American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign
After being saved from slaughter in one of the largest wild horse rescues in history, last month a group of Nevada mustangs was released to a 2,000-acre ranch in northern California, nearly two years to the day after the horses lost their freedom in a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) roundup.
This is the story of those horses and their rescuer—a California philanthropist and winemaker —who saved them from the cruelest of fates. Their story is instructive, because it demonstrates the fragility of the protections that exist for wild horses and sheds light upon the challenges and difficulties of caring for these wild animals once they are removed from the range.
June 23, 2010. Pilot Valley, Nevada.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announces that, in close coordination with the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDOA), it will “impound” a herd of 175 horses living free on the Winecup Gamble Ranch, a sprawling 50,000-acre property located in the northeastern corner of the state. The announcement is made after the livestock operator informs NDOA that it will be turning off the water on the ranch when cattle are removed for the season. In previous years, horses perished from dehydration when ranchers removed their cows and turned off the water. Approximately two-thirds of the horses living on the ranch are wild Nevada mustangs, who moved down out of the BLM’s Toano Herd Area near Pilot Valley, NV in search of food and water. As in most areas of the West, no fencing divides public and private lands in this area. Cattle graze on both, and wild horses do not know when they cross the invisible line between the two.
Wild horses living on BLM and U.S. Forest Service Lands are protected under the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act. When they are rounded up, the horses are placed in the adoption program or sent to long-term holding facilities. But a BLM/NDOA decision to classify the Pilot Valley horses as “estray” stripped them of federal protections, allowing the agencies to dispose of them at a livestock auction, where they more than likely would be sold for slaughter.
On June 25, the roundup began; 170 of the horses survived the capture operation and were sent to the Fallon Livestock Exchange, located 60 miles east of Reno. There, they faced a terrible fate, until a group of wild horse advocates stepped in and came to their rescue.
July 10, 2010. Fallon, Nevada.
It’s Saturday morning at 8 a.m. and the advocates, led by Jill Starr of Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue and backed by Ellie Phipps Price, a lifelong horsewoman and owner of the prized Durell Vineyards in Sonoma County, California, meet for breakfast in the café at the Fallon Livestock Exchange. Dining at adjacent tables are four kill buyers; their large stock trailers lined up outside in the parking lot. These men make their living buying discarded equines on the cheap, stockpiling them in feedlots until they have enough horses to fill their trailers, and then trucking them across the border to slaughter plants in Canada or Mexico. Their conversation, overheard by advocates, indicates that they intend to purchase the horses, load them and head directly south. The sale of 170 horses at once is a bonanza for these kill buyers, and it means that they can fill their trailers in a single day and head for the border.
In the auction pens, the frightened horses pace nervously. There are easily 75 stallions, 18 mares with foals by their sides, and 14 pregnant mares. Their ages range from three months to 20 years. The presence of several orphaned foals and a number of lactating mares with no offspring are an ominous and undeniable sign that numerous horses perished in the BLM roundup on the Winecup Gamble Ranch.
No pictures of the auction are available, because cameras and media are not allowed inside. Local journalists attempt to cover the event, but are removed from the parking lot by police and forced to cover the event from the road.
The auction begins. The horses, sold by the pound, are released singly or in small groups onto a scale located in a pit. Their weights are displayed electronically overhead and the bidding starts. Four hours later, it’s over. The advocates have outbid the kill buyers for every horse. In the end, 170 are saved from slaughter.
By the time the auction ends, 30 volunteers have lined up with pickup trucks and stock trailers to transport the horses to the safety of a local feedlot that has been leased temporarily to house them. By evening, all the horses are safe, and the real work begins.
July 2010 to June 2012. Fallon, Nevada.
Rescuing 170 horses from the hands of kill buyers is a laudable feat in and of itself, but caring for them and finding long-term solutions is quite another.
“When we undertook this rescue, I didn’t really know what it would take to care for this many wild horses,” explains Price. “All I knew is that it was wrong for the BLM and the Nevada Department of Agriculture to dump these horses at a livestock auction where they would be sold for slaughter. More than half of these horses had come down out of federally protected Herd Areas, and they should have been given protected status. When I heard about their plight, I wanted to save them.”
As the search for a long-term solution went on, the horses were kept on the feedlot, where feeding them alone cost $10,000 a month. All the stallions had to be castrated. The horses were run through chutes to be vaccinated, microchipped, have their blood drawn and their feet trimmed.
“Ironically, we found ourselves doing what the BLM does when it removes horses from the range, and real cost of taking them from the wild and managing them in holding pens became clear,” Price added.
In the end, Price secured a ranch in northern California where the horses will have a home for life.
June 26, 2012
It is a bright, sunny northern California day, and a small crowd of onlookers gathers in anticipation. Price is there, along with some friends and the former owners of the ranch, who have brought their grandchildren along to witness the horses take their first steps toward freedom after their long ordeal.
Under the expert guidance of ranch manager Mike Holmes, who has overseen the care of the horses for the past two years, three truckloads of horses safely make their way from Fallon, Nevada to their new home on the range.
After two weeks, the horses are still exploring their spacious new environment under the watchful eye of Holmes and his son Randy, who tend to the ranch and make sure its inhabitants are safe and secure. Theirs is a rare happy ending in the ongoing saga of America’s wild horses and their struggle to survive.
On the two year anniversary of the rescue, Price reflects on her experience and what she has learned.
“Caring for wild horses takes enormous resources and involves many challenges,” she observes. “I have a much better understanding of what the BLM faces when horses are removed from the wild. I am more committed than ever to finding a good way to manage these horses on the range where they belong.”
“These wonderful horses have brought great joy to my life, and the experience of releasing them out onto the range again was deeply gratifying,” Price continues. “I am lucky to have had the resources to save these horses, but I also feel strongly that there is a better way. I would like to see the BLM more actively using fertility control to manage wild horses on the range and stop rounding them up and removing them from the wild, a practice that is inhumane and unsustainable.”
Article by Suzanne Roy, AWHPC Campaign Director, July 11, 2012.