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.
|« Previous Post||Next Post »|