You Be the Judge, 1st Edition, Q and A with Matt Dillon of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center
Posted by Texas Mustang Project on January 9, 2010
You Be the Judge, 1st Edition, October 2009, By: Tracie Lynn Thompson
Back again folks… This time I had a talk with Matt Dillon, Director of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center in Lovell, Wyoming. Why, you might ask? Well, the rumor and gossip mills have been churning away about the 2009 Gather in the Pryor Mountains and what exactly Matt’s participation in this gather was all about. As well, there have been some very nasty “he said, she said” chatters about the relationship between Matt and Ginger Kathrens and between The Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center and The Cloud Foundation.
I think that ya’ll might find some of his answers surprising while others are anticipated. Most of all, I think that the insight into some of the hottest recent debates will really catch your attention!
As always, remember these two things:
#1) My dad has always told me that there are 3 Sides to Every Story: Their side, Your side, and the Truth.
#2) My dad says, “Don’t start shootin’ until you have all your ducks in a row. If you still miss one, reload and catch ‘em on the flip side!”
So I did my best by Dad and by ya’ll: I asked as many as I could of the tons of questions that have flooded my inbox and Matt was gracious to answer them. Yes, my articles do tend to be a bit long, but if you want to know all the answers, you’ll just have to stick it out. And now, I’ll let you be the judge…
Q. What is the mission statement and primary function of the PMWMC?
A. Our stated mission is: The Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the Pryor Mountain mustangs, their evolution, history, habitat needs and historical significance. In short, we work for this herd and their range to be preserved; and we work to educate people on the importance of this goal. We do a lot of field work on the horses.
Q. In your own words, how do you like to think of PMWMC?
A. BLM managers come and go. This is just how it works. The PMWMC acts as a consistent and everlasting voice for this herd in light of all of the possible management changes that can and do occur with new managers.
Q. How and why did it start?
A. Well, I’ll just give a quick summary here: The organization has its roots in a group of local citizens concerned with the preservation of the herd in the 60’s. Back then it wasn’t about a roundup; it was about the entire herd being removed. Once the herd was saved, this group soon got a little more organized and became the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Association. The group got even more organized in 1998 when they fully incorporated as the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center. Soon after, the group received its 501(c)(3) status.
Q. How long has the center been in operation?
A. The organization was incorporated in 1998 by Reverend Floyd Schwieger and John T. Nickle with initial donations of $300 each. Today’s Center evolved from the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Association. I’m a newcomer with the Pryor horses, but some members of our organization have been working at this for many years.
Q. By what means does the center function financially?
A. As a 501(c)(3), we are funded primarily by private donations. We get some grant funding, but they are less reliable to get now due to the current economic environment. We also raise funds through the small gift shop and through our summer tours.
Q. You have stated before that you are not a “horseman” per se. Could you elaborate on this?
A. I just don’t have much experience with domestic horses. I’m not even sure I had yet started elementary school when I was last on a horse. I am very much into natural science, though. Growing up here in the northern basin, you are exposed to some wonderful biology and geology. Being out in this was how my family spent their time when I was growing up. My interest in this continued on strong through the years and I eventually came to get my BS in environmental science despite my original plans to attend medical school.
So when I am with the horses, I am observing them wholly as wildlife, as a part of a natural system. Obviously, people do this all the time with other wildlife. The difference is that the other wildlife isn’t as big a part of our history as the horse is. Admittedly, I am finding myself get pulled more into the domestic horse world. It has helped me better understand the ways in which different people think of domestic horses, which helps me to understand how they may view wild horses.
Q. How did you get involved with the PMWMC?
A. Reverend Schwieger got my family involved with the horses starting in 2004. His health was declining then, and he was working to get more locals interested in doing the work he had been doing for so many years. I just kept getting more and more into it, and I happened to graduate from college right before the new building opened in 2007. With this, I was able to step right in and work with the PMWMC. My father also frequently volunteers.
Q. What was your role in the recent gather in the Pryors?
A. The PMWMC entered into a volunteer services agreement with the Billings, MT BLM Field Office. We volunteered to provide them with assistance, mainly in horse identification, but also in any other way we could possibly help with gather operations and with the adoption. The PMWMC already has an existing Memorandum of Understanding with the BLM regarding the sharing of data gathered from our continuing monitoring of the herd. We have also provided volunteer assistance to the BLM with other projects, and we will continue to do so. This relationship is important to our organization as we feel it is beneficial for the wild horses.
Q. Was your staff also involved with the gather operations? If so, what were their roles?
A. During the gather, my father and I were there. He was there to help me out, especially with tasks like photographing gather operations while I was busy with helping out elsewhere.
Q. Has there been negativity by the public and/or by your peers due to your involvement with the BLM, not only during this gather but as a whole?
A. Prior to the gather, it was rare for us to receive any of these types of communication. Prior to and during the gather, the vast majority of communications we received were positive and supportive of our work, but there seems to be this persistent misconception that the PMWMC is this all-powerful force so yeah, we’ve received a fair amount of negative (and sometimes very vulgar) communications from those who did not understand what our purpose during the gather was. It’s interesting to read what people write about me; they may be writing negatively about me, but they are certainly giving me a lot of credit for being as powerful and influential as they think I am!
Q. How does this affect you and the PMWMC staff?
A. This obviously didn’t make me feel too great in certain cases where people seemed more concerned with attacking me personally than they were with the PMWMC or what we do. At this time, we believe that we can be more effective if we strive to work in collaboration with the BLM. This has caused some people to adversely react and make negative comments towards me and the Mustang Center.
Q. What is your reasoning for continuing to collaborate with the BLM despite the negativity?
A. In all of these years, we’ve had to deal with controversy of this nature in one way or another; this isn’t anything new. The roots of the PMWMC run deep and as far as we’re concerned as a whole, this only strengthens our goal of providing education on the issues surrounding the Pryor herd and the ways in which we work to assist them. The organization started out with a commitment to work towards preservation of this herd. We certainly remain determined to continue our involvement with the Pryor Mountain Wild Horses. This is just part of being involved in a capacity like this. We will stay the course and continue the work we’ve been doing for so long.
