Lauryn Wachs and Catherine Stokes, our Cloud Foundation interns, accompanied me on their second journey to the Pryor Mountains. It’s always an adventure and last week was no exception.
According to people who live in the area, this winter has been the worst in 50 years—not only lots of snow but sub zero temperatures for extended periods. It’s a hard fact that winter often selects out the youngest and the oldest in all wild species. This is nature’s way of keeping populations in check and allowing only the fittest to survive and reproduce. So, we really didn’t know who among the wild horses might have died during this stretch of unusually challenging weather. Yet, some things never change and we were thrilled to witness the mating behavior of sandhill cranes on our drive out to the horse range. The male leaped in the air and danced around the female, paying no attention to our car and cameras eavesdropping on his display.
Once on the range, our first discovery of the trip was a wonderful surprise. We had been told that the grullo foal I named Koda Wakan (sacred friend) on the day of his birth last June, as well as his mother, were missing. When we saw them in the bitter cold of January, the young mare looked awful and we knew she might not live. If she died, we knew that Koda had little chance to survive.
As we crawled up the muddy and intermittently snowy road on Tillett Ridge, we spotted a small band on a low hill—a dun stallion, dun mare, dun foal and another foal—a grullo. Through our binoculars we studied the group and the oddity of one mare and two foals. Then it struck me. The second foal was Koda! He was foraging with the others and the mare allowed him to eat beside her. Through my scope, I could see that Koda had lost all the hair on his neck –a result of stress and starvation? The colt was one of my favorites of 2010, spirited and striped up, small but feisty. Last summer he was fond of breaking into a sprint, bucking and spinning. His love of life was so evident; he never failed to make me smile. I pray his spirit will carry him through this tough time and he will once again experience warm weather, green grass, and a good run across the meadows atop his mountain home. Time will tell.
Snow fell over night so we kept to the paved highway, finding a lovely bighorn sheep ewe near Devil’s Canyon Overlook. Farther down the road we watched the drama of the apricot dun stallion Blizzard and his revolving door of mares. The flashy horse had a different set of mares on each of the three days we saw him. This is beyond odd in my experience.
On the morning of our third day of searching, the mud was somewhat frozen, so we tried Tillett again, determined to drive higher in order to access hiking areas leading to overlooks where we could scan Sykes Ridge. I believed that this was our best chance to see Cloud, Bolder, and Flint’s families. We were stopped by snow but shoveled our way through it and patched up a washout along the way where we could have slipped off the mountain. We made it to a valley that led to a good vantage point of the mid-ridges of Sykes. Near the edge of Big Coulee we set up our scopes and began scanning one ridge after another.
Identifying the shimmering dark dots that were horses was nearly impossible, but when I panned the ridge nearly straight across on Sykes I spotted a pale horse. Cloud I said excitedly to Lauryn and Catherine. He and his family were grazing together and there was a new dun filly in the band—the small three year-old, Ingrid. Aztec and Cloud’s foal, Breeze had survived winter and looked fine from afar. Dancer was there and the Black, but Velvet was missing. Then a blaze-faced grulla mare and her foal appeared at the edge of the forest. It was Flint’s mare and foal, Feldspar and little Agate. I watched, waiting for Flint and Jasper to appear, but they never did—not in the hours we watched. Neither did Velvet. It seemed every band we spotted had some addition or subtraction to their numbers. Was the social unrest of the previous Fall continuing into Spring?
We got a brief, long distance view of Bolder, Cascade and Echo—the pale colt slipped behind a huge rock outcropping within minutes and was gone. Echo is truly Cloud’s legacy—a mirror of Cloud in looks and personality. So far, so good, I thought. He and his mother were the only members of Bolder’s family we saw, though I believed that others were hidden behind numerous rocks and trees—at least I hoped so.
There was no way we could access that part of Sykes to look for them. It is hard enough in summer to get onto Sykes and impossible at this time of year. Should we just go home? I doubted we would see much more than we already had and rain was predicted. When the next morning dawned with only broken clouds we decided to give it one more shot.
After checking for horses along the paved highway, we drove toward Tillett and stopped to glass back onto the faraway flats near the mouth of Big Coulee. In the sagebrush were dark horses and one that was light colored. It seemed impossible, but it was Cloud! He and his family had come all the way down into the desert. Quickly we made a plan as we drove back around to the red buttes at the bottom of Sykes. From there we began hiking.
