Friday, September 18, 2009

The High Cost of Lameness on the Mountain, Oops, He’s Not Lame

From Horseback Magazine

By Steven Long, Editor Horseback Magazine

Photo by Terry Fitch, (Horseback) - Employees of the Bureau of Land Management’s Billings, Montana, office hit a windfall as the summer months on Pryor Mountain came to an end. They had to work on the Labor Day holiday, September 7, and by federal regulation received double their regular pay, piling more costs onto an already expensive outing for the agency.

Jim Sparks, field manager of the office, says that the cost of the “gather” which penned the iconic Mustang Cloud for a time may run as high as $150,000.

Members of the famed Cloud band of Prior Mountain Mustangs, recognized as a distinct breed in The Official Horse Breeds Standards Guide, will join 33,000 wild horses awaiting adoption in BLM pens or facing euthanasia. The agency lacks the funds to maintain them and last year threatened to kill tens of thousands because of a budget shortfall. After talk of equicide leaked to the general public, a perfect storm of outrage befell the agency as angry horse lovers howled in protest.

Many blame gathers such as the one over the Labor Day weekend that netted Cloud, and the cost of feeding horses that would have otherwise cost the government nothing had they remained in the wild, for decimating the agency’s budget.

“Under normal circumstances, without lawsuits, protests, threats, etc., a gather of this sort will cost $60,000,” Sparks said, blaming a handful of wild horse advocates for the overblown expense of an event that many say should never have happened at all.

Cloud, a yellow Palomino, has been the feature horse in a PBS “Nature” series by Emmy award winning documentarian Ginger Kathrens. A fourth installment is scheduled for October. Two of the horses in that episode did not return to freedom on the mountain with Cloud. They will be put up for adoption, or possibly euthanized.

Cloud has also been featured twice in the Breyer horse collection of sculptured plastic models. Another installment in the series is scheduled to be released by the company just in time for Christmas.

The high cost of the gather did not prevent Cloud, and others, from being injured in a stampede covering as much as 10 miles down the 5,000 foot Pryor Mountain over rocky terrain. Yet the BLM claims the horse didn’t suffer an injury.

“Sore feet do not constitute an injury,” said BLM spokesman Tom Gorey.

Horse owners believe any damage to a horse’s hoof is courting catastrophe. After hoof injuries horses sometimes suffer from painful abscesses, founder, or even colic.

Critics of the BLM, such as Virginia animal welfare advocate John Holland shake their heads in wonder at what they call the callous attitude of the agency. A Mustang lover who once rescued 12 Virginia wild horses, quoted the old adage “no hoof, no horse.”

At least two politicians have hinted they would like to see wild horses removed from the BLM's jurisdiction.

"I was trying to think of another agency to take over the management of the wild horses when I remembered what a good job the Fire Department has done managing the Chincoteague ponies," holland said. " But if that job swap left the BLM in charge of putting out fires, we would all be homeless in six months."

Video shot by Kathrens soon after the release show Cloud limping.

“There’s not a veterinarian in this country, except those employed by the government, that would not consider lameness an injury,” said Jerry Finch, founder of Habitat for Horses, the largest horse rescue in the nation.

The BLM counters with its own definition of what constitutes an injury.

Gorey said, “Regulations at CFR 4700.05 define a lame wild horse or burro as meaning a wild horse or burro with one or more malfunctioning limbs that permanently impair its freedom of movement. In accordance with this definition, we definitely do not have any lame horses as a result of the gather.”

Sue Cattoor and her family contract with BLM to catch wild horses at the rate of $100 to $400 per animal per gather. She says the use of her company’s helicopter is a humane way of catching them.

Critics of the BLM's financial management say the family has amassed a tidy fortune contracting to catch horses for the agency.

“The only time the helicopter puts pressure on the animals except maybe to turn them is just as they enter the trap. That is so they will follow the Judas horse,” she told Horseback.

A Judas horse is an animal that has been trained to run for the trap leading the stampeding wild horses with him. It is released in front of the herd just as the horses are reaching the confinement area.

Cattoor says the helicopter stays a good distance from the animals as it drives them down the mountain.

“When the helicopter is bringing the animals he stays fairly high and way back from them. He lets them travel at their own speed. He follows and keeps the band together. This would not happen if he chased or stampeded the animals. This Pryor Mountain is not a tremendously rough mountain when it comes to mountains in other places,” Cattoor said.

Repeated requests for an interview by Horseback Magazine with BLM Director Bob Abbey have gone unheeded.

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