Q. What was your experience regarding the weather during this gather?
A. Late August and early September can be really hot here, and there were some times there when it was very hot. There were even a few times when we were all crowded around the squeeze chute panel as it was the only source of shade for us. The horses down at Britton Springs obviously didn’t have any real shade either, though they did have a continual supply of water.
Q. What affect do you feel the weather had on the mustangs who were gathered?
A. The Pryor horses are hardy and well adapted to the extreme range of temperatures we can have in the northern basin. Obviously, some of the horses were breathing a little hard and were a little sweaty after they were pushed to Britton Springs. In the short-term holding areas of Britton Springs, it was also hot and without shade; this likely wasn’t overly pleasant for the mountain horses. I remember being at home in the evenings and being thankful on that the weather was a little cooler.
Q. When yours and your father’s opinions were given, were they respected by BLM personnel and officials during this gather?
A. Yes. However, though we maintain a good working relationship with the BLM, we may not always agree with each other. Fortunately, our two groups are still able to express these concerns in a civil manner.
Q. What was the general attitude of the BLM personnel and officials with you personally and with your father?
A. The BLM was very friendly with us during the gather. I met a lot of people from the BLM who are well known amongst the people of the wild horse world. In the case of some of these people, the only things I knew about them were bits of negativity I’d heard in the past. I always take this type of information I hear lightly, but it did of course make it so that I had a neutral or slightly negative attitude of these people when I first met them. By the end, though, I had generally positive experiences with the BLM people there.
Q. Did you feel as though the BLM was unclear throughout this gather as to what the gather plan would be from day to day despite the release of an Environmental Assessment document?
A. There was really only one area that we were confused with in the end: We thought that the plan was to set up temporary trap sites on top of the mountain where the horses would be caught and then transported down the mountain like what happened with the Forest Service horses. We liked this idea a lot as it would eliminate the need to push the horses all the way from the top of the mountain to Britton Springs. However, this obviously didn’t occur and this was certainly disappointing.
Q. Tell us about your thoughts regarding the incidents involving horses during this gather.
A. Prior to the gather, I was told to report anything I was concerned with to one of the BLM officials present. Most of what I reported dealt more with the infrastructure at Britton Springs than with actual people. Our culture seems highly interested in focusing on the negative and exciting aspects of events, but rarely are the positive, yet less newsworthy, stories reported on. I tried to describe these positive stories on my blog, and people accused me of lying about them.
During this gather, there was just so much focus on what might be going wrong and not enough on what was going right. I think a lot of people showed up with their attentions tuned toward the bad. If you look for bad that hard, you’re bound to find all sorts of bad. But it wasn’t all bad here; it could have gone a lot worst.
Q. What about the incidents that occurred involving the BLM personnel and their methods of handling the horses?
A. I know some of the incidents people have described with the BLM being cruel to the horses and I don’t think these were as big of deal as some people made them out to be. I think at times both sides were maybe getting a little antagonistic to each other, and this was obviously not in the best interest of the horses. Still, I never saw anything that I took as intentional cruelty. People weren’t in there with me to see how the BLM and the contractor were working to keep the horses safe. I don’t want to mention any names, but I was really impressed with how much care some of these people had for the horses.
Q. Where there times during these incidents when you were afraid for the horse’s safety?
A. It just scared me so bad when the horses were trying to climb out of the squeeze chute, and two colts did succeed but there were others who tried. That morning when those young males tried to climb out the top of that chute was very scary. I still can visualize that; I remember turning in fear and frustration and asking if something could be done to prevent it. From there on, people were there to discourage the horses from trying to climb out. The next morning the snow fence was put up.
It was also scary when the horses would stick their heads through the gaps in the bars and then move back because I was worried one would break a neck. This issue was also taken care of with the snow fence. I sure do hope that Britton Springs gets some upgrades before it is ever used for any gather, big or small.
Q. Do you have firsthand knowledge of the injuries/illnesses of the mustangs known as:
A. With Rain, who we call Hurricane, she was in a pen with her harem (White Cloud’s). She was showing some possible signs of getting colicky in the afternoon when we were all getting ready to leave for the day. The veterinarian had just left, and they called him to come back to look at her as I was leaving. The next day I was told that he had come and that she was treated and carefully observed through the night. That next morning she was obviously recovering well.
The one month old foal lamed
A. There’s been some confusion over the particular foal brought up in these discussions. Duke and Madonna’s filly and their harem were kept at Britton Springs until September 22nd to allow for the foal to be fully rested before the harem was returned to the range. This foal was born during the week of July 19th. I believe that the foal received some treatment by the veterinarian early on and then was just allowed to rest until it was determined that the foal was recovered enough to release.
The foal you have brought up (200932) was removed with his mother (Huachuca). I found him on the mountain on July 2nd. He had been born late the previous day or early on the 2nd. He was a surprise to us as his mother is only two years old. I was actually on the way down to Baja’s harem to see Graciana’s new foal (200931, the black with the interesting blaze) when I discovered him; this black colt was born the week before the bay colt was born.
A. One thing I wish I could have shown everyone was the look on one of the cowboy’s faces when Brumby was tying up. It was anything but the face of someone set on being cruel to horses. When Jackson’s harem was brought in (Brumby is in this harem), I was down hidden near the trap to identify the horses as they came in. When their harem was contained, I and some BLM officials walked down to the trap to make observations on them. The contractor whispered to us to stop and not come any closer when we were a distance away. They came and explained to us that Brumby looked like she had tied up and that they didn’t want our added presence to give her any additional stress. They also had the veterinarian be alerted to this situation. Brumby was soon after put through the chutes so that she could be treated. Following this, the veterinarian kept a close eye on her to make sure that she was recovering well.
Q. They ran Brumby through the chutes after they suspected her of tying up? Wouldn’t that be the last thing to do considering the amount of stress that would add?
