The Gather - BLM rounds up the Kiger Mustangs
On an early morning in late September, I was one of a group of a dozen sleepy photographers who had gathered in the sagebrush at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Kiger Wild Horse Management Area in eastern Oregon. We were here as guest of the BLM to photograph the wild horse round up, or "gather" as the BLM prefers. The night sky was slowly turning pink and coral against the fading indigo; the sun was just making its appearance over the eastern hills but not yet warming the high desert to any degree. The air was chilly.
With prearranged approval to be allowed in as spectators, we had assembled at the BLM Burns District Office at 4:30 AM. After orientation and head count, we had driven the forty or so miles out to the range near Diamond, at the north edge of the Steens Mountain. We stood around with our photo gear, pacing nervously to stay warm, chatting about cameras and speculating as to what we might be photographing. From our assigned rocky overlook, which provided a good cover of sage to hide behind, we would be mostly concealed from the horses. There was a view of the Steens Mountain in the distance.
After an hour or so of quiet conversation about lenses and f
numbers, our attention was suddenly drawn to the unmistakable chopping drone of two helicopters just topping the rise to the north. Two Hughes 369Es, out of Nephi, Utah, had been trucked over along with two veteran cowboy-in-the-sky pilots. The BLM wants this to go relatively quickly - the work of coercing frightened, disoriented, and most of all wild mustangs into a portable capture pen is a big bucks per hour operation. The helicopters pass over us from north to south, just above the tallest junipers. They are headed for the previously located Kiger bands out somewhere in the low foothills of the Steens. The plan is to gather several small groups throughout the morning, heading them into a temporary catch pen, then forceable load each group onto large tractor trailers for transfer to the Burns Wild Horse Corrals. There they will get sorted, cleaned externally and internally and readied for the upcoming auction. Kiger Khrome, as the 2015 auction was named, offers the Kigers for sale to breeders, show horse trainers, and the general public. This is how the BLM keeps the total number of horses within the grazing capacity of the range - by thinning the herd about every four years.
The helicopters and the sky cowboys disappear over a large ridge to the south. They are rounding up the first group of the day; we can hear the choppers drone in the distance and occasionally one will pop up above the ridge. We strain to see movement on the ground in the direction of the helicopter sounds. A small dust cloud appears first, then the dot of a helicopter emerges out of the dust, followed by moving dark shapes of a couple dozen Kigers coming over the crest. We count twenty Kigers, unmistakable even at a distance with their dun color and flowing black manes and tails. They are loping down the hill directly toward the large end of the funnel chute that leads into the temporary holding pen. As the lead horses pass directly across the valley in front of our lookout area, a "Judas horse" is released by a handler who has been hiding just inside the chute fence behind a large juniper. This trained pilot horse will lead the wild group into the holding pen as they relinquish their final hundred yards of freedom.
To those of us observing and photographing this event so far, it looks like a carefully orchestrated performance with man, machine and horses all playing their roles as directed. The helicopters maintain the direction and grouping of the horses, much like cowboys on horseback would move cattle, at least that's the goal. The helicopter company states that "helicopters cut our gather time in half and is much easier on the wild horses and their colts." When all goes as planned this is probably true.
There is a pause between gathers to refuel the choppers. Each gather takes about forty-five minutes. The second and then third group is brought in, much like the first, without incident. Each time a group of horses move across the valley in front of us, we are all shooting photos like crazy despite our disadvantaged location. The BLM located the photographers out of harms way about 200 yards west of the chute, looking directly into the early morning sun to the east. This will make details of the horses all but impossible to capture. I don't think this was intentional to discourage successful photos. Most likely it was just an uninformed oversight.
Gathering the fourth group does not go smoothly. Before we could see the horses this time, we could see a huge dust cloud, much larger than before. Instead of a dozen or so horses cresting the hill there were seventy or more. They were running in obvious panic at full speed in a line a quarter-mile long. The helicopters were bringing up the rear and trying to keep the flank animals in line. They galloped head-long into the chute and into the capture pen which was not designed for a herd this size. We later learned that a mare had run, or was push, into the farther steel fence and died of a broken neck. Apparently, on the other side of the ridge and farther down the range, when the helicopters had appeared for this gather, several smaller bands of horses had bunched together. They all decided to make a break for it at the same time and in the same direction. The sky cowboys did what they could to keep the group together, else they might scatter over several thousand acres. Separating them and then rounding them up again would have probably required more money then the gather contract provided, so they pushed them all in. We were told that it is not unusual for a few horses to get injured or killed, even when the gather is done with wranglers on horses. These are panic-stricken, wild animals fleeing for their lives. The mandate is to round them up. Helicopters have proven to be the most humane way to do it, but the process is not perfect and there can be negative consequences no matter how it's done. The loss of one Kiger is a dark cloud on an otherwise bright day.
One of the most startling aspects of this operation is observing the skill and daring of the pilots at close range. The pilots must anticipate the animals behavior while driving them to the trap. This means they know when to drop down and put more pressure on the wild horses or hang back if they are headed in the right direction. They know just how close to push to assure the wild bunch will follow the domestic "Judas horse" into the holding pen and will not turn around and run back out of the chute. Keep in mind this is done just above tree-top level with sudden movements, tilts and swings as required to head off any horses breaking out of formation. These guys really are sky cowboys mounted on cutting horses that fly.
The BLM critics who rave against the wild horse gathering operation are slow to offer an alternative that would work with the budget constraints that come down from Congress. The Kiger Mustangs truly are a legacy that should be preserved, and the BLM is doing that under less than ideal conditions. The Kigers have pasture that is limited. They share the area with cattle because the ranchers have grazing allocations. To survive under these conditions their total number must be kept at a level the range will support. Roundups and thinning is necessary if they are to survive.
Why should a bunch of wild horses receive this special treatment? Imagine arriving in North America, before there was a United States, making your way to the wilderness of the Steens Mountain in eastern Oregon, and somehow surviving there undetected for several centuries. This is the remarkable legacy of this herd of wild horses. These survivors are the direct descendants of the horses brought to the New World by the gold-hungry Conquistadors in the sixteenth century. They were unknown to modern America until they were discovered in 1977 by a BLM survey team. They are the purest remaining remnant of the original Spanish horses - they must be protected and preserved. The ones being rounded up out here today are descended from the twenty-seven discovered in 1977 at Beatys Butte, a remote location about an hour's drive south of the present Kiger range - down near the Nevada border. At that time, it was thought all the true Spanish Mustangs were gone, but the twenty-seven Kigers had somehow survived in the harsh conditions of the Oregon high desert.
This is a hard business. Despite disapproval from many directions, the BLM horse managers are preserving the historical Spanish mustangs and thereby saving a national treasure. They see this as important. I think anyone who gets to see the Kigers in the wild would agree.
For my part, I feel privileged to have witnessed this event. While the photo opportunities left a lot to be desired, I understand the BLM's concern for spectator safety and I believe they got most of a very difficult undertaking right. Before I head back to Seattle tomorrow, I will stop by the corrals get some well-lit photos of the captured Kigers, and wish these special creatures a happy life. They will be eating alfalfa hay, getting sorted and cleaned up for the auction which happens in a couple of weeks. Hopefully, after that event, the Kigers will all be heading for new homes where the living is a little easier - they deserve that.
[back to Journal Index