It was the steady drumbeat of an approaching aircraft that finally broke the silence last Friday out on remote rangeland near Challis.
Within seconds, a bright yellow helicopter flew into view over the steep sagebrush hills just north of the spot where a group of U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials huddled in the cool morning air. The day was still young—the sun hadn't yet crested the dry foothills of the northeastern Boulder Mountains.
It didn't take long to spot what the helicopter was after. A group of seven wild horses, trailing dust as they raced across the rugged, rock-strewn range that's been their home since birth, attempted to outwit the pursuing helicopter. Turning on a dime, the surefooted horses tried to dodge their airborne pursuer by doubling back. It didn't work. Like a bird of prey, the helicopter banked hard and resumed the chase.
The cat-and-mouse antics continued as the pilot pushed the horses—a mix of bays, sorrels, buckskins and grays—to a temporary corral set up for the day's work. Jumping into action, wranglers quickly sorted the horses by age and gender as they charged into the pen.
Just like that, the first wild horse drive of the day was over.
The roundup near the central Idaho ranching community of Challis is part of a several-week gather of wild horses that BLM officials are midway through. When it's complete, as many as 400 of the estimated 500 untamed equines that occupy the 500,000-acre Challis herd management area in the northern Boulders will be caught and processed. By Sunday evening, the BLM had captured 255 horses.
About three-quarters of the horses that end up being caught—about 300 in all—will either be put up for adoption or sent to long-term holding facilities the BLM leases from private landowners in Oklahoma and Kansas. About 100 of the remaining horses will be released back on the range, with the mares injected with a fertility control that lasts for about two years.
Across the West, the BLM is required to manage wild horses by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Since that time, the agency has adopted out more than 220,000 horses and burros nationwide.
One of the agency's key responsibilities under the law is to determine proper herd sizes for wild horses and burros on public rangelands. These animals have virtually no natural predators and their herd size can double about every four years, the agency says.
Today, nearly 37,000 wild horses and burros roam BLM-managed lands in 10 Western states. The BLM says that's more than 10,350 above the levels they've set to allow the animals to exist in balance with native wildlife and uses like grazing.
The BLM would like the Challis herd to number about 185 animals. The last Challis wild horse roundup was in 2004, when the herd numbered just 200 animals.
Rainy weather during this spring and early summer benefited the Challis herd area, with normally dry hillsides turning green with waving grass. But that's not always the case, BLM officials say. Times can be especially tough during drought seasons, both for the horses and local wildlife, said Heather Tiel-Nelson, spokeswoman for the BLM's Twin Falls District.
"The range can really take a beating," she said.
As the day wore on and the sun began to warm things up, the helicopter returned every 30 to 45 minutes, pushing another group of horses toward the corral.
The BLM roundups can be controversial. Legislation was recently approved in the U.S. House of Representatives that could restrict the roundups, though the U.S. Senate has yet to act on a similar bill.
Also watching the roundup was Kevin Lloyd, wild horse specialist for the BLM's Challis Field Office. He said the horses occupying the Challis herd area are descendents of stock released on the range around the turn of the 20th century by miners, farmers and ranchers. He said the mixed heritage helps explain the wide range of colors in the herd.
Lloyd said the federal law requires the agency to maintain the introduced horses in a "thriving ecological balance." That's important in the Challis area, which has fragile volcanic soils as well as sensitive riparian areas. He said cutting the herd's size should also benefit the remaining horses.
"They'll have more room to run around," he said. "There will be less fighting among the bands."
Lloyd enjoys the wild horse roundups, which allow close-up work with animals that normally run off at the sight of humans.
"It's a really fantastic experience," he said.
However, not everyone feels that way. Among those who have protested the Challis-area roundups is Golde Wallingford, who lives in the area. Wallingford said her opinion of the roundups was shaped by the last Challis gather, in 2004.
She was watching as one of the horses tried to jump a fence to escape. But the animal broke a leg and was shot. She says the BLM doesn't need to be rounding the horses up, especially in a year with the good range conditions.
"It is such a sin that they're taking these animals," she said.
Because of the high price of hay and the struggling economy, Wallingford doubts enough of the horses will be adopted. She worries that horses not adopted or sent to longterm holding facilities could end up being bought and slaughtered.
"The whole thing just stinks," she said.
Though the BLM has never euthanized wild horses just to reduce their numbers—an option that is allowed by federal law—that doesn't mean horses sold into private ownership haven't been killed, Tiel-Nelson admitted.
An amendment to the 1971 law passed by Congress in 2004 allows the BLM to sell horses that are more than 10 years old and horses that have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption three times. That bypasses the normal adoption route, which includes strict requirements for horse care.
For a year after an adoption, the BLM checks in with the horse. Only after that time do people own their new steeds.
"We really try to protect these horses from slaughter," Tiel-Nelson said.
Jason Kauffman: firstname.lastname@example.org