A. Brumby was brought through the chutes so that she could be treated with Banamine. Obviously, because she was already stressed, it was a challenge for the veterinarian to treat her in those noisy chutes without causing her further stress. She was brought in and treated pretty fast. Once she was treated, she was released back to her harem. They were in the holding pen closest to the chutes.
Q. Do you have firsthand knowledge of any other mustangs with injuries or illnesses brought in during this gather?
A. I was going to see the Dryhead horses in the afternoons during the gather, looking to see how they were all doing, and I was also focusing a lot of attention on locating Seattle’s mare Beauty who hadn’t come in with the harem. I didn’t see any significant signs of injury in the Dryhead horses. I talked to people working in the park that said they wouldn’t have known those horses had even been gathered except for the blue paint. I was back on the mountain my first time two days after the gather had stopped to make observations on those horses. Of course some of the horses were tender on their hooves. As I continued my trips up there following this, I was noticing that the horses were recovering well. This isn’t that much of a surprise to me given the natural injuries we’ve seen the horses recover from in the past. The last time I was on the mountain there were only a few horses that hadn’t fully recovered. I think that they will all be okay in the end though.
Q. What was your estimation of the BLM veterinarians treating these mustangs?
A. I think that the veterinarians treated the horses quite well really. The BLM had brought in a veterinarian from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) that was always present. A local veterinarian was brought in to provide the pre-adoption treatments and the like. I was right there in the chute area so I was able to see any small scrapes or cuts that weren’t as visible from the distance most people were viewing the gather from. Even these minor injuries were given attention by the veterinarians. Some were treated while they felt others didn’t need any treatment.
Q. Do you feel the methods of treatment by the BLM veterinarians to these mustangs was sufficient?
A. The optimal situation with the gather would be to return horses to the range so that they were in similar physical condition as they were prior to being gathered. Obviously, it is difficult to achieve this goal with a helicopter gather given the geography of the Pryors. Given the physical condition some of the horses were in due to the gather, I think that the veterinarians did their best to provide treatments to the horses that would lead to them recovering and being back in their original condition. So in this regard, I think that the veterinarians gave the horses appropriate treatment for their return to the range.
We also have to give the horses some credit here. The Pryor horses are very hardy due to their breed background and also due to the fact that they grew up in the rugged area they did. Thus, they will have a natural tendency toward quick recovery; having anything less isn’t optimal for their survival in the wild. We can’t ignore the fact that these are horses that have lived without a veterinarian in attendance since the day they were born. This isn’t a fact that should be relied upon when thinking about pushing the horses too hard or anything like this; it is just a point to demonstrate that these horses aren’t as fragile as some modern domestic breeds may be. Thus, it may be appropriate to also view the horses’ injuries and resulting treatments from this perspective.
Q. As a whole, do you personally agree with the progression of events that occurred during the recent Pryor Range gather? Specifically, do you agree with the number of mustangs that were released, the number that are to be removed, and the bands that they came from?
A. No, I don’t personally agree with all of the ways in which the gather unfolded. I feel that this gather was influenced by a series of events that have unfolded over many years. I believe that this gather was a fast response to past mismanagement that occurred in the herd. I won’t try to place blame on who was responsible for this mismanagement, but I think it is clear that this extreme of a gather could have been prevented. Because this took years to unfold, I feel that it should have been resolved over years as well.
Q. Can you give us an example of this?
A. A prime example of this is with the forest service horses. Our organization was firmly against removing the entire bands of these horses. We had been watching these horses move further and further out of the range for several years. We had become increasingly concerned because they were not returning to the range even in the winter months. Management decisions from the BLM in past years could have served as a proactive catalyst to move the horses back onto the range and thus prevented this year’s actions.
Q. Had you made your concerns known to the BLM?
A. We consistently expressed our opinions to the BLM concerning management issues. We were supportive of a series of small gathers that were going along in conjunction with a well-designed fertility control program and I saw this as a time of transition between gathers/removals and fertility control. I had identified about 30 individuals, ages one through three, that I felt could be removed without causing significant damage to the herd’s bloodlines. We’re the only people who track the bloodlines to such a high degree, and this is something I think should be a primary consideration during the selection process.
Q. And what was the outcome?
A. Obviously, there were more than 30 horses removed. These horses didn’t only come from the one through three year old cohorts. The planned end result would have caused some bloodlines to just go extinct. I’m not talking about a mare not having any offspring on the range but rather a mare born a long time ago having no descendants as the result of the planned removals. This was a consequence of the proposed removal of all of the Forest Service horses.
Fortunately, not all of those horses were gathered and so there still remains a bare-bones representation of these genetics on the mountain. This is something that should be known about gathers, there is obviously some possible error in gathering.
Q. What happens if the horses slated for removal can’t be caught?
A. This happened during this gather. Some of the horses that were supposed to be removed weren’t gathered while others who weren’t supposed to be removed were gathered. Thus, substitutions were made. As far as genetic representation goes, the result wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the most desirable.
Q. How did all of this affect your personal outlook of the gathers?
A. I’ve basically been preparing myself for this gather since last year when the proposed 2008 gather didn’t happen. I figured that with that one not happening, a bigger one would be happening in 2009. Given the political momentum that had developed with this herd, I also figured that it would be near-impossible to stop the gather. Accepting this reality, I was committed to two purposes.
Q. The first?
A. To try to closely monitor this year’s gather. Because of the futility to try to completely stop the removal, we worked from the standpoint of small victories. I brought my knowledge of the horses directly to the BLM and worked diligently to try to ensure that the horses being removed would not cause irreparable harm to the herd genetics. Throughout the gather, I directed the captured horses to be placed within their family units before being released. As we began seeing adverse affects from the long run down the mountain, I expressed my concerns directly to the BLM which possibly contributed to the stop to the gather before the intended removal number was achieved.
