This post addresses only one of the many consequences of the Soda fire in southwestern Idaho. The endangered sage grouse have their own story to tell, as do thousands of beef cattle, reptiles, small mammals, and ranchers who lived in the path of destruction.
The wild horse herds of the Owyhee county sagebrush steppe are eloquent articulation of what just happened. Yesterday, on my way out to visit the scorched earth, I stopped at the BLM wild horse corrals south of town. The only life I saw were the first batches of skittish horses rescued from the burned land—about 96 horses separated into eight metal-ringed pens. Each pen contained water and fresh hay. I watched from the parking lot for about 20 minutes. A BLM deputy sat in his enclosed pickup 100 yards away, quietly guarding. Unbelievably, weird things happen out there, like idjuts with guns, spontaneous hay combustion (which had ironically scorched an acre of land at the entrance to the corrals just two weeks earlier), and overzealous mustang fans (of whom I could easily be one).
Today, along with the arrival of a new batch of refugees, the corrals would open for public viewing for one hour. In each pen, the horses self-sorted into groups. They may be forced into close quarters, but they know who their tribe is. Horses are herd animals, safety in numbers, safety in the mates you know. I watched one cantankerous mare munching hay with her minions to her right and hungry strangers creeping up on her left. If any of the strangers came too close, it was ears back, teeth bared, and an angry look. The strangers respectfully backed away. In several pens, hay lay untouched on one side of the pen while the horses clumped together in surprise and fear on the other side of the pen until one brave soul snorted its way to the pile of twigs on the ground and began furtively snatching bites to munch.
They are tired. It’s been a stressful 3 weeks: first the flames; then the gigantic, noisy insects hovering overhead and dumping water and oily red stuff over everything; fleeing the smoke and fire, fussing over the young ones, trying to outsmart the demon flames; then after sanity seemed to be returning, entrapment in huge collecting pens; then sorting into males, females, and babies; and then prodded into the scariest thing ever—a long narrow cave with no escape, which jolted to life under their very feet! In the melee, momas lost track of babies. Horses from three very distinct herds were commingled. Bedlam, noise, motion, fear, strange scents, at last a mad scramble onto land that felt as if it still shifted under foot. Then more strange smells; precious water—but water contained in strange smelling metal containers; food, but strange, dry, crunchy stuff; and all about, these two-leggededs yelling, shouting and slamming shut all hope of escape.
Two stock trailers pulled in with 37 new terrified refugees. The first trailer disgorged a bunch of yearlings and this year’s foals who, after scrambling out of the scary cave-on-wheels, dashed through gates opening into a pen with anxious mares, their udders aching. A Hallelujah Chorus ensued:soprano babies screamed for mamas and tenor nickers and neighs guided the babies to the correct udder. The second trailer disgorged a batch of males who joined their compatriots in the pen beside the girls. The little girls
At 1 o’clock, visitors were welcomed by a cadre of BLM workers. We were instructed to keep a respectful distance from the fence. Adding the stress of more strange two-leggeds to the already frenetic mixture in the pens results in more infighting and strife—the last thing these horses need. So we walked quietly around the pens which held horses that had already acclimated a bit during the few days they’ve been here.
It’s not all bad news. So far fewer than 40 horses have required euthanasia. Remarkably, the animals are in peak physical fitness. They are scratched and a bit torn up from the pandemonium of round up and transportation. Many are singed. Some have burns that are treated by the onsite veterinarian. Mares tend to have the worst burns, a result of waiting for their babies, while the heedless males turned tail and ran for safety.
These horses will be joined by many more in the coming weeks. When all endangered animals have been collected off the scorched rangeland, they will be further sorted by sex, age, herd, and physical condition. Some will be offered for adoption. Others will be transported to long-term holding shelters where they will live relatively easy lives for the 2 – 3 years, or however long it takes for the Owyhee rangeland to recover enough forage to support them. The ultimate goal is to relocate about 130 horses of mixed age back into their original herd territories. The mares will be sterilized, which lasts for perhaps two years. When they begin breeding again, the genetic individuality of the herds will have been maximized. Theoretically.