Within an hour we found Cloud and his family still foraging in what appeared to be only sagebrush. On closer inspection we could see that there was green grass peppered about the sage. For the first time on our trip, it began to feel a bit like spring. For most of the afternoon we followed the band. They nibbled up the green grass and went to eat snow in the shelter of the hillsides and in the deep gullies. Feldspar and Agate were still with them, and I wondered where Flint and Jasper were? Something tells me they’re fine and the “Flintstones” will somehow reunite.
Velvet was still mysteriously absent, and I wondered where she was. She and Cloud have been together for eight years and she has never been welcoming to newcomers in this tight family. I’ve seen her lay her ears back at every new mare Cloud brought into the band in the past five years. She is not alone in this. Brumby, Jackson’s lead mare, has left him on numerous occasions in the past year or so after Jackson brought home young fillies, including Cloud and Velvet’s daughter, Firestorm. I hope Velvet will return in time. It doesn’t seem the same without her.
Cloud looked a little rough, his ribs were showing under his pale coat, but he was alert and in charge. When Aztec led the band up out of the sagebrush and onto Turkey Flat, he snaked Feldspar up the hill to keep everyone together. Both Aztec and Feldspar are thin but their foals look fine. When we left them they were all grazing peacefully.
Late in the day we drove back up on Tillett for one last time. Jackson’s band was foraging near the road. They too showed the results of the remarkably bitter winter. Even burly Jackson looked uncharacteristically lean. Firestorm was very thin but her foal, Lady Jane, looked fine and fuzzy.
As the sun was setting and we were getting ready to leave, we saw something glowing in the valley below. Through our scopes we identified the bright palomino horse. It was Cloud’s mother, Phoenix, with her family. The lovely 20 year-old mare wandered through the junipers and onto a small rise. Winter had not claimed her, or her son, or her grandson, or her great grandson and great granddaughters, and for this I am thankful.
We returned last week from a brutally cold Pryor Wild Horse Range. Driving out on the morning of the 10th of January the temperature read -15. It was difficult and sometime impossible to access the roads into the range due to drifted snow blown into concrete-like slabs—just right for getting stuck in (been there, done that!).
For three days, Cloud Foundation interns Lauryn Wachs and Catherine Stokes joined me in our search for wild horses. A few were spotted close-up but most were miles off, so much of our time was spent scanning through binoculars and spotting scopes, attempting to identify the dots we saw on the mountain sides and in the desert valleys. Lauryn and Catherine wrote their impressions of being in the Pryors for the first time and then visiting our Freedom Fund horses outside Billings.This is my 16th winter searching for wild horses in the Pryors, and although I’ve been here when the snow was deeper (like the winter of 2008-09 when Cloud’s daughter, Shadow was a tiny late-born foal trying to survive her first winter), this winter is much colder with higher winds then any I’ve experienced in the past. Most certainly horse lives will be lost.
We were relieved and elated to get a distant view of Cloud and his family on the side of Sykes Ridge near the mouth of Cougar Canyon. I could see Aztec and Cloud’s little daughter, Breeze. So far, so good, I thought, but this is just the beginning of what promises to be a long, cold, snowy winter.
Band stability is one key to survival and Breeze’s band is one of the most stable. The fabric of wild horse society began to fray late last summer. Is it continuing into winter? Only part of Jackson’s band was seen. Where are the others? And Trace’s little sister, a chestnut roan three-year old with her foal, Koda Wakan, were spotted all alone. Where was their band? Why were the filly and her grullo colt not with Lakota, their strong and experienced stallion, and his wise old mare, Quelle Colour, and Cloud’s sister, Mariah? It will be harder for them to survive without the guidance and support of their family. Now, more than ever, family stability is essential. It is up to the older mares and the stallions to lead their families to appropriate shelter and places where they can paw through the snow to find food. That senior wisdom is critical, especially in this kind of winter.
I was relieved to see Sante Fe and his entire family of four on lower Tillett Ridge. Even his once-crippled daughter, KanDu, looked fine through our binoculars and scope. Other horses were seen but many were too far away to tell body condition. Even trying to identify them was impossible.
On three occasions we sat and watched Admiral, his mare, Seneca, her foal, Climbs High, and Admiral’s mother, Hightail, a lovely dun mare who is over 20 but looks remarkably youthful. Climbs High is a big, strapping colt. I predict he and his family will see Spring. I hope they all will.