Q. And the second?
A. To figure out what could be done to prevent this from happening again. This is why I moved so fast on the fertility control ideas. This probably sounds like a defeatist attitude, but I figured it was more of a realistic attitude. I keep my eyes set on 2012. By then, a well-designed fertility control program can be implemented and properly functioning. This will eliminate the need for any of these bigger gathers again. There may be a need for some infrequent, small gathers in the future; but we will work diligently to prevent a big gather like this one to ever happen again.
Q. Why do you support the use of PZP?
A. Asking me to explain why I like PZP is a really big question. But I’ll try and summarize. To start with, I like PZP because it is a safe and reliable alternative to removing horses. I prefer an alternative to removals due to the fact that the act itself of removing a horse from the wild can and does lead to a number of undesirable humane, genetic, and economic consequences. You’ll often hear three general reasons given for the benefits of PZP: it’s humane, it’s good for genetics, and it’s cheap.
Q. And your standpoint on its use in the Pryors?
A. I like the idea of field darting in the Pryors because I think that this is a perfect population for it to happen in. Unlike many western herds, we know a lot about the Pryor horses. With all of this information and the possibility to identify the horses on an individual basis, PZP can be administered very strategically. I think that kinship should be the biggest factor in determining which females are treated, and this is very much possible here given what we know about the herd’s genealogy.
Q. Can you address specifically the above referenced points as they relate to the Pryors?
A. PZP is acting to control the herd’s population. By doing this, it is eliminating the need for other horses to be gathered and removed; there are definitely well-founded humane concerns with gathers and removals.
From the perspective of a fertility control program that uses the one-year dose delivered via field darts. PZP is humane because the females are treated where they stand. They aren’t chased, put through a squeeze chute; they are standing there, they get hit by a dart, and then they get to go back to whatever it was they had been doing.
Q. And it’s affect on the Pryor herd’s genetics?
A. PZP can be good for the genetics of the herd. This is one of the biggest areas of concern for small populations of wild horses. There were lots of horses removed in this gather that have no descendants on the range at all. They may have close relatives, but no descendants. With a good fertility control program, everyone gets to reproduce. Bloodlines aren’t artificially made too large or too small due to removals; instead, everyone gets the opportunity to contribute to the herd’s gene pool.
Q. And the cost?
A. PZP is cheap. It is no secret that gather operations are very costly. The vaccine and materials needed to treat a female for one year cost about $25. I haven’t heard any final figures for the cost of the gather this year, but in previous years it has cost thousands of dollars per horse removed. This doesn’t include the costs that result from horses going to long-term holding either, obviously a situation PZP would help to alleviate.
Q. One year vs. two year dosages?
A. Above, I was talking about one-year doses of PZP delivered via field darts. The alternative to this is a 22 month dose of PZP that is in the form of a small, time release pellet. This is what the 39 mares treated during this gather received. With the field darts, the technology and knowledge exist to have a successful program.
Q. How about the logistics of it?
A. Anyone who has visited the Pryors probably realizes that it wouldn’t be too difficult to dart the horses due to their docile nature. Now I am not totally against the 22 month pellets; I just don’t think they should be used in the Pryors. These pellets are more expensive than the one-year doses, and at this time they also require the horses to be gathered to be treated. Certainly there are other herds that I feel would benefit from the pellets. I just think that it is smart to use field darts whenever possible, and they are most definitely capable of being used in the Pryors.
Q. Why not leave the horses alone to self-manage?
A. I don’t think that anyone working with the herd right now is against this. However, the realities of today must be taken into consideration when thinking about the practicality of a natural management scenario. As a researcher once told me, natural management may not be possible unless we go extinct. This isn’t anything exclusive to the Pryors.
The management of wildlife populations throughout the west really is necessary due to the extent to which we have affected natural systems. Thus, I see PZP as a possible means toward natural management. This capability for reversibility is something else I like about PZP as it is important for these smaller herds.
Q. Other than human management, or mismanagement, why hasn’t natural management worked so far?
A. Since 1976, there have been two relatively large natural events that have happened in the Pryors. There was the bad winter of 77-78 and then the “mountain lion” years of the early 2000’s. From this, I think we can see that natural events have the potential to be unpredictable and extreme. The horses obviously bounced back from the bad winter as there was no fertility control on them at that time.
However, fertility control was being used in the early 2000’s as the mountain lion years were starting. The BLM backed off on its application, and the horses were able to dramatically rebound. So we know that PZP can be used to manage a population. If the population starts to experience natural controls, we know that there can be a smooth transition between PZP and these controls. I see this as responsible management.
Q. How do you think the public views PZP?
A. An awful lot of misinformation has been spread on PZP. I had originally been skeptical of PZP. As I learned more about how it works and what it can be used for, I came to believe that it is one of the most ingenious things ever conceived of. To fully understand PZP, I feel that it is important to first understand how it works because understanding it clears up a lot of misconceptions about it. From there one can do research on areas where it is used and where it works. There’s obviously a lot of inaccurate and misleading information out there. However, there is also a lot of research on PZP out there that is either unknown to or is dismissed by the anti-PZP crowd.
Q. Your advice to the uninformed?
A. PZP has been well-studied and is used to safely and successfully manage the populations of many types of wildlife, including wild horses. I invite everyone to learn about PZP the way I did. Read the real, peer-reviewed research that exists on it. Learn about the pros and cons of PZP. With this information, think about whether the cons of PZP are worst than the cons of alternative management strategies, which basically means gathers and removals.
It is 2009; I think we must accept the biological, geographic, economic, and political realities of our time that have basically limited wild horse management in the west to either removals or fertility control. I agree with many others in saying that PZP is the best option for managing the Pryor horses, along with many other herds in the west. Remember, wildlife contraception, not just wild horse contraception, but wildlife contraception as a whole, was originally inspired by this very population of horses. Allen Rutberg recently said it quite well: “[PZP] works. It’s more of a political and regulatory fight than a technical issue.” Mr. Rutberg is a Tufts University Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental and Population Health.
