By Carol Walker, Wild Hoofbeats
A week before Thanksgiving I received a press release from the BLM Rock Springs office that stated that the Adobe Town /Salt Wells Creek Roundup was going to begin tomorrow. I had been calling and emailing the Rock Springs office of the BLM every two weeks since the Decision Record was issued for this roundup in August, asking when they were planning to start. I was given no warning. I was certain that this was occurring at all this year was due to pressure from the Rock Springs Grazing Association who has been demanding that all wild horses be removed from private lands on the checkerboard area of the Salt Wells Creek Herd Area and the Adobe Town Herd Area.
I was told that public observation opportunities could be limited due to private land on the checkerboard, and to get there soon if I was to observe. I could not get there at the beginning, but I was there for the end.
They removed 668 wild horses from Salt Wells Creek, a huge herd area with over 1 million acres. Only 39 stallions and 40 mares were returned to the area, and 3 horses died.
The horses were not rounded up on Thanksgiving, but they were the Saturday after, with no public observation allowed. The contractor, the Cattoors, were trying to finish this up before an arctic cold front entered Wyoming.
I drove up highway I-80 on Monday with 50 – 60 mph winds buffeting my vehicle and the huge big rig trucks that roared by. The winds are often a precursor to a storm, which was clearly blowing into Wyoming. The release of the 40 mares who had been treated with birth control, PZP, was scheduled for Tuesday, the next day, so I was determined to get there. When I arrived in Rock Springs, I went immediately to the Rock Springs Short Term Holding facility. These are the corrals where the captured horses are brought after being removed from their homes and families. Here they are tested for Coggins, given vaccinations, gelded, sorted, possibly adopted, and then ultimately sent to other locations.
It is a grim place, one I hate visiting. I always hope I do NOT recognize any of the horses I see. Seeing the horses separated by sex and age into arbitrary groups with nothing to do but endure is incredibly depressing, especially after seeing these horses in the wild. It is a soul killing place, where the horses are provided the basic necessities of food and water, and some are provided medical care when needed, but the freedom that is an essential part of their being has been removed and the light has gone out of their eyes.
I watch some of the stallions, not yet gelded, run and play, frisky with the threat of the weather coming in. It was almost worse to see them this way – they had not yet settled into their fate. I see a stallion snaking some other stallions – here he has no family to move around, but still has the instinct.
I could not see the pens of weanlings from the visitor overlook, the foals that had been separated from their mothers for the first time, and I wonder if this was deliberate. Usually during the summer the youngsters are easy to view, perhaps to encourage adoption, as they are the most “adoptable” group. Not now however, but I did see pens of mares with foals too young to be separated from their mothers.
I head to my hotel, and the evening brings the storm with a vengeance. The temperature plummets, and it is zero degrees with I don’t know what wind chill when I get outside in the morning. Everything is white, and the snow is blowing sideways. I am unsurprised when I get a call that tells me the release of the mares has been delayed.
I decide to go back to the Short Term Holding facility and layer my clothing carefully. When I get out of my vehicle and trudge to the overlook I catch my breath in the strong wind. This is a totally different place in the grip of the storm. Snow blows hard across the corrals, and the horses are coated with ice and snow. The more dominant horses are eating hay, while the more timid wait their turns. Eating hay is the best way for these horses to stay as warm as they can because there is no shelter here. I had been told that there were wind breaks for the horses, but I did not see them. I know the sick pens have shelter, but not the rest of the facility.
The mares and foals stood unmoving, seemingly frozen in place. I did not see any of them move from where they were standing while I was there.
These wild horses are uniquely suited to their environment, to thrive where domestic horses could not, but if they had been in the wild, they would have sheltered next to hillsides, in gullies, in draws that are natural windbreaks – they would not have been taking the full brunt of the wind and snow as they were here, trapped in pens, unable to move away.