20 of the 50 people gathered were horse advocates, filmmakers or members of the media. Patti Kirby, who runs an animal rescue facility and works in the medical field, had driven from California to protest the roundup.

"The reason why I came is this is not right," she said. "They're tearing apart families."

Kirby had stayed up early into the morning crafting a peace flag from a gym towel. Using a lamp cover from her hotel room, she traced a circle with a felt marker onto the white towel. Using a TV remote, she drew straight lines and then filled in the peace sign. The towel was then taped to a wooden backscratcher to create a small flag.

"It's my communication piece," she said.

Kirby said she was hoping to open the "minds and hearts" of BLM's staff.

"I couldn't just write letters and call anymore," she said.

Horse advocates also came from as far away as Colorado and Maryland. Even BLM's division chief of the horse and burro program in Washington, D.C., Don Glenn, attended.

"I'm just here to show support," said Glenn who used to work in the agency's offices in Cheyenne and Rawlins, Wyo. Although he doesn't normally attend roundups, he said the fame of the Pryor Mountain herd makes it different.

The animals have gained fame through documentary filmmaker Ginger Kathrens' two films and two books. Her third film on the Pryors horses is due to premier on PBS next month.

Kathrens was present Thursday and none too happy that the roundup was taking place. She was especially displeased that older horses who have spent their entire lives on the range will be removed.

'Credible threats'

At least 10 law enforcement officers were present, including members of the BLM's staff, the National Park Service, Forest Service and Big Horn County Sheriff's Office. Normally the BLM has one ranger who covers Eastern Montana and portions of the Dakotas.

"We have received credible threats that someone will try to disrupt the gather," said Bryan Sakahara, the law enforcement officer for Montana and the Dakotas. He then warned the group that if anything was done to disrupt the roundup, everyone would be escorted from a public observation point.

The point, a ridge about 300 yards from the corrals, was dotted with steel fence posts holding a thin, jute screen behind which the public was told to hunker and remain quiet as the horses approached.

Below, a Bell 47 helicopter operated by Cattoor Livestock Roundup pushed the first five horses through the red clay foothills toward the corral. In front of the corral, a fence guided the animals down to the first gate. As the horses drew near, a "Judas" or "pilot" horse trained to run to the corral was released to encourage the wild horses to follow. Once the wild horses were inside the corrals, they were separated into smaller enclosures by family.

"I could tell the helicopter would pause and back up to kind of gently move the horses along," Jankura said. "That was kind of neat."

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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