Q. Last March, you performed some “little experiments” in the Pryor Mountain Range. Can you elaborate for us?
A. Well, I’m out on the range observing the horses year-round. Given my desire to see the horses treated in the spring, especially around March, I thought it’d be interesting to see if this was possible in the Pryors. People had said it isn’t possible, and that seemed off to me based on my memories of March observations. So I just sort of kept a tally on how many horses I could get close enough to treat during that month.
It turns out that if I was out with the goal of treating only a handful of females each trip, which is how you should do it, it wouldn’t be very hard at all to achieve a high success rate in treating the herd over the month of March. I also went back to my notebooks and photographs from March 2008 to see if I could have similar results, and I could have. Some would have been harder to access than others, but we are still only talking a maximum of maybe four or five miles to get to them. Given the alternative of horses being removed to putting some effort into darting, I think that this effort is well worth it.
Q. Did you report your purpose and findings to the BLM?
A. Well, I’ve had a few meetings in person and talked on the phone a lot with Jared [Bybee] and Jim [Sparks] of the BLM Billings, MT office about my ideas on how to restart a fertility control program in the Pryors. My last meeting was this spring when I gave them a more formal write-up of my ideas and my proposals. I’ve also brought it up with other managers and stakeholders, and it has mostly been well-received.
Q. What response did you receive?
A. I don’t think they were all that surprised about this. Remember, I maintain good communications with the Billings Field Office. Thus, they had heard bits and pieces of most of what I said in the end at one time or another. They did seem receptive to the ideas. This isn’t unprecedented; I got my ideas from other people doing similar projects.
Q. What is your estimation of their response?
A. I am very excited to think that there could be a time in the near future when a well-designed and well carried out fertility control program is in place here.
Q. The BLM made decisions regarding moving some mares to band stallions to which they were not connected to in the wild before they were released from the corrals. Can you explain why?
A. Its not uncommon for the BLM to relocate horses or create new harems. Basically, the situation we had was that there were some reproductive daughters still in their birth harems. Having the potential for a young female to be bred by her probable father is not desirable at all, hence, the relocation and/or creation of new harems.
One of the females was put with a younger stallion and his old mare. The other was put with a young bachelor. These two stallions were basically selected because they were gathered and because they were the least related to the two females out of the other possible stallions. Shortly after their release, both of the females ended up with the young stallion and his mare. The four of them are actually some of the easiest to see right now.
Q. What is your opinion of this and it’s affect on the individual band and overall herd dynamics?
A. I feel that to pay so much attention to maximizing genetic conservation while not doing something about those daughters would be highly irresponsible. I don’t think that this action will lead to any significant long-term effects on the harems these females came from given that they were being taken from their probable fathers.
I doubt that the stallion that has these two new females is too upset about the deal either. The stallion who didn’t end up with a new mare will hopefully take this as a learning experience and work to get a harem of his own started soon. We will just continue to monitor the situation to see how it unfolds.
Q. From your perspective, do you feel that this gather was necessary and justified?
A. I am not against management. If you take a population and force it to stay in an area, then management will have to occur in some capacity. In the case of the Pryors, the wild horses were fenced into a plot of land. That plot of land can only provide enough resources to support a finite amount of wild horses.
In a wholly natural system, if the area the horses were spending time in wasn’t as productive, they would likely move to another area. The historic range of the Pryor horses was significantly larger than it is today, and so the horses likely were able to self-manage to a certain extent. But when that fence was put up and the horses forced within it, a wholly natural system was lost. Because of this, again, I feel that management is needed today, whether it’s artificial or natural.
Q. Do you feel that there was justification for a large scale gather like this one?
A. I had some different ideas in mind on how this gather could have gone differently. The population of the herd was nearing 200 which is far above the AML. This justified it for the BLM. It’s understandable that they felt the need to reduce the population.
Q. Do you feel that a large scale gather like this was necessary?
A. We took every opportunity during this process to speak out against the large scale gather. We strongly believe that the same objectives could have been met through gradual, less invasive means of management.
Q. What is your “perfect scenario” regarding gathers and removals?
A. In a perfect scenario with gathers and removals, I’d envision that each and every member of the population be looked at individually so that it can be determined whether or not they would be a good candidate for removal.
Q. With what criteria?
A. To me, a good candidate for removal is a horse that is adoptable and can be removed without causing serious damage to whatever bloodline it is a part of. This individual’s removal should also not cause serious damage to the age-sex balance of the herd. Considerations on phenotype may also be appropriate. The goal of such a project would be to keep the “best” horses on the range as the future of the herd depends on these horses. I believe that all of this is entirely possible in the Pryors.
Q. From your viewpoint, what is the reality of the situation?
A. There were a bunch of full harems removed with unadoptable adults. Yes, the adults are all in great places now, but this is very rare among wild horses. While considerations on bloodline conservation were followed, some of the horses scheduled for removal weren’t gathered and others went in their place.
If you start out with a really comprehensive, fact-based list of horses scheduled for removal, it can start to fall apart if you can’t catch certain horses or if you have to meet a quota or anything like that.
I’m sorry, but gathers and removals are not an exact science. There is a lot of uncertainty involved in the current approach. When dealing with small populations like the Pryors, I think that a maximum level of certainty is required. This is all further information I would use in support of fertility control in the Pryors.
Q. What are your thoughts about the horses removed?
A. I think that the horses removed in the Pryors weren’t the best choices but it could have been a lot worse if some of the horses intended for removal had been captured. This is just what happens due to the error that results from gathering. I would feel more confident if this level of strategy and planning was used with a fertility control program; there would likely be less error with such a program in the Pryors.
Q. What about the ages of the horses removed?
A. Typically, we’d only recommend that horses aged five and under be removed. Since there is only one five year old on the range and a handful of four year olds, we kept our recommendations to horses three and under. We are concerned with the ages of horses removed only because we feel they are more adoptable.
