Mustang Tales: Bringing the Reader to the Range
By Kathryn Wilder
I am going to tell this story backwards.
McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area, Wyo.
Sitting amidst smooth rocks and cacti on the hump of a hill, I count 65 mustangs in one group—bays, grays, sorrels, blacks, and black-and-white, brown-and-white, and tricolored pintos. It’s clear that several bands make up this grouping—bachelor bands, stallions’ bands, and some outlying stallions—a black-and-white pinto far on the outskirts, and a gray. Two foals (not in the count) romp—a bald-faced colt born to Miley in March, and a week-old red-and-white pinto. Miley is the one horse I can identify by name—a black sabino with white stripes down both sides of her pretty face. Near her a trim old battle-scarred bay stallion fends off suitors.
From the draw below me a squawking, scolding raven appears, lights in a dead cottonwood, constant noise, then flies up and circles above. Eventually another raven appears. Together they drift away, their voices punctuating the wind. Which is at my back, carrying my scent directly to the horses. I have rubbed my hands and wrists with pungent spring sage but I doubt that will camouflage my human smell.
For a moment the mustangs watch me but I am uninteresting, sitting above the wash with my journal on my knee. They shift focus to TJ Holmes, 150 yards away from me, her camera on her monopod. They watch as she walks to the north. She’ll move in closer to the herd—but not too close—for a different angle of light, of backdrop, of horses.
The noisy ravens circle the sky.
The horses relax, dozing in the sunshine. Many look fat and shiny, while at home our mustangs are still shaggy and somewhat lean after a rough winter.
Meadowlarks sing between the horses and me, the highway and me. With the low-grade wind I can almost forget the highway is there, though I do hear the occasional vehicle passing between wind and ravens’ calls.
At the far edges of this horse world are snowcapped mountains: the Rockies of Yellowstone, the Bighorns to the east. A cloud shadow blankets the earth, bringing chill. Otherwise this is T-shirt weather. In Wyoming, in April.
TJ has worked her way closer without startling the horses, though she’s still more than a football field away (this HMA posts that you must maintain a distance of 300 feet from the horses). Through fieldglasses I watch a bay and sorrel groom each other, lips and teeth moving up and down each other’s necks. The mama-mare Miley grazes while her colt naps. Stallions posture occasionally—spurred by something undetectable by me, they race across the hillside, rear and spar with one another, then drop their heads to graze.
With the cloud shade and downshift in temperature, the herd starts to move a little more—naps interrupted. Some return to grazing, picking at the green shoots of cheatgrass or last year’s stalks of galleta and alkali sacaton. The bald-faced foal is up, the pinto foal nursing. The outlying gray stallion has disappeared. I don’t notice any yearlings, but I’m keeping my distance, not wanting to crowd the horses or invade TJ’s photographic space.
The cloud passes and warmth and noisy ravens return. As the horses stretch into the sunshine, their bands become more apparent. Seven bachelor stallions have circled up—pintos, a bay, a sorrel, and a black—their heads in the center, rumps out, tails swishing. Another band faces south, together—a gray, bays, and a pinto. The next band, all pintos, grazing.
I leave my seat amidst polished stone to perch in pebbled soil. The raven pair flies silently off. A tick crawls across my jeans. Another has found its way under my pant leg and onto my skin, looking for a place to burrow in. I move again.
As we leave, I pass beneath a different dead cottonwood, a large nest woven into its high branches. Now the ravens return to circle their nest, quiet with the wind.
TJ and I continue driving south on the return leg of our 1,930-mile round trip through the high desert—southwestern Colorado to Billings and back. We spent the week with mustangs and mustang people—full days of travel, horses, and PZP training at The Science and Conservation Center in Billings. There as student, I wanted to learn everything I could about the reversible fertility-control vaccine, native PZP. And through instructor Kim Frank, TJ (her assistant), and Robin Lyda, I did learn. Kim, Robin, and PZP practitioners like TJ are collectively carrying forth the message of PZP for former senior scientist Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick.
Kim Frank with BLM wild horse and burro specialist Chad Benson of Kingman, Ariz.
My one regret: I did not meet Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick in person.
That regret began on December 17, 2015, when I learned that “Dr. Jay,” as his students fondly call him, had died the day before of a sudden bout with cancer.
TJ went through PZP training with Dr. Jay in 2010, bringing it to Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area in partnership with BLM in 2011. From the day I first met TJ three years ago, I have known Dr. Kirkpatrick’s name, eventually beginning an e-mail correspondence with him that focused on mustangs, PZP, and writing. He helped me with an Op-ed that was published three weeks after he passed away.
The last e-mail from Dr. Jay came on December 7, after he read my final draft. “Nice job Kat,” he said. He was in the final throes of Stage 4 cancer and died nine days later.
That, in a nutshell, was Dr. Jay—all heart and kindness, committed to the last day of his life to the implementation of PZP programs in every wild horse herd in America, and in other wildlife populations throughout the world.
He faced much criticism for his work. He has gotten little fanfare for his successes. Yet those who worked with Dr. Jay—many of them the people darting mustang mares in the wild—are as dedicated to Dr. Jay’s mission, and to him as scientist, animal rights activist, and friend, as he was to the horses.
The 109,814-acre McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area is a living example of Dr. Jay’s vision. In 2011, under the management of Tricia Hatle, wild horse specialist at BLM's Cody Field Office, The Science and Conservation Center and mustang advocacy group Friends of a Legacy began a PZP program on the well-documented McCullough Peaks mares. Today, the herd has reached zero population growth. While 20 horses were removed in 2013, and spring counts are still under way, the foals on the ground will likely balance out the winter mortalities that inevitably occur in the rugged mustang deserts of the West.
Unlike other HMAs in Wyoming, no grand roundups will have to be scheduled anytime soon in McCullough Peaks—like a raven pair protecting its nest in the high branches of a cottonwood, the McCullough Peaks mustangs are free to protect their own without the threat of imminent removal. This is true of herds in Challis, Idaho; Spring Creek Basin, Colorado; and other ranges wherein BLM is working in partnership with volunteers to utilize PZP.
Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick is the beginning of this story.
Kathryn Wilder lives in southwestern Colorado, where she’s at work on Seven Horses: One Woman’s Search for Water and Home in the Arid West, and a novel about mustangs and PZP. Her essays and stories have appeared in such publications as River Teeth, bosque, Fourth Genre, Southern Indiana Review, Midway Journal, Bugle, Sierra, many Hawai`i magazines, and half a dozen anthologies. You can follow her at www.wilderhorses.live.
TJ Holmes has documented the mustangs of Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area for nine years, and photographed them for years longer. You can follow TJ and the Spring Creek Basin mustangs at www.springcreekbasinmustangs.com.