Wildflowers carpet the upper meadows on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, an artist's palette of yellow, purple, white and blue.

Daisies, yarrow, pin cushion, flax, death camas and lupine are just some of the flowers that flow like brightly colored waves across the wide alpine fields. The cool air at 8,000 feet is dense with their sweet scent. Amid the fields of flowers, wild horses graze, foals scamper and young stallions playfully fight.

It seems an idyllic setting, but there's trouble in paradise.

"It's no doubt these wildflowers are pretty," said Jared Bybee, 36, wild horse and burro specialist for the Bureau of Land Management. "But ecologically it shows this range is out of shape.

"It should be the opposite of what it is. It should be the grasses that are dominant."

Beautifully bad

Wildflowers have increased their hold across the 38,000-acre wild horse range as grasses have been decreased by years of overgrazing, Bybee said. Horses don't eat the flowers, some of which are poisonous.

"Our studies show grasses are at 18 percent of what they should be," he said. "Most of the grasses that should dominate the site aren't present anymore."

Bybee said the overgrazing also is taking an even more drastic toll on the rangeland. Patches of topsoil have been eroded to bedrock, leaving deep, dark gashes across the meadows.

"We're losing these meadows from overgrazing," he said.

The BLM's management hasn't always been consistent. At one time the agency hazed the horses to the higher elevations and shut down water sources along the midslopes to redistribute the mustangs. And before the horse range's creation, wild horses were hazed off adjacent national forest lands to allow cattle grazing. The BLM also admits that before the creation of the horse range, overgrazing by cattle contributed to the deterioration of the range.

But that's in the past. Bybee is left to deal with the legacy. And the damage isn't limited just to the highlands. The wild horses' winter range along Turkey Flat in Wyoming is also being overgrazed, Bybee said. Reseeding Turkey Flat isn't allowed because it's a wilderness study area.

"The area is just exhausted," he said. "It's just getting too much use."

History of a herd

The Pryor Mountain wild horses are just a small part of an estimated 33,000 wild horses that roam across 10 Western states, the majority of them in Nevada, where Bybee used to work.

The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range was established in 1968 to preserve the local herd of feral horses, some of which have rare blood lines that can be traced to New World Spanish and Iberian horses. Managed by the BLM, the range was later expanded to include parts of adjacent Forest Service and National Park Service lands about 50 miles south of Billings. Horses have also ranged onto Custer National Forest lands outside the range after a fence along the boundary was breeched. That fence would be repaired and moved under a current Forest Service plan.

The Pryor Mountains are an island range that climbs 5,000 feet from the valley to more than 8,000 feet. The range is just east of the loftier Beartooth Mountains and northwest of the deep recesses of Bighorn Canyon. Rugged, rocky and steep, the small range sees only about 6 inches of rain annually on its lower, western slopes where juniper and prickly pear cactus dominate. Higher up, the juniper gives way to a pine and fir forest and the wide-open meadows. Patches of snow still cling at this altitude into July. Deep canyons extend down from the mountains, their tops protected by battlements of beige limestone pocked with caves. Black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and mule deer inhabit the terrain where water sources are scarce. Crooked Creek, a last stronghold for a small population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, divides the Pryors in two and is one of only a few perennial streams in the mountains. The area is also home to the most diverse bat population in Montana with 10 bat species.

New plans

The BLM's latest management plan for the wild horse range, released in May, proposes using the attraction of water catchments, called guzzlers, to lure and temporarily hold bands of wild horses on lower slopes that aren't being grazed. Some of the guzzlers would be built in wilderness study areas. The idea is that by spreading out the herd, the upper, more heavily grazed sections of the range would get less pressure.

"If we could just get these horses to spread out we could manage for more," Bybee said. "That's the whole key is to relieve pressure on the resource that's getting heavily used."

Lack of water is one of the main reasons the horses move uphill as the snow melts in spring.

"They are habituated to follow the snowline," Bybee said. "There are definitely horses that live in the lowlands, but by and large they just push upward."

During a tour of the range Tuesday, Bybee pointed to scattered, foot-high clumps of bluebunch wheat grass and needle and thread grass near the abandoned Burnt Timber Mine as examples of underutilized forage. To the north, a large flat known as Jack's Farm lies empty of wild horses despite a thick growth of grass. Both areas are targeted for guzzlers. Five in all would be installed.

"There's just an incredible amount of forage that goes unused out there," Bybee said.

BLM's studies have shown that despite a continuing drought, forage at the midranges of the Pryors has seen a slight upward trend whereas forage in the bottom has seen a "major downward trend."

The BLM's horse management plan says the range has the potential to support 179 animals.

Plan challenged

By law, the BLM is required to maintain or improve the wild horse range. The best way to do that is to have less grazing, meaning fewer horses on the range. Besides spreading the horses out, the BLM has also proposed managing the herd for 120 animals for five years. The 120 would exclude the current year's foal crop. Right now, the herd has 195 animals and 29 young-of-the-year colts - the most horses since the mid-1990s.

"The law tells us to protect the range from deterioration," Bybee said.