Q. How do you feel about the genetics of those removed?
A. On the kinship side of things, we would be off a lot worse if every Forest Service horse had been removed. With our kinship concerns, we typically keep a close eye on horses who are the only offspring of a particular horse. With these Forest Service horses, we will be keeping an eye on horses who are possibly the sole representatives of entire bloodlines.
It is highly important that these Forest Service horses not be removed and that they are allowed to be a part of the herd. There are some younger horses that will not have any offspring on the range as a result of this gather, but I am confident that these horses will reproduce again due to their age.
Q. What is your stance on how the PZP was administered among this herd?
A. Well, its funny how it’s come to the point where we can be picky about what type of PZP was administered. I know of people who observe and monitor other herds who would just love to have PZP of any kind used there. Here we get the opportunity to complain that we wanted the other kind used instead. But like I said above, I do prefer the one-year vaccine delivered via field darts. As far as the pellets being administered during this gather, I think that the BLM did a pretty good job.
Q. You’ve been putting together a genealogy project of sorts on the Pryor herd. Can you elaborate on its purpose and focus?
A. It all started out as a hobby with my family. We just thought it was fun to see which horses were related to each other. It also helped us to learn the horses on an individual level. We weren’t doing it for the whole herd, just some of the horses. Then the 2006 gather came, and we realized that if this one particular horse was removed as the BLM intended, the result would be making a very small bloodline even smaller. This made us wonder if anything else like this would happen from the gather. As we built up the database, we realized there were some individuals who shouldn’t be removed and we were successful in getting some of the horses left on the range after we shared our results with the BLM.
Q. How does it work?
A. First, let me say that we focus on mothers and their offspring. There is a lot of uncertainty on the fathers of some of the horses. We also focus on the mothers as they only get one chance at most to reproduce per year while stallions can have multiple opportunities to reproduce. We do try to keep track of the stallions’ descendants as much as possible though.
Q. How will the genealogy project help the Pryor horses in the long run?
A. There are a number of people out there who try to maintain the breed by only breeding their Pryor horses with other Pryor horses. I am hoping that I can soon expand the project to include these captivity-bred Pryor horses. We can’t underestimate the potential importance of a captive breeding program. The founder populations for many endangered species were animals that were kept in captivity.
To put it in perspective with this discussion, today’s Przewalski’s horses were descended from something like 12 Przewalski’s horses and a domestic horse. If some of these horses hadn’t been conserved in captivity that population of horses would likely be extinct. We take much of our inspiration and many of our lessons from projects like this. Fortunately, the Pryor horses have many friends who are experts in these fields that can guide us in conserving this population for as long as possible.
Q. How has the project turned out so far?
A. The original database we had went back to the horses in 1994 or so. We had documentation on the horses back to 1990, but we didn’t know what to do with these records as they were difficult to interpret. However, it was sufficient to demonstrate our concerns. What we found was that there were certain lines that were huge and there were other lines that were very small. In between we found some lines that were well represented.
Q. How does all of this relate to the BLM’s management decisions regarding the genetics of the herds?
A. The frustrating conclusion we made was that many of the really big lines and really small lines were allowed to get that way due to management decisions. Certain horses from popular lines were left on the range while others from lesser known lines were removed. Certainly there were some lines that we felt had gotten too small or had gone extinct because they weren’t strong. That’s fine. But making lines too big or too small based on favoritism isn’t acceptable. These are the lines we try to have attention focused on.
Q. There was a “historical discovery” of sorts this past winter. Tell us about it.
A. The BLM found the Lynne Taylor notebooks, which were like the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Pryors. We all knew much about these notebooks, but we thought they’d been thrown away at some point. I was able to borrow these notebooks and match them up with our pre-1994 records. From this, I was able to produce a database of the Pryor horses from 1976 to present times. Well over 90% of the horses that ever lived on the range since 1976 are associated with a bloodline. That means for over 90% of the horses that ever lived on the range since 1976, I can tell you who their parents are.
As would be expected, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference in some of the lines whether you were looking at the 1994 database of the 1976 database. However, we did find some surprises.
Q. Such as?
A. It turns out that two of the biggest lines we track end up getting connected; they have a common ancestor. It also turns out that a small group of particular horses who were thought to have no ancestors on the range actually do. This finding has obvious significance to us. There have been some other interesting observations we’ve made from this project. We are able to determine things like age-sex balance and color representation over time now.
Q. So your overall assessment of the genealogy project?
A. All in all, I think that this project has been very important and it will continue to be as we continue to update our records into the future. I want to really iterate that I’ve only made a very small contribution to the database compared to people like Lynne Taylor, Gene Nunn, Reverend Schwieger, Hope Ryden, Dr. Phil Sponenberg, all of those BLM interns that worked here, and others who were following the horses. These people gathered most of the data. My mother did a lot of the work on our original database; I have done the work on the pre-1994 data. I encourage anyone working with small herds to try and do this in those areas too. I just feel that this is very important to the genetic conservation of small wild horse herds, and there are a lot of small wild horse herds out there.
Q. What is your understanding of the Pryor herd’s genetic significance?
A. When the herd had genetic analyses done starting in the early 90’s, it was noticed that the population is carrying certain genetic traits that are rare and most often associated with Spanish horses. You’ll often hear markers like Qac and Pi-W brought up in these conversations. These markers don’t really have any biological function, but they do give us clues as to the horse’s possible origins. This, combined with the herd’s phenotype and its history, makes it pretty clear that the Pryor horses are primarily descended from the Colonial Spanish horse. To me, this makes it clear that the Pryor horses are a cultural and genetic resource that are well worth attention and preservation.
Q. What of the genetic viability?
A. At this time, we do not think that the herd has too high of levels of inbreeding. This assumption is based on analyses done on the herd in previous years. Samples were taken on horses during this gather as well, and these will be analyzed to determine what the herd’s present level of inbreeding is. Other analyses can also be done on these samples to determine other aspects of the herd’s genetics at this time.