Perhaps the most outstanding job of spotting was accomplished by Lauryn as we drove out of Mustang Flats after sundown. Don’t ask me now she saw a Bighorn Sheep ram a ½ mile out in the dark juniper-studded low country, but she did. The magnificent near full-curl ram seemed frightened when we stopped the car to admire him with our binoculars. Within minutes he slipped away into the shadows and out of sight. One joy of the Pryors is witnessing the variety of wildlife and how beautifully the horses fit into their spectacular wilderness.
Next, we journeyed to near Billings to check on our Freedom Fund bands. All are looking great! Look at Grumpy Grulla—fantastic at nearly 23! The foals are fuzz balls and Catherine and Lauryn loved the attention they got from a very friendly Shane, the dominant stallion in the herd but the one most determined to solicit treats. He developed a special relationship with Laura Pivonka, advocate extraordinaire, who taught the striking Dun that horse candy is yummy!
Even Trigger and his look-alike son, little Pistol, were fascinated by the red treat bucket. But, when both father and son hit it with their front hooves, they rushed backward. Most of the mares wanted nothing to do with us, which is fine, as we want the horses to be free to make their own decisions. Annie and Diablo bonded when they went off being weaned, and now hang out with Bo, who lost his mares to Shane. It’s great that Bo has company now and he certainly acts the proud defender of “his kids.”
Happy Trails and Happy New Year!
Winter arrived with a fury in Cloud’s Montana home. When Challenge Associate Producer, Makendra Silverman, and intern Lindsey Kasl, and I arrived in early December the mountain was cloaked in white from top to bottom. The snow-clogged road onto Sykes Ridge was impassable. Even the paved highway in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area was challenging. Beautiful wild horses and Bighorn sheep roamed near the edge of the Bighorn Canyon.
Just inside the boundary of the horse range, near Crooked Creek, we spent time with the stocky bay colt I named Climbs High and his family. I was able to photograph Climbs High at the base of a high hill when he was a few minutes old this past May.
Even before the colt was dry, he followed his mother to the top of, not just one high hill, but two! Hence his name. I am amazed at the toughness of these newborns and the fitness of all the horses, despite sparce desert rations.
We braved the snow on Tillett Ridge road on our second day, driving up a ways and then walking out a mile or so to the edge of Big Coulee canyon to glass onto the ridges of Sykes where we hoped to see Cloud. Unable to see a single horse, I panned my spotting scope down onto the distant flats near the mouth of Big Coulee. I could make out shimmering, unidentifiable shapes of horses in the desert. Then, in the shadow of a dark horse, I spotted a colt lying in the snow. He was cryptic, but unmistakable. It was Cloud’s grandson, the white colt I call Echo, the son of Bolder and his black mare, Cascade. Watching precocious Echo, born in April of this year, has been a déjà vu experience for me—like flashing back 15 years when my journey with Cloud was just beginning. That evening, Makendra, Lindsey, and I made a plan to try to access the area, hoping Bolder and his family might still be in the same location. The next morning we were out early for what would be a long, memorable hike.
It was a beautiful winter morning as we set off on foot across a wide flat and dropped into a small canyon that wound toward what we hoped would be the sagebrush flats at the mouth of Big Coulee. Red canyon walls soared above us as we followed a highway of horse tracks in the snow. About an hour later I was elated when we saw the sagebrush flats ahead. From the sage we hiked up onto Turkey Flats. What we eventually found while hiking in the flats was a pale horse. It was Cloud and his family!
We walked closer and could see that all were in excellent health and seemed content as they moved snow with their sensitive noses and pawed to uncover sparse, but highly nutritious, tufts of grass. The baby of the family, Breeze, a dark filly who is the daughter of Aztec and Cloud, has sapphire blue eyes that will likely darken as she grows. What a furry doll. Cloud was his usual busy self, occasionally snaking the family to keep them together and pushing them in the direction he had chosen.
Since the death of his powerful lead mare, Sitka, he has assumed the duties of both lead mare and band stallion. We sat down a ways off, hoping to have lunch with the family, but Cloud had other ideas. He signaled them to walk on, following behind as they meandered off in the direction of the red buttes. Later in the day Lindsey spotted horses running in the distance and I recognized the sooty palomino before he disappeared around a rocky hillside. Bolder! As we hiked closer I realized we had found not only Bolder and his family, but also Flint and his band. How lucky, I thought. But something was amiss.
