And can any wild horse management plan, including just letting the horses go, ever be done without helicopters?
RENO, Nevada––The deaths of 11 wild horses in the first 10 days of a Bureau of Land Management roundup of 2,000 wild horses from the Antelope Valley, Goshute and Spruce-Pequop herd management areas in Nevada has revived a long-running dispute over the use of helicopters by BLM roundup contractors.
Though intertwined with other wild horse issues, helicopter use is essentially a separate issue, because helicopters have been part of all horse management strategies for 70 years.
No scenario without choppers
Whether wild horses are gathered for contraception, for slaughter, for removal from the range to be kept in holding pens, as is the present practice, moved into forested areas to consume potentially flammable understory, as horse advocates William Simpson and Craig Downer recommend, or are simply left alone but monitored, helicopter use will almost certainly be necessary.
Helicopters have been part of the wild horse scenario since 1953, when the Walla Walla Union Bulletin reported that the Yakima Nation had hired a helicopter to help round up 7,000 horses from the Horse Heaven Hills near Kennewick, who were sold to slaughter.
The use of the helicopter enabled the Yakima Nation to accomplish in a few weeks what formerly took mounted tribal cowboys several months.
Gruesome scene near Elko
But chasing horses by helicopter for any purpose has never been pretty, and has been especially ugly lately near Elko, Nevada.
“The 11 deaths so far include five young foals, four horses with broken necks, and a stallion with a snapped rear leg who was chased by both a helicopter and horseback rider as he tried to flee on three legs for 35 minutes before he was euthanized, according to witnesses,” reported Scott Sonner of Associated Press, the senior reporter on the wild horse beat.
Bad morning for Mr. Sunshine
“The horse that broke the leg jumping over a trap fence,” Sonner elaborated, “was a lead Palomino stallion called Mr. Sunshine by those who had watched him roam wild over the years,” including Laura Leigh, founder of the Nevada-based nonprofit organization Wild Horse Education.
“Leigh, who has been fighting roundups in court for more than a decade and advocates ending them altogether, said the contracted wranglers were trying to pressure the mustangs into the temporary trap corral when the horse leaped out and broke the leg,” Sonner explained.
“Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program”
Sonner recalled that, “Leigh and others sued after the death of several horses during a roundup a decade ago,” actually 13 years ago, “and the Bureau of Land Management adopted a Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program in 2015 that among other things prohibits helicopters from making contact with the mustangs.
“But the agency has resisted efforts to stop using helicopters, saying they’re necessary to access remote herds,” Sonner summarized.
Leigh, she testified after equine contraception pioneer Jay Kirkpatrick died in 2015, “was one of the last people trained by Jay.
“I have seen tens of thousands”
“I have witnessed more wild horses removed from the range in the last six years than any other observer, public or government,” Leigh said then. “I have seen tens of thousands removed by helicopter roundup with my own eyes. Fertility control [PZP, developed by Kirkpatrick] has been used safely and successfully in wildlife populations of multiple species for decades.
“PZP,” Leigh said, “is the only approved vaccine that is reversible that does not interfere with hormonal cycles (behavior). It can be administered without capture or handling. It can stabilize, or reduce, population. It is simply an isolated animal protein, not a chemical or synthetic concoction,” with “no environmental risk,” which Leigh strongly endorsed after years of observation of both PZP use and of the alternatives.
That put Leigh in a different camp from the substantial cadre of wild horse advocates who advocate against any form of population control, and argue that the Bureau of Land Management should just leave wild horses alone––contrary to Congressional mandate as expressed in the 1971 Wild & Free Ranging Horse & Burro Protection Act––to repopulate the U.S. west as they might.
Conant Creek debacle
Leigh was scarcely the first critic of the use of helicopters to round up wild horses, but she was among the first to make a federal case of it.
The helicopter issue took off straight up after Steven Long of Horseback magazine in 2009 reported that 17 horses, including seven foals, died during a July 2009 helicopter roundup of 349 horses at Conant Creek, Wyoming.
“Besides the dead at Conant Creek,” Long found from Bureau of Land Management records, “two horses died at Muskrat Basin, and one died at Rock Creek Mountain.
Also, 11 horses died during a July 2009 gather at Challis, Idaho, where 366 wild horses were captured.
Hiding the body count
Pointing out discrepancies in Bureau of Land Management statements from various levels about the numbers of horses killed, Long continued that, “In 2008, 45% of the roundups resulted in at least one fatality, and 27 horses died” during a single roundup in Nevada.
Altogether, Bureau of Land Management roundups killed 126 horses in 2008, a small percentage of the total number of horses involved, but perhaps also an avoidable toll.
“According to a 2008 Government Accountability Office report,” mentioned Associated Press writer Martin Griffith, “the BLM has not regularly reported to the public how many horses are killed in the course of roundups.
“BLM officials have said 0.5 percent of horses die in roundups,” Griffith continued, but BLM spokesperson LoLynn Worley acknowledged to Griffith that “this figure only counts deaths at actual gather sites and not holding facilities,” where exhausted and injured horses die from delayed effects of having been chased by helicopters in extreme heat over rough terrain.
In Defense of Animals
In Defense of Animals took up the use of helicopters in roundups in January 2010.
Wrote Griffith, “An older mare euthanized by rifle, orphaning her young foal, and a six-month old foal who collapsed and died after a helicopter chase were among the first victims,” of a roundup at the Calico Mountains Complex in northwestern Nevada, according to In Defense of Animals, .
In addition to the fatalities,” Griffith recounted, “a stallion was injured as he fought capture by charging, and finally jumping, a six-foot fence and crashing through barbed wire to make an escape to freedom, forced to leave his ten-member family behind.
“Horse activists maintain a colt was run so hard and long during the roundup that the hoof walls of his two hind feet came off, leaving exposed bones and nerves. The colt was euthanized.”