Q. Now that the gather and the adoption have come to an end, are you satisfied with the outcomes for the horses removed?
A. Well, things have ended up working out just fine as all of the horses found homes. This isn’t that big of a surprise to us given the interest people have in this population. We applaud the efforts of the Cloud Foundation to help place not only the older horses, but several of the younger ones as well. We also applaud all who came here so that a horse or some horses could get a good home with them.
Q. The interest and spotlight that this gather generated contributed greatly to the success of this adoption, but what of the other herd adoptions across the nation?
A. The success of the adoption was obviously atypical given that many adoptions have very low adoption success rates. This is the area of concern for me. For example, with the Fifteenmile horses, which are south of here, there aren’t many people you’d meet who are just on the edge of their seat to adopt a horse from this relatively unknown herd.
The Pryor horses are fine as there’s plenty of demand for them. With these other herds, there needs to be some proactive efforts made to either get the population under control with fertility control, figure out a way to maximize their adoption success rate, or have some combination of both. They are wild horses just the same as the Pryor horses, they just don’t benefit from popularity like the Pryor horses do.
Q. In the overall scheme of things, what would you like to see happen in regards to any further gathers performed by the BLM?
A. The optimal future would likely be that no further gathers ever occur. This would be less costly and have less of an impact on the herd. But the reality is that there may need to be future gathers. I won’t even be surprised to see another gather in the Pryors in a couple years. The difference with these future gathers should be, though, that they be small. I’m thinking maybe every three to five years, the BLM removes around 20 adoptable horses. This isn’t a terrible outcome relative to future gathers like this one happening again. Whether or not this happens depends on PZP being properly used here or if any type of natural management occurs.
Q. What would you like to see happen with the administration of PZP in the Pryors?
A. I would love to see the Pryors become the Assateague Island of the west. I think that this is an entirely realistic goal. I’d like to see the strategic use of the one-year doses so that no gathering has to occur.
Q. What do you mean by strategic?
A. First off, I’d like to see treatments happen in March of each year. I’d like to see treatment recipients be selected largely on kinship. I’d like to see continual monitoring of treated horses so that any possible problems can be quickly addressed. There are many other points I’d also like to see addressed. The management plan I envision would obviously be quite comprehensive.
I would also like to be able to help out with the administration of PZP as much as possible. I think that the people who are best suited to be strategic in administering the PZP are those who are most familiar with the horses on an individual level. Not to sound arrogant, but this obviously would mean me in the Pryors.
Q. And elsewhere?
A. In other herds I’d love to see the same thing happen. I’d love to see these locals work with the BLM in ensuring that treatment is as successful as possible. I envision a time when there are small groups of people who are the local experts on their herds at an individual level. These people work hand and hand with the BLM in working with the horses. This is a win-win situation for the horses, stakeholders, and everyone else.
I am a very big supporter of local involvement with conservation projects, and I think that the potential for successful citizen science if often downplayed.
The idea of people working with the BLM to administer PZP is one that I’ve learned about and fallen in love with. There seems to be this disconnect between wild horse groups and the BLM in certain areas. Sometimes it feels like I am back in middle school again with all of the drama. Let’s be realistic, if working with the BLM can benefit the horses, why not do it?
Q. What did you think of the “Mustangs On The Hill Campaign” and its widespread public involvement?
A. I really wish I could have been able to go out to the event. I’ve talked to some different people who went there, and it sounded interesting. Public involvement is important. It is very important for the public to receive fact-based information so that they are able to make their own decisions on how things should go. This is what being American is about, right? Well, this process is obviously not happening a whole lot with wild horses and only the horses will be affected in the end.
Q. How do you feel about The Cloud Foundation’s executive director, Ginger Kathrens, and her personal standpoint towards the BLM?
A. Ginger has done a wonderful job of showing the public the world of wild horses. She obviously has a much larger audience than I do given the popularity of the Cloud movies. She comes at all this from a different angle than I do, but this is to be expected given our different backgrounds. While we do have our differences, we also have much in common. I think we probably have a lot more in common than we disagree on.
People like to focus on differences, though; and this was further exacerbated during this gather with all of the emotions involved. Passion has caused regrettable things to be said. At the end of the day, though, we do agree on most of the fundamental issues concerning the management of wild horse populations.
Q. What is your perception of The Cloud Foundation’s standpoint towards the BLM?
A. Obviously, TCF has a little different approach to working for the horses than we do. We just are not big fans of litigation as we would much rather sit down face to face with managers and stakeholders to find common ground. I think I understand why TCF goes to the courts and I think both of our strategies could ultimately lead to the same general result.
Q. Do you feel that as a result of the legal actions against the BLM by The Cloud Foundation, there have been negative actions towards the Pryor Range herds?
A. TCF isn’t the only group that has taken legal action against the BLM over the Pryor horses, but they obviously are a significant member of this group. Whenever legal action occurs, there is the great potential that unintended consequences can occur. I do think that some possibly well-intentioned litigation has resulted in some undesirable consequences. Like everything else, this isn’t exclusive to the Pryor horses or to wild horses; you hear about this happening with all sorts of conservation-related litigation. This is partly why our organization likes to focus on discussions and collaboration instead of legal action.
Q. Brad Devareaux of the Lovell Chronicle printed an article that has posed public speculation about the BLM’s position on this gather. Quote “Removing 70 horses will destroy this unique little Spanish herd, leaving them well below the bare minimum for genetic viability,” [Ginger Kathrens, Executive Director of The Cloud Foundation] said. “The range is in great condition and the horses are healthy. This removal should be stopped.” In response to Kathrens’ genetic viability argument, [Don Glenn, Chief of the Wild Horse and Burro Program in Washington, D.C.] said he agrees with the science behind the argument but said the BLM is mandated by law to manage for rangeland health, as well as other uses of the range. Though the range looks green in some places, Glen said much of the forage is either poisonous or lacks nutritional value.”
What is your understanding of this?
A. Well, with this we come back to the horribly cliché line that the BLM is managing for healthy horses on healthy rangelands. I actually think that this is a wonderful goal, but it seems sort of redundant as well. What else should the BLM be managing for? Unhealthy horses on subpar rangelands? But really, as far as the Pryors go, this has become a big deal.
