Live Link:  Straight from the Horses Heart

Series by Lisa LeBlanc ~ SFTHH Chief Investigative Reporter


Twin Peaks BLM Helicopter Stampede Day 2, Thursday, August 12th:

Arriving at the Litchfield Holding Facility at around 6:00 a.m., just before dawn, we were briefed by ‘Jeff’, a uniformed BLM representative on the rules of conduct. Most pointed: Disruptions or jeopardizing of safety would discontinue regular observation day. This was punctuated by 3 armed Law Enforcement officers; one, wore a Kevlar vest.Among the Observers were two political Activists, seeking to learn more on the issues of Wild Horses & Burros; a free-lance journalist and her partner; a graduate student, authoring a thesis based on a year of study in this HMA; an older gentleman who has lived the majority of his life in the area. And two additional representatives of the BLM.

A total of 11 Observers – and six non-civilians to attend us.

We were handed Wild Horse & Burro packets with some basic information. One rep took down our license plates; those were written on a sheet of paper handed to us. We were told to write our names and the names of our passengers on the sheet and to keep it on the dashboard at all times.

According to the “Know Before You Go” sheet from the packet, it was recommended to use the ‘facilities’ before we left as there would be none at the trap site, but before we would be allowed behind the Facility gate, we had to wait for the helicopter to take off. It left at approximately 6:30.

Two of the Law Enforcement officers were pointedly friendly; one was decidedly not.

The drive from the Facility to the Observation point was nearly an hour through sage & scrub and over sharp volcanic rock. The massive dust cloud stirred up by the convoy could probably be seen for miles before it arrived. We got a brief glimpse at the sorting pens, but only because the privately owned road had been watered down minutes before. Wild Horses, captured the day before, were being loaded for transport to the Facility.

We finally arrived at the staging area for Observers; we were greeted by still more BLM and Law Enforcement – far outnumbering Observers. We could hear the helicopter blades, carried on the chilly early morning breeze, thupping from somewhere off in the distance. This was no longer an event we had simply prepared for. This was actually happening now. Before we were allowed to watch, more briefing, with more pointed admonishments on the consequence of misbehavior. One Observer, the Thesis Author, was singled out by the female agent in charge of the briefing, for wearing a light gray hoodie over a grass-green t-shirt, colors considered potentially distracting to the roundup process. The pointed attention leveled at the Observer was uncomfortable to witness; the fact that the Rep herself was wearing a white polo – also considered a ‘distracting’ color – was not lost on the other Observers. Two young women with the Bureau’s Public Relations took pictures of all the Observers present.

We walked, finally, to the furthest point we were allowed – an area marked by pink plastic ribbon festooned around scrub brush, about a two-minute walk. As we walked over shards of shattered lava rock, I noticed the area was covered with piles of fresh Horse manure and hoof prints of all sizes, very distinct, not having been softened by the constant breeze on the desert floor. It was heartbreaking for me, knowing that in the previous 12 hours, this placed had hosted a herd of Wild Horses, unaware their freedom was nearly at an end, most likely forever. Perhaps the trap site was chosen for it’s proximity to where Horses gathered to socialize.

As we approached the Line, the helicopter was already pushing the first group of Horses down from the hill above the trap site, which may have been as much as a half-mile away from where we were allowed to watch. The mouth of the trap fell below the area; while we could see the helicopter pressuring the group of perhaps 30 Horses into the trap, we could not see them enter it. We could see wranglers, in white shirts and red shirts, and we could see whip sticks flapping occasionally. We could not hear them, the Horses; perhaps their desperate cries were also carried away on the desert breeze. Within a few minutes, it was over, and the helicopter flew off and away in another direction.

And with the foolish hope of a rookie Observer, I thought it was finished.