But wild horse advocates have challenged the agency's plans. Recently, the Colorado nonprofit group The Cloud Foundation appealed the BLM's horse management plan. The group was founded by Ginger Kathrens, a documentary filmmaker who made a popular film about one Pryor stud she named Cloud. Kathrens created the nonprofit group to protect and educate people about the Pryor Mountain herd.

Until a ruling is made on the group's appeal, the BLM is required to operate under its old plan. The old plan requires that BLM manage for 95 animals.

"It's a bizarre situation because it forces us to work under the old HMP," Bybee said, which seems counter to horse advocates' desires to maintain a larger herd.

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The Cloud Foundation has advocated several changes to the management plan, including expansion of the range's boundaries to allow for a larger herd of 200 to 300 wild horses; keeping the adult population at 150 animals until range expansion is achieved to preserve the animals' genetics; preservation of older horses and protection of mountain lions that have taken a toll on foals to preserve natural management of the horse population.

"We're pleading with them not to take the drastic action that they've proposed," Kathrens said.

Kathrens met with BLM and Forest Service officials in Billings this week to plead her case for protection of the Pryor horse herd.

Roundup eyed

The BLM has scheduled a meeting on Wednesday in Billings to take public comments on its plans to use helicopters and motorized vehicles to round up the wild horse herd this fall. Bybee said because of the appeal, the agency isn't certain how many horses, or which horses, it would remove from the population.

In its plan released in May, the agency called for removing an average of 30 horses a year at a cost of $18,000 to $21,000 annually. The herd would also be managed for an even ratio of males to females to a slightly higher ratio of males, 60 percent, to reduce the need to remove animals.

"The new HMP is designed to preserve Spanish characteristics, rare colors and rare bloodlines, so the selection would be based on preserving those rare things," Bybee said. "The old HMP manages for size and conformance."

But Kathrens argued that taking too many horses will compromise the genetic viability of the herd.

"This is just a formula for disaster," she said. "It's such an easy thing to lose, the Spanish heritage."

Bybee said that overall, the Pryor herd is old, with the majority of the horses between 11 and 16 years old.

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"Our smallest cohort is 5- to 10-year-olds, which in a healthy herd should be the majority of the horses."

Bybee said the roundup would allow the BLM to test the horses' genetics, cull the herd to preserve individual bands while also allowing the administration of a contraceptive to control the herd size. Bybee said the injections would target mares older than 10 as well as those ages 3 to 5. Mares 5 to 10 years old would not be treated unless they already have a colt.

Band stallions, such as the 14-year-old Cloud which was made internationally famous in Kathren's first documentary film "Cloud, Wild Stallion of the Rockies," would not be removed, he said. Removal of a band stallion results in a new stallion running off the old stallion's progeny. The new stallion will also breed the band's mares in an attempt to abort the old stallion's foals.

"We want to avoid us being the cause of that," Bybee said.

However, the BLM's own plan notes that "conflicts between stallions competing for mares could increase as well as injuries due to fighting" with the implementation of the new plan.

The last roundup, held in 2006, removed 22 horses from the herd. Horses that aren't adopted are sent to a long-term holding facility. Sale for slaughter is not allowed, although Kathrens uncovered documents from a BLM meeting last fall where agency representatives discussed possible strategies for euthanizing, sterilizing and selling animals for slaughter.

The contraceptive PZP has been used to remotely treat mares in the Pryors to keep them from conceiving. But injecting a longer-lasting form of the drug, PZP-22, while the horses are rounded up would be safer, Bybee said.

"If it's delivered when they are caught, there are fewer things that can go wrong," he said, even though no problems have been encountered when delivering the less-permanent dose remotely.

Horses that are removed from the population would be put up for adoption. Bybee said despite the fact that many horses are being abandoned or sold due to the national economic crisis, the BLM shouldn't have a problem adopting the horses out.

"These horses are somewhat famous among advocates," he said. "Even as soft as the horse market is I would be surprised if people didn't want them.

"Let's just say there has never been a horse removed from these mountains that hasn't been adopted," he added.

Kathrens said her group supports a "small removal of yearling and 2-year-olds - 20. We feel confident we can find homes for those."

But she said removal of older animals is "terribly dangerous for them and cruel."

At loggerheads?

In only his third year of managing the Pryor herd, Bybee said he has found that relating the many complex issues to the public is difficult.

"The average Joe comes up here and says, 'What's the problem?'" he said. "From a public relations standpoint, it's a killer because people don't understand what our limitations are."

On the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, where beauty abounds in every direction, the problem is as simple as a wildflower-filled field, and as complicated as balancing public desires with ecological constraints and governmental directives. The trick will be to find a balance before the ecosystem takes a nosedive and with it, the Pryor mustang herd.

Meanwhile, Kathrens continues her vigil. In addition to the first film on Cloud, one more has aired and a third will be shown on the Nature Channel in October.

"The American public is so in love with this little herd," Kathrens said. "From a legal standpoint we're doing everything we can to try to raise public awareness."

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