Sunday, August 21, 2011

New Discoveries atop the Pryor Mountains Losers, winners, and new life

Dear Friends of Cloud, his family and herd;

On July 27, Lauryn, Erin (our summer intern) and I drove from Colorado Springs to Lovell, WY, to visit Cloud and the wild horses of the Pryor Mountains. Aside from the terrible sadness we felt at losing two of our very special friends, Admiral and Climbs High (aka Kapitan), we had a wonderful trip, full of amazing moments and, as always, new discoveries. For most of our trip, advocates Carla Bowers and Jim Grass were our enthusiastic companions. Together we journeyed into the Pryors.

Carla, Ginger, Erin, & Lauryn (photo by Jim Grass)

Atop the mountain, one of our first discoveries surprised us. Lakota was dogging his own band. A large, dark bay stallion was keeping Lakota away from his mares and yearlings. It took a few minutes to recognize the tall, dark stranger. It was Grijala, the 5 year-old bachelor son of Conquistador and Cavelitta (Freedom Fund Bands). Young, but mighty looking, Grijala was a bachelor no more, not for the moment at least. He had traveled from the Forest Service and stolen the remainder of Lakota’s band. But, Grijala had paid a price. His once flawless, dark coat was a mass of scars and he had suffered an injury to his back leg that caused him to limp.


Grijala snakes his new band away from Lakota

Grijala with his wounds & Lakota's yearling daughter, Kohl. 

Yet, it was Lakota who looked like he got the worst of the fight. He had a huge, nasty-looking gash on his neck that appeared life threatening to me. I first met Lakota in 1994 when he was a young bachelor and I was an inexperienced wild horse filmmaker. While watching one band after another trail over a hill and out of sight I decided to follow and stumbled upon the large, sparkling, spring-fed waterhole. I remember the day as clearly as if it was yesterday. I standing all alone above the spring-fed waterhole, watching and filming a big band coming down to water, lost in the beauty of it all. Suddenly, I had the feeling someone was standing right behind me and I turned quickly—too quickly. The grullo bachelor was only inches away and when I spun around, so did he, kicking dirt all over my camera and me. He charged away up the hill and out of sight.  This was my dramatic introduction to handsome Lakota.


Each day we tried to find Grijala and the band, and Lakota. Unless Lakota gave up dogging his family, we feared Grijala would finish him off. One more bite on that neck wound would surely be the end of Lakota. Each day, we noticed his wound was just a little less open. And each day, Grijala seemed a little less lame. Neither stallion made a move to fight. Still, I fear that day will come—if it hasn’t already.

Lakota's wound

Nearly every day, we were entertained by the bachelor bands. For a good time, I recommend hanging with the bachelors, for they are bound to stir things up. There are three factions on the mountain—the Forest Service gang of tough looking young males (Garay, Hernando and Inali) and the horse range gang, led by Cloud’s 6 year-old brother, Fiddle (Fiesta). The Fiddle gang features Jasper (Flint and Feldspar’s two year-old son), the Indigo Kid (three year-old son of Electra and Prince), and four year-old He Who (son of Felina and Morning Star).  The third group contains the lurking twosome of Galaxy and his pal, Gringo. Among all of these wonderful, beautiful males, my favorite is the youngest—fun loving Jasper. If he were a human boy, I feel like he would be wearing a perpetual, ear-to-ear grin. Colorful Jasper is having the time of his life as a carefree bachelor.

The Forest Service gang have a run-in with Cloud

Jasper, Fiddle, & He Who playing by the waterhole

Indigo Kid and He Who

Each evening it seemed the bachelor boys showed up near the giant fence and when they did, they put the band stallions on high alert.  One gorgeous evening we watched the dun band stallion, Baja, play with the forest service boys for a half hour or more before returning to his family. Fiddle, on the other hand, spends a lot of time playing with his own band and treats these young bachelor buddies more like mares than male companions. He snakes them away from the approaching band stallions and defends them from the other bachelors. It’s interesting, familiar behavior and is generally a precursor to serious quests to steal mares. Before he won a mare, Cloud’s brother, Diamond, treated Cloud the way Fiddle is now treating Jasper, Indigo and He Who.

Nearly every day, we saw Morning Star’s band with the newest foal on the mountain, little Lenape, a Shaman and Cedar granddaughter.  When I say she is “little”, I mean little— a delicate dun, the color of her mother. Lenape is the great granddaughter of Raven and Grumpy Grulla (of the Freedom Fund) and, like her great grandma, does she ever have attitude! Case in point: we parked the Durango one evening near the hideous fence and while Erin, Lauryn, and I hiked to take pictures of Electra and her family, we turned when we heard hammering. It sounded like someone hammering on a piece of tin. Morning Star’s family (including lovely Shadow) had surrounded my car. We watched the older horses sniff the windows and doors and eat mineral filled dirt off my running boards. Then I saw the source of the noise.  “Fragile” Lenape was raising her spoon-sized hoof and striking my license plate and front bumper with all her might. The photo below makes her look oh so innocent, but beware the “destructo” filly. Only when I hustled back to the car did the band move off, except for “destructo” who gave the Durango a couple of extra thumps before trotting off to her mother!  Erin and Lauryn, meanwhile, were laughing their heads off, doing absolutely nothing to defend my poor Durango.