All Observers, whether in pairs, trios or small groups, were bracketed at all times by at least two BLM reps. Among those also observing were BLM officials from other branches, some from as far away as Sacramento; still others were from surrounding counties. Most were BLM Law Enforcement. There was another agent, shouldering a huge video camera who stated he was there to film a documentary for the Bureau.

Initial conversations with agents were tacit and chilly, and it was difficult to understand exactly what they had been prepared for. Occasionally an agent would step to a group of Observers and ask for an opinion or an assessment. Most were surprised at the articulate and thoughtful responses from Observers.

The Thesis Author in particular, would explain her research findings with a phenomenal combination of knowledge, simplicity and brevity the listener was helpless to ignore. Her final “We can do better” for the Wild Horses and their management would hang in the air like violet smoke, refusing to dissipate.

There were minor descents into the regrettable, verbal exchanges that were deliberately adversarial from both the Bureau and Observers but for the most part, all involved stayed en pointe – to observe, to gather and exchange information, and to learn.

But by the time the second round of Horses began their descent down this side of Five Springs Mountain, the enormity of this began to take hold. Taken from the Shinn Ranch area, twelve miles as the crow flies according to the Local Observer, 8 to 10 separate bands totaling over 100 Horses were pushed methodically & relentlessly toward their final destination.

Even the Local Observer, the older gentleman, whispered under his breath, “That’s too many.”

From our vantage point, about two miles away, we watched helplessly as a magnificent Blue Black became isolated from the others. He slowed, first to a trot, then to a walk, then to a complete stop. His legs buckled and I was certain he was going to go down. But he stayed up, made a few very slow circles, then made his way toward a gully lined with tall vegetation and where a creek flowed. I watched both ends of the gull, but I never saw him again. And we would not be allowed, on our own, to venture out to check either his condition or his location, perhaps the price to be paid for finding a dead foal on a previous expedition.

As the Horses were pushed further toward the trap, other Observers made their way back to the viewing area. I stayed behind, to record my notes on my Blue Black friend. One of the Political Activists stayed behind to prepare her video camera.

Minutes later, I looked up in time to see a small family – perhaps 5 or 6, a Black Bay, 4 or 5 Blue Blacks and a tiny Blue Black foal no more than 2 or 3 weeks old, trotting toward me, no more than 30 feet away. The Activist was walking toward the viewing area; I whispered to her loudly. She turned toward me, still not seeing them. I pointed at them; she pointed her camera. As they approached us, stupidly, I pointed up the road. They turned in that direction, trotting away from the helicopter and the trap. The Activist and I watched them as long as we could until they disappeared into the gully, then up the mountain beyond. We held each other and teared up, the way women do when witnessing a remarkable event. And it was the most joyful and gratifying moment of the day – an oath of silence between co-conspirators, two humans and a small band of Horses. We would never tell.

But because fair isn’t fair in the realm of the roundup, the joy did not last. An hour later, the helicopter had found them and, again, drove them down the side of the mountain.

I ranted and raved, concerned for the foal traveling over that great distance twice in one day, when I was firmly but quietly reminded by another Advocate there would be no reprieve – for any of them. And my anger would serve no useful purpose.

To their credit, this tiny family drove the helicopter hard, repeatedly testing the pilot’s skill. It took as long or longer to finally get them to the trap site. And it was there my courage failed; I could not bring myself to witness for them their final steps into that trap.

As of the second day, according to the BLM’s Daily Gather Report, there were no deaths directly attributed to the round up and few catastrophic injuries reported. Whether this will stay consistent for the duration of this roundup remains to be seen.

The battle to stop the roundups, to explore better, less costly and less destructive management methods is as far from over, perhaps further, than it’s ever been:

The Thesis Author and the Free-lance Journalist stood observing as another group of Horses were being fed into the trap, engaged in a quiet conversation, exchanging information and opinions. At a lull in the conversation, a female agent standing nearby declared firmly, “This is the only way we have of managing them.”

A glaring and lengthy silence fell over everyone present. And that declaration, too, refused to dissipate.