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The Bay Mustang Colt

A Utah Winter Roundup

I still wake up with the desperate cries of the bay mustang colt ringing in my ears. He was captured on the third day of the roundup of the Swasey Mountain mustang herd near the central Utah farming community of Delta last week. I hate going to roundups but feel compelled to document the plight of the remaining mustang families in the West. The bay colt’s story is only one among thousands. 
Pre-Roundup. Monday, February 11.
Despite 16 inches of snow 48 hours before the roundup began, the BLM was committed to starting on schedule. As snowplows opened dirt roads closed by deep drifts, I spoke with the BLM’s Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR) who cited “contractor availability” as the reason for scheduling the first ever winter roundup of the Swasey. 
It was also the stated reason for proceeding with the operation as scheduled despite unfavorable conditions. What about the wild horses, I thought? Why isn’t their welfare the most important consideration

After snowplows, Lauryn, Lisa Friday, and I drove over the Swasey foothills to the western side of the horse range late in the day. We discovered a flock of 600 sheep with their herder, Bart. At sunset, he shyly and kindly allowed us to film him riding far out with his border collie to bring the flock in for the evening. The spectacular working dog darted back and forth, gathering the sheep groups into one large flock. 
Bart tends to the flock
Then the man-horse-dog trio slowly moved the sheep to within a hundred yards of the wagon and Bart’s four Great Pyrenees guard dogs. The Pyrenees, bonded from birth with the sheep, would tend their flock through the night. 
Day One. Tuesday, February 12
The next morning we followed the tail lights of a caravan of vehicles driving to the trap site 50 miles from Delta. Temperatures hovered just above zero. Surely they won’t run horses in these conditions, I thought, remembering the long ago words of Emmett Brislawn whose legendary Wyoming family started the Spanish Mustang Registry. Under Emmett’s supervision, I taught my little grullo weanling, Flint, to lead (not to be confused with the still wild Flint of the Pryors). Temperatures at his ranch hovered around freezing and the wind picked up when he quietly walked up to Flint and me. “Let’s call it quits,” he said. As I took Flint’s halter off he gave me some advice, “Never work your colt in the cold. It’s just too dangerous. If he gets sweaty, he could get sick.” 
I looked up at the temperature gauge on the Durango. It read 6 degrees. The BLM will at least delay the roundup, I thought. How wrong I was. In the pre-dawn cold, at the base of a rocky hill, a BLM officer stood with around 20 of us and went over the observation rules. When he finished I stepped forward. “We want to go on record as protesting this operation,” I said. 
Waiting for the morning briefing as the sun crests the horizon (Photo by Duane Carling)
I underscored the danger of running the mustangs in deep crusty snow for miles in cold temperatures with “peak foaling time” only 2 months away. I told him that “contractor availability” should not be driving their decisions. The Officer listened politely, dismissing the questions and complaints of other advocates in the crowd. He told us that “horse body condition” was the reason for proceeding. If the horses were left out here, he implied, they could die. Ah, the starvation card. I wondered when it would be played. BLM was “rescuing” the wild horses from the dangers of living wild. What a disingenuous excuse and what a dodge of the real reason for a winter roundup.

Along with other observers, Lauryn and I climbed the high hill and set up out cameras. I could hear the ominous drone of the distant helicopter—a sound I have grown to despise.
On day one 97 horses lost their freedom and their families. The capture corral looked as if it was on fire, steam rising from the sweaty, exhausted bodies of the mustangs. One cameraman said he thought his lens had fogged up. Then he realized it was steam rising in clouds from the bodies of the horses.
All day long the BLM “tweeted” that the temperature was 32 degrees. My water bottle froze in my backpack. Another observer held a partially frozen Coke bottle in his hand. The thermometer on our car read 16 degrees. Still, BLM personnel insisted, the temperature is 32 degrees. They also insisted that the steam rising from the mustangs in the capture corral did not relate to the amount they were sweating! 
Our clear observation point atop the rocky hill was strewn with sheep droppings. We were a quarter of a mile away from the capture trap. From this distance, we could not see the eyes of the frightened and exhausted animals, or hear their voices. 

The alleyway is a slip and slide
Foals were quickly separated from their mothers to prevent them from being trampled. Wranglers urged the bands into alleyways leading into stock trailers that would haul them away from their home, in most cases, forever. Some stallions and mares were later returned, but not in their family bands. All released mares received the infertility drug PZP-22.

We watched a large band being driven in from miles away, the helicopter hovering beside and behind them. The palomino band stallion was in the lead, breaking trail through the dense snow. When he noticed that one of his mares and her foal had fallen behind, he dropped back and began following them at a slower pace. It is the band stallion’s responsibility to protect the band and to keep the family together and he was clearly trying hard to do his job.
The pale palomino band stallion (second from the left) gallops toward the lead as his band nears the trap
Only when the family entered the wings of the trap, did he try to take the lead, sensing the danger ahead. The Judas horse was released, blasting by the family and luring them into the trap. Then a second Judas horse was released in front of the charging mustangs. In a heartbeat, all was lost—the palomino’s family and his freedom. I have no idea if this gallant stallion, who reminded me of Cloud, was released back to his home. I hope so. And, if any of his mares were released, perhaps he can find them.
Day Two. February 13
It was much sunnier, so it seemed warmer. Few horses were caught as most had already been run off the mountaintop and out of their sheltered canyons the day before. A BLM official referred to day two as a “mop up” operation.
The Cattoor roundup company moved the trap later that day, hoping to catch horses on the northern end of this 120,000 acre Herd Management Area, a place legally designated “principally but not necessarily exclusively” for the wild horses. Despite these words in the Wild Horse and Burro Act, over 5,000 sheep and 50 head of privately owned cattle are allocated 87% of the forage even though their owners pay virtually nothing for this privilege. With only 13% of the forage allocated for the mustangs, their numbers must be drastically reduced. How unfair is this? And how costly for the American taxpayers, who foot the bill not only for the privately owned welfare livestock, but also for the lifetime incarceration of our native wild horses.