Honey and tiny Lenape (aka "Destructo" filly)

"Destructo" filly lookoing innocent

That same eventful evening, we watched Hera, the four-year mare in Prince’s band, walk up to the huge wooden fence, stick her head under a rail, and begin scratching the back of her neck. Not ten seconds into her vigorous rubbing and the rail came loose, clattered toward her feet as she backpedaled at top speed. I think she was shocked that the seemingly sturdy fence was not as stable as she thought. Again we all had a good laugh, and put Hera right up there on our list of Pryor horse heroes!

Limerick, Electra's new filly, inspects Hera's handiwork

A lone bachelor trots the fence line looking for a break

On our last full day, I spent 6 hours sitting at the spring-fed waterhole waiting for horses to come and drink. Erin and Lauryn had gone off in separate directions, trying to locate Cloud, or Bolder, or Flint’s families. . . or any of the horses. It’s strange how you can see 80 horses at nearly one time and then not a single horse for the better part of a day. Anyway, I decided to quit staring at the water—I’d already filmed innumerable shots of birds bathing. So I turned around to look into the forest instead. Maybe, I thought, I could get a shot of that red squirrel I had seen collecting cones in the Douglas firs. That’s when I saw something moving in the trees. A small, cinnamon colored bear ambled into a clearing near the base of the dam where I sat. Ever so slowly, I reached up and grabbed the handle of my tripod and panned the camera toward the bear. He smelled me and stopped. I looked through the lens and focused as he turned to leave. He stopped and I rolled. I got him glancing back and loping off into the trees. Gotcha! I thought. I sat very still and waited, but he didn’t come back. I regretted that I had blocked his route to water and that I hadn’t set up my camera farther away so I might have seen him get his drink. It was the same little bear Ann Evans and I saw the month before.

Our friend the cinnamon bear

What a wondrous place—not just because of the wild horses, but because of moments like this. It’s a place of quiet reflection and great discovery. First-time visitors have often told me that coming here was the best day of their lives. Let me share Erin’s experiences as well as Carla's & Grass', for it was the first visit to the mountaintop for all three.

We named the newborn foal that Erin writes about in her story, “Leo,” (it is the BLM’s “L” year. The “A” foals were born in 2000 and so on). Leo was only a few hours old when we found him and I share her sense of wonder and excitement at experiencing a foal’s first day. Leo is the third foal for Felicity. Her first is Ingrid, mother of little Lynx. They lives in Cloud’s band. Leo’s father is one of my personal favorites, 16 year-old Custer, the bay roan son of Shaman and Sitka. Little Leo is his only living offspring. I pray Leo will survive and roam free for the rest of his life in this spectacular place.

 Newborn Leo and mom, Felicity

On our last evening on the mountain we found Bolder and Cloud and their families on a high hill beyond the snow-fed waterhole. Sykes Ridge was bathed in orange light as I hiked closer. That’s when Bolder quite unexpectedly attacked Cloud and they fought briefly. I was unprepared for this kind of ferocity from Bolder and I wondered what was up with this. In a few minutes, I figured out the reason for the ruckus. Bolder had stolen lovely Adelina from Flint and he was warning other stallions to stay away—including his imposing father, Cloud. In my opinion, Adelina (named for Congressman Raul Grijalva's granddaughter) was the reason the 2009 roundup was halted. The filly had been born several weeks before the roundup started. Many people knew of her late birth and quite a few people, myself included, had photographed her tottering around in the trees atop the mountain. We cringed at the thought of the helicopter driving she and her mother down the treacherous trails to the desert 5,000 feet below. I think the BLM knew it was dangerous and opted to stop the roundup rather than risk her death.

Bolder makes sure Cloud stays away from his new mare

Bolder sniffs Adelina while Echo grazes

I look forward to returning to the mountain, to see if Bolder can hang on to his young mare. Something tells me he can. He is an amazing stallion—gentle and calm with his family, but quick to defend them against any threat. I can tell his father respects him, and that speaks volumes to me.

Happy Trails!

P.S. - Please donate to our legal battle to protect Cloud’s Pryor Herd. Costs have mounted in preparing our final lawsuit reply. If we win, I believe a larger population will be allowed to live in this special place, and  the fence barring the wild horses from their historic range in the Custer National Forest will be torn down. TCF is also participating as plaintiffs in other legal battles to protect mustangs clinging to precious freedom in the wilds of the West. Please help us continue the fight!


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