“BLM helicopter stampedes violate federal requirements”
In Defense of Animals and other wild horse advocates “also contend a mare fell down in a trailer after being driven for miles on the range by helicopter and failed to receive any help on the four-hour drive” to a holding facility near Fallon, Nevada.
“The mare was still down on arrival in Fallon and died a short time later,” Griffith said
Responded the late Elliot Katz, the retired veterinarian who founded In Defense of Animals, “These latest tragic and unnecessary deaths document beyond doubt that the BLM helicopter stampedes violate federal requirements for humane and minimally-intrusive management of wild horses.”
At least 43 horses died before the two-month Calico Mountains Complex roundup ended, “with the number of spontaneous abortions [among pregnant mares rounded up by helicopter] “estimated to be around 30. Two live foals were born,” Griffith added.
Leigh filed her lawsuit in Reno in July 2010, also seeking “a temporary restraining order after seven horses herded by a helicopter died of dehydration and another broke his leg and was put down,” summarized Associated Press writer Sandra Chereb.
“Leigh, a writer, artist and coordinator for the Cloud Foundation,” Cherub said, “argued that the BLM violated its own policy not to conduct helicopter roundups until at least six weeks after peak foaling season ends.
Dehydration or water intoxication?
“Horse groups contend that would mean after mid-August,” Chereb explained. “But Tom Gorey, BLM spokesman in Washington, D.C., said most horses give birth from mid-April to mid-May, which would allow helicopter use after June 30.”
Leigh ultimately failed to win either the injunction or her case.
But more horses died during Nevada helicopter roundups just during the time her application for a restraining order was pending.
The Bureau of Land Management acknowledged that four horses “died or were put down
because of dehydration or water intoxication,” Chereb reported.
“Water intoxication,” Cherub said, “can cause colic, and brain swelling occurs
when dehydrated animals drink excessive quantities of water.”
This is not a condition often seen in nature.
“Save a horse, hire a cowboy”
All of that of course sounds very bad. Another dozen years of similar reports in February 2022 inspired Nevada Congressional Representative Dina Titus to introduce a federal bill called “The Wild Horse & Protection Act.”
While the bill has so far gone nowhere, the deaths of the 11 horses during the July 2023 Nevada roundup may give it new impetus.
Said Titus when presenting her bill to media, “Save a horse, hire a cowboy. The goal is to replace helicopters in the sky with people on the ground who can round up the horses.
“We have a lot of cowboys in Nevada. A lot of them are kind of unemployed because of modern technology. And no one knows how to round up a horse better than a cowboy.”
“Stress the wild horses as little as possible”
Titus cited a video she saw of a Pancake Complex wild horse gather near Ely, Nevada, in which “A helicopter ran down that little colt,” she said. “He had a broken leg and kept running because he was terrified. And in the end they just had to shoot him and put him down.”
Longtime wild horse advocate Anthony Marr has endorsed the intent of the Titus bill.
“I would prefer to stress the wild horses as little as possible,” Marr explained to ANIMALS 24-7 in 2018, “so accessing the wild horses on horseback, rather than using vehicles, much less helicopters, is the way to go.”
But would hiring cowboys to do round-ups from horseback really harm horses less than doing the roundups by helicopter?
Wild horses evolved to run from predators, not helicopters
This is far from clear.
On the one hand, wild horses evolved to run from predators such as wolves and pumas, whose speed and stamina are limited. Helicopters can and do chase wild horses farther, faster, longer, than any wild predator could, in more adverse weather.
On the other hand, a significant number of working horses would have to be ridden just as far, fast, and hard as a wild horse herd, over the same rough terrain, to complete a wild horse gather, with at least as much risk of exhaustion and injury as the wild horses.
The Cattoor Livestock Roundup Company
Most Bureau of Land Management helicopter roundups are conducted by the Cattoor Livestock Roundup Company, headed by Dave Cattoor, 81, who claims to have began rounding up wild horses at age 13, in 1955.
The Cattoor Livestock Roundup Company advertises that it has “been contracting wild horse roundups for the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and private individuals since 1975.”
Dave Cattoor on May 22, 1992 pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of illegal “Use of Aircraft to Capture Wild Horses.”
According to the Bureau of Land Management, “The incident occurred while his company was performing work on non-BLM lands for the Duckwater Indian Tribe in Nevada. Tribal members who were involved in the same legal case were later found innocent of all charges stemming from the incident. Cattoor has met and continues to meet all pertinent federal regulations, which include certifying that no company employees have been convicted of animal cruelty charges.”
“It’s the contract”
Retired firefighter and KBR Horse Rescue founder Willis Lamm in September 2009 offered ANIMALS 24-7 a rather different perspective on Cattoor and helicopter use in round-ups from those of most longtime wild horse advocates.
“Once,” Lamm emailed, “while observing a relatively safe and sane round-up in the Buck & Bald horse management area here in Nevada, I asked contractor Dave Cattoor why this particular
gather was going so smoothly when a month earlier a gather at the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge was embroiled in chaos.
“The answer Cattoor gave was simple: ‘It’s the contract.’
“They perform to the specs”
“Cattoor and others in his business are contractors,” Lamm explained. “They perform to the specifications set forth in the gather contracts that they accept. At Buck & Bald, the BLM wasn’t hellbent to bring in every horse. The horses were moved in slowly. Bands with young foals were left alone. Horses who showed lameness were left alone.
“Cattoor was not asked to bring in old horses and if some showed up in the corral, enough tail hair was cut so that the helicopter pilot could recognize them as being ‘releases’ after they were turned back onto the range.”
So maybe the answer is not to ban helicopters, but rather to amend the standard gather contract to ensure that helicopters are used as Lamm observed at Buck & Bald.