Don’t Fence Cloud’s Herd In, by Ginger Kathrens

Photos by The Cloud Foundation

The Fight to Save a Legendary Wild Horse Herd

The Custer National Forest awarded a contract on August 6, 2010. It calls for the building of new, bigger, stronger, longer fence to prevent the Pryor Wild Horse Herd from grazing on their mid-summer through fall pastures atop their mountain home. The first question I am always asked is “Why?” To answer honestly, I am not sure what is pushing this kind of expensive and unwanted project. But, to even try to answer the question requires a bit of a history lesson.

The wild horses of the Pryor Mountains, known as the Arrowhead Mountains to the Crow Indians, have been documented as living in this area since the early 1800s. But, they probably have lived here for far longer. The Arrowheads were the sacred heart of Crow Indian country, and the Crow tribe possessed the largest horse herd in the West. The wild horses are likely descended of their treasured war ponies.

It is also likely that they are the descendants of the horses of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The famous explorers had traded for Shoshone and Nez Perce stock and on their return trip from the West Coast in 1806 they put Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor in charge of bringing the horses back to the Missouri River. While camped in the Arrowheads, the Crow Indians stole all the horses. The mountains were subsequently named for the hapless Sergeant.

However, the history of the mustangs of the Arrowheads traces their back even farther through a genetic blood trail that leads to the Caribbean and the breeding farms of the Spanish Conquistadors. The Spanish returned the horse to the Americas in the early 1500s and the DNA of the Arrowhead mustangs links them to the horses of the Conquest.

Time travel back even farther into the prehistory of North America, and you will see that the small Pryor horses resemble their ancient ancestor, Equus lambei, also called Yukon Horse. E. lambei was a small but stout, solid-hooved horse with a flop over mane that lived in North America for at least 20,000 years before dying out only 7,000 years ago. E. lambei is the genetic equivalent to Equus caballus — the modern horse. I believe this link allows us to better understand why the horse, re-introduced in the early 1500s, was so successful once it began roaming wild again. North America is its ancestral home. The eco-systems the horse re-occupied were those in which it had co-evolved.

Even as recently as the early 1900s there were millions of wild horses roaming the west, including the isolated Pryor Mountains.

Flash forward to the 1960s when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sought to exterminate the hundreds of horses that ran wild amongst the rugged canyons and windswept ridges of the Pryors. Local residents protested the destruction of the herd, and Hope Ryden, a reporter for ABC News exposed the upcoming roundup to a national audience. After much rapid fire wrangling and debate, Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, quickly stepped in and designated the BLM lands on East Pryor Mountain a sanctuary for the wild horses.

It was named the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Range in 1968. As Interior Secretary, Udall had no authority over the Custer National Forest Service lands, most of which were in the high country, and fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture.  No move was made to include any of these lands, despite the presence of wild horses in the Forest Service area.

Three years later, in 1971, the Wild Horse and Burro Act was unanimously passed by Congress. The Act states that horses will be managed “where presently found.”  The Forest Service has denied that the horses were present in 1971 and the BLM has never challenged them on this. The locals, who had fought so hard for the horses, did not make a point of challenging the Forest Service and for years the local philosophy was to “let sleeping dogs lie.” The wild horses continued to roam the area, descending to the lower country in the winter and traveling with the greening grass to higher elevations in the summer.

When a wooden buck and pole fence was constructed by the BLM to prevent the horses from using the Forest Service lands atop the mountain in the 1980s, it quickly fell into disrepair because the horses kicked it apart so they could continue to travel their well-worn trails back and forth from BLM to Forest Service land.

By the time I arrived on the mountain in 1994, the fence was down in a dozen places or more and the horses were using their traditional trails into the Forest Service. In 1997, the fence was repaired, but within days the horses had again torn it down. While the horses are in the Forest Service lands they are called “trespassers” even though they were simply doing what they had always done, and that is to freely roam.

Actually, the full name for the 1971 Act is the Free-Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act. The free-roaming part is what is being denied the historic Pryor mustangs today. The new fence to be built atop the mountain still closely follows the boundary line between the Custer National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This new fence promises to be stouter. It certainly is longer… by nearly a mile.

For those of you who have traveled to the top of the Pryors and have seen the old fence you will know what I mean when I say that the assertion that the wild horses of the Pryor Mountains used only the open meadows on BLM land and did not graze the same open meadow to the west on the Forest Service makes absolutely no sense. It is a ridiculous argument, and is one we are legally challenging.

Just this July we watched a dozen or more family bands, including Cloud with his newborn daughter Bolder and his trio of rambunctious foals, and Flint with his two mares, his yearling son and his two little fillies. Many tourists came to watch the horses. We talked to folks from nearby towns and others from Oregon, Ohio, Kansas, Colorado, and even Switzerland. Without a 4-wheel drive vehicle or driving dangerous roads they could observe the wild horses of the Pryors grazing, playing and sparring in lupine covered meadows. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of these people — something they said they would never forget.

Besides being a spectacular eco-tourism destination which brings considerable economic benefits, the Forest Service meadows are essential for the well being of this world famous herd — to meet their physical requirements and their genetic needs. The Pryor herd is too small right now. Closing off this vital area will hamper efforts to let the population expand to at least 200 adult animals.

And for me, there is something very wrong with denying these beautiful animals access to their home… a home they have known for hundreds of years. Might Forest Service have another motive for evicting the wild horse… beyond the unbelievable argument that the horses were not here in 1971?

Some within the Forest Service believe the agency plans to open the area up for cattle grazing. There are cattle allotments farther down the mountain, but not in this area near the Dryhead Overlook. In July, it was a thrilling sight to see the vast majority of the Pryor herd in this incredible location. Visitors were awed. I doubt they would react the same to a herd of cows out here.

It would be great if our elected officials would work on a solution to this dilemma. Those who live in Montana need to voice their objection to fencing the Pryor horses out of their home. Please let Senator Tester and Senator Baucus know your views on this issue.

Everyone please contact Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack to ask him to intervene, just as Secretary of Interior Udall did years ago. With the stroke of a pen Secretary Vilsack could create a wild horse sanctuary in the Custer National Forest atop the mountain. You can also contact the Custer National Forest Service directly about the fence and tell them that they don’t want taxpayer money spent on this kind of project.

Here is something else you can do if you are able: The Cloud Foundation is waging a legal battle on behalf of the horses, which is not cheap — even though our attorneys work at greatly reduced rates.  Many of you responded with donations for Cloud’s Legal Fund (Don’t Fence Me In Legal Fund). Please do what you can to help us fund this lawsuit and keep fighting for the herd!

Get involved (TAKE ACTION HERE) and let your friends know that we need everyone’s help to expand the Pryor Wild Horse Range and preserve this legendary herd. Don’t let them fence Cloud and his herd in. Thanks so much!

Happy Trails!
Ginger

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