Swasey Forage Allocation
In Animal Unit Months (AUMs)
Livestock: 7,949  (87%)
Wild Horses: 1,200 (13%)
Day Three. February 14
The day began under cloudy skies. Our observation point was excellent and much closer than the days before. We set up our cameras on another rocky hilltop strewn with sheep droppings. 
Right: The contractor crew shovel a trench so the mustangs can climb the last, steep yards into the trap. 
We could see for miles, yet we were close enough to the trap to see the horses and to hear their calls. From this distance, I could feel their panic. I can’t imagine how anyone could watch this kind of cruelty day after day without suffering untold nightmares. 
The Cattoors are experienced and accomplished, unlike the Sun J crew that has not learned the basic skills of trap placement and how to keep horses together on long drives. However, no amount of skill can mask the cruelty of running wildlife with a helicopter. There is no way it can be anything but cruel and inhumane.
The first band to be rounded up was small—a bay roan stallion, his two dun mares, and a solid bay foal that looked like he might one day roan out like his father. Although they weren’t as brightly colored as many of the horses on the Swasey Mountains, all four displayed outstanding conformation and excellent body condition. The wranglers waited for the small family to settle down before placing the foal in a smaller pen next to that of his parents. Despite being separated, the foal gradually calmed down, finding comfort in standing near his family. 

In time, the drone of the helicopter broke the relative quiet. I could see the chopper far away on a nearly unbroken sea of white below the mountains. Lauryn pointed out the distant dots below the chopper. A large band of horses were running for their lives. When they drew closer, we could see a gray mare in front, breaking trail in the deep snow and even deeper drifts. She did not falter, doing what her job had likely been for years. She was the family’s alpha female—the lead mare.  
Right: The grey mare breaks trail through the deep snow
I was distracted watching the wranglers separate a cremello foal from the grey mare's family. I didn't notice that the bay colt's family had been loaded into the front compartment of a trailer. Then they loaded more adult horses into the second compartment. Instead of putting the bay colt in the back compartment so he could ride safely with his parents, they loaded three adults from another band in back. The colt called and called, and his mother answered, but the trailer pulled away without him. The colt kept calling and circled the pen, looking for a way out. He charged the fence, launched his body in the air, but fell backwards, failing to clear the six-foot barrier. 
He called again and I could hear his mother answer as the trailer drove away. I agonized with the foal as he continued to whinny for his family. What incredible cruelty, I thought. In an instant his life changed forever. 
The bay colt is left behind
They loaded the grey mare and the rest of her family into a trailer. The mare looked thin and this gives me cause for concern. So many imperfect horses have been killed by the agency over the past decades, even those whose conditions were not life threatening. With the help of Utah BLM, we are keeping track of this courageous lead mare. 
Finally, the wranglers loaded the cremello foal and the bay colt into the open back compartment of the long trailer and drove away. I could hear the colt whinnying for his mother even as the horse trailer disappeared over the distant, white horizon. 
The bay colt is loaded with the cremello foal
Unable to endure the sadness any longer and aware that the roundup in this area would likely conclude at noon because of airspace restrictions placed on BLM by area military bases, Lauryn and I packed up our gear and left at 11:30 am. At that time 33 horses had been captured with one more band on its way in. 
Imagine Lauryn’s shock when she checked the BLM online roundup report that evening. 94 horses had been captured. Clearly, the helicopter had flown the entire day.

I know the beautiful, little bay colt has virtually no chance of adoption. Thousands of colorful paints and pintos, palominos and buckskins, duns and grullas are available for adopters to choose from. The bay colt could live for years in a dirt corral with a four digit, plastic tag around his beautiful neck. 
I asked the BLM to find him for me. He is in the Delta short term holding corrals but could be shipped to the Gunnison, Utah prison facility for gelding. I pray that the colt will not be lost among the thousands of once wild and free mustangs now incarcerated.

I only know one way to silence his calls, which haunt my dreams. I will adopt the bay colt and we will give him a chance to experience life outside the walls of a dirt prison.
He will never roam the sagebrush valleys and mountains with his family again, but he can experience both horse and human companionship, and the limited freedom we will guarantee him.
Please help us in our efforts to preserve the mustangs on their home ranges and to prevent the destruction of the beautiful families we witnessed in Utah. Thanks so much.            `
Happy Trails!
P.S. BLM sent us pictures based on our description and we are confident they have found him!  We are arranging a time when he can come to his new home in Colorado. We would like to thank the public information officer and those in charge of the Delta Short Term Holding Facility for their help. 
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