A. Rangeland health is a big deal for two reasons. For one, if there isn’t good forage available for the horses, then they won’t be as successful as they could be if more good forage was present. Second, and perhaps most importantly, I think that the 1971 Act is pretty clear in describing how rangeland health gets priority over the wild horses.
I actually agree with the BLM’s assessment of the range conditions in the Pryors. I don’t think that a lot of people who gotten the entire message from this assessment.
Q. In what way?
A. Basically, the BLM said that parts of the range are not looking so great while others are looking great. They described how if things continue in this manner, there is the potential for extreme rangeland degradation which will also have an effect on the herd. They never describe an immediate emergency; they describe how they are trying to prevent one from occurring.
Q. And their solution?
A. They have proposed strategies of encouraging the horses to better use these great looking areas so that the overgrazed areas can get some rest. They have also proposed other range improvement projects to get the PMWHR up to its maximum potential for the horses.
Q. Speaking specifically of Don Glenn, do you agree or disagree with his comments in response to Ginger Kathrens’ statements?
A. He’s right. A lot of the vegetation in those upper elevation meadows may look lush and green, but a lot of that vegetation is also totally useless to the horses compared to the vegetation that exists elsewhere on the range. The range needs to be taken care of here. Like many areas of the west, it experienced severe historic overgrazing. This, combined with the range’s soil conditions, precipitation patterns, and geography make it fragile.
The PMWHR is not on prime real estate. I mean really, is it any coincidence that the wild horse range covers this particular landscape? Probablynot. But this is what was given to the horses, and I really think that it has the potential to support a good population of horses.
Q. How will this solution and its AML affect the genetic health of the horses?
A. This is tricky. We all see the number of 150 horses thrown around as the number needed for genetic viability. It’s easy to say that number, but I think a lot of people don’t understand where it comes from. The number isn’t totally arbitrary; there is some basis for it.
Q. How so?
A. This number describes a population whose size is about three times the size of its effective population. Thus, the thinking is that if you have 150 horses, hopefully there are at least 50 horses in the effective population. It is the effective population that is important to the herd’s overall genetic success and these are the horses actually contributing to the gene pool.
In summation, if you have a herd with 150 members but they are closely related, then you actually have a fairly small effective population. Thus, this is more than a numbers game. It also depends on the individuals making up that population. Researchers believe that having an effective population size of at least 50 is necessary for that population to retain reproductive fitness basically meaning that the population is healthy enough to reproduce successfully.
It is the minimum, though, so it isn’t the optimal situation. This is why increasing the population size is good for the population. By increasing the population size you are likely to also increase the effective population size.
Q. Will the population in the Pryors be doomed now that it is at the size it is? How about if the BLM did manage to get it down to 120, which is what they would like?
A. I just don’t think this will be true. There was a really good article in the Billings Gazette after the gather where the writer interviewed Dr. Gus Cothran of Texas A&M University who most wild horse people turn to for answers. The article basically explains that this gather isn’t going to be the death of this herd. In some personal correspondence with him, I have had similar conclusion.
Q. Rick Swan, Associate Publisher of Horse and Rider Magazine, posed the following question: “What of the number of domestic horses being released on the range and mixing with the wild herds?” His reasoning was that “due to the economic struggles and the closure of the slaughter plants, citizens are releasing their domestic horses into the wild when they are no longer able to afford feed”. Do you have any knowledge of this occurring in the Pryors and thereby affecting the genetic pool?
A. This depends on the time frame we are talking about. I can’t say a whole lot about this going on prior to 1976, but from locals I have gathered that it has definitely happened. But there wasn’t that much mixing going on with the Pryor horses. After 1976, I do know specifically about horses that were released on the range. This was done by the BLM. It’s sort of the skeleton in the closet here in the Pryors.
As far as horses recently released by people who may be wanting to get rid of a horse, it last happened in late June of 2007. This poor old gelding appeared on the range. Let me use this horse to illustrate why putting a domestic horse onto a wild horse area is a terrible idea.
For starters, this horse didn’t really know what to do to survive in the wild. Locals tell me that the life expectancy on horses turned into the Pryors back in the day was often less than one year. This is one reason they weren’t too successful in mixing with the wild ones. Once this old gelding did realize where he could water, he wasn’t allowed to drink. The wild stallions were not tolerant of him being around in their space. He was beat up multiple times before the BLM finally removed him.
This is the other reason why the past horses turned out in the Pryors didn’t mix too well; the wild ones didn’t have much to do with them. This year, I was actually anticipating that I’d find some new additions to the herd. However, it just hasn’t happened here. I have, though, heard of some other wild horse areas where horses have been turned out.
In summary, Matt says the following:
I am part of a group of people that were fighting for the Pryor horses about 20 years before I was even born. Local involvement has been integral to this herd’s survival. This is why our organization was created. We are the result of what started out as a group of concerned citizens fighting for the herd. The work of this organization and other groups and individuals from around the world will continue to work for the long-term survival of the Pryor horses.
However, there are a lot of other small, yet little known populations of wild horses out there that are far worse off than the Pryor horses. I believe it is local advocacy that can make a difference for these herds as it has for the Pryor herd.
I am always encouraged when I hear from people around those herds who are getting involved. You don’t need to be a scientist to help the wild horses you care about, but it is important to understand the science behind wild horse management. Here in the Pryors things started locally with a couple cowboys, some local politicians, and a Lutheran minister. Look at all the good these individuals did, not just for the Pryor horses but for all of the wild horses of the west.
There continues to be a need for local advocacy today as there was in the past. Wild horse management as a whole needs a boost. We feel that the Pryor horses can once again provide the inspiration for change. All of what our organization does may be centered on this herd, but we also hope that our actions can be adopted and modified to suit the needs of other similar local organizations dealing with other herds.
Well put Matt!
© 2009 Tracie Lynn Thompson. All rights reserved.