Flint whinnied for his family but stood with his new mare, Sequoyah and her son. Bolder’s acquisition must have taken place within the past 24 hours. When I had glassed down onto the desert flats from Tillett Ridge the afternoon before Flint’s three-some were not with Bolder’s band. Flint whinnied again and Bolder turned to give him a dirty look.
Nearby Echo and Cascade expelled puffs of steamy breath as they grazed and glanced over at Flint on the nearby hillside. Then Echo turned to stare at me. His dark eyes framed in white were riveting. I pray that this true legacy of Cloud will live forever free. I know he is a target. Although he is not famous like his grandfather, he possesses that magnetic Cloud spirit which has inspired so many to fight for wild horse freedom.
In the dying light, we left the bands, not sure of what might happen. I like to imagine the “Flintstones” are all back together by now. What a privilege to spend time in the presence of any wild horses, let along those I have known for their entire lives. Such is the case with Cloud, Bolder and Flint’s entire bands—I have known each and every one of them since they were foals. And I fear for their future. At the current rate of removals, Dr. Caroline Betts, Associate Professor of Economist at the University of Southern California, “predicts rapid extinction in 11 years” of all wild horses and burros!
16 years ago, when I just first stepped into the world of wild horses, I was blown away. I began my filming knowing absolutely nothing about their social ties and how complicated their lives and relations might be. At that time I could find no books or papers about wild horse behavior. Luckily, I had a teacher named Raven. By the time his son Cloud was born, the black stallion and his mares had impressed upon me the importance of family—it means everything to a wild horse.
Wild horses are unique among our hooved wild animals in that they alone live in a family unit with a father present 365 days a year. I have watched these gallant males fight and battle to keep their families together, overcoming injury and incredible odds. I have seen young stallions obtain mares and start their own families, mares demonstrate incredible loyalty to their stallions and their herd mates. I have laughed as the foals played. I have cried when they lost their lives to mountain lions. But I have reveled in knowing that here wild nature was calling the shots, making a stronger wild herd while nurturing their main predator. The hardest part for me is watching them lose their freedom in the roundups. In 2009, I filmed Cloud face off with an offending helicopter at close range, and later attempt to return to the capture pens to rescue members of his family who were not to be set free.
Many of you may not know that the Billings BLM threatened in a recent newspaper article to remove Cloud and his few remaining offspring from their Pryor Mountain home in Montana. I am pleased to report that both the Director of the BLM and the Chief of the Wild Horse and Burro Program have told us that there are no plans to remove Cloud.
We continue to work to preserve Cloud’s legacy. 15 year-old Cloud has only one son, Bolder and four daughters. His brother, his daughter and five of his grandchildren were removed in 2009. We are working to protect his few grand foals as well—especially Echo, his pale palomino grandson who mirrors Cloud in both looks and spirit.
My wish for the New Year is that Echo and all wild horses and burros can remain in the wild, keeping what they value most, their freedom and their families.
After a federal judge denied a request by the Cloud Foundation and Front Range Equine Rescue to stop round-ups from beginning in the Pryor Mountains, several horses were chased by helicopters into corrals set up by the Bureau of Land Management on Thursday.
This morning, the Today Show on NBC ran a story on the controversy surrounding these round-ups, which are set to continue.
The third installment of the Cloud saga, Cloud: Challenge of the Stallions, premieres on NATURE Sunday, October 25.
The agency in charge of managing wild horses, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is planning on rounding up all the horses in Cloud’s herd and removing 70 of them, plus some foals, beginning September 1. All mares that have foaled before will be given a two-year contraceptive drug, PZP-22, which is still in the experimental phases in the wild. The Cloud Foundation, which I started in 2005 to protect Cloud’s herd and all wild horses in the west, is opposed to this massive roundup. Noted geneticist Dr. Gus Cothran has written that the minimum population for this herd to maintain genetic viability is 150 to 200 horses. With this removal, Cloud’s herd would be left at only about 120 horses plus some foals.
In order to remove 70 horses the BLM will roundup older horses. I am fearful that many of the horses I have known since birth, which have lived their entire lives in the wild and that you have seen in the Cloud programs, will be removed. Many of the horses you’ll meet in the next Cloud program, Cloud: Challenge of the Stallions, may be gone from the wild by the time this program airs.
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