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Wild horse roundup: Capture is part of effort to save animals, land

Capture is part of effort to save animals, land

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SKULL VALLEY, Tooele County — Crouched on a rocky hillside, a group of people waited.

The storm clouds rolled by, spilling large drops of rain, and still they waited, hugging jackets closer.

A radio transmission crackled, and the wait was over.

In the distance you could see the horses, all 17 of them, running bunched together, tails stretched out, manes flying.

Two "Judas" horses waited for them.

Domesticated and trained for their traitor roles, the "Judas" horses are held by a person who lies in the grass and hides.

When the wild horses get to just the right spot inside a winged, camouflaged fence, the "Judas" horses are turned loose to gallop into the corrals, with the wild horses following.

The rain had stopped, and the group was getting closer. A helicopter hung in the sky behind them.

"Abe," a big bay who is a pro at being "Judas," came charging down the middle of the wing, followed by a buckskin mare in training.

When the wild horses thundered past, with all their mystique symbolizing the Wild West, the watchers were awestruck by the feeling they were witness to something few people see.

The gathering of wild horses Monday at the Cedar Mountain range at Skull Valley was part of a proactive effort by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to save the horses and save the range land.

A dry spring, a hotter-than-normal summer and the infestation of grasshoppers and crickets have combined to deplete the vegetation the horses need to survive.

About two dozen BLM employees and volunteers will work the range over the next nine days to collect about 500 wild horses in this area.

All of them will be taken to a holding facility, where they will be given shots, dewormed and receive a general medical exam.

The young ones will enter the agency's Adopt A Wild Horse program, and many of these Utah horses will end up in the South in places like Virginia and Tennessee.

Older horses struggling with the harsh demands of range life will be taken to a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their days comfortably.

The hearty middle-aged horses who have never felt a bit or a saddle or the kick of a man will be returned to the spot where they were found.

For the BLM, the roundups are a noble and necessary practice to preserve a piece of America's heritage.

And it's evident those involved are in love with what they do.

"There's a knack to gathering these horses, just like anything," Phil Bennett, a BLM wild horse specialist, said. "You have to understand horses, and how they move."

It would be hard to find someone who knew more about the wild horses at Cedar Mountain than Bennett.

He's been tracking these animals for 10 years, carefully coddling them, watching as the young colts turn into studs with the passing of years, seeing fillies grow into mares with young ones of their own.

The bands brought in Monday were a good-looking bunch of horses, bigger than you'd expect, and splashed with color.

Bennett, with his management of the herds, helped make that happen.

He brought up some paint mares from Nevada from that state's wild horse program and introduced them to this range.

Now, years later, he can see the results in the big black-and-white stallion that was one of the foals of a Nevada mare.

The actual technique of bringing in the horses, and doing it safely, appears deceptively easy.

It takes a helicopter pilot who is not afraid to fly just 30 to 40 feet above the ground — and who understands horses.

Shayne Banks, a BLM spokeswoman, said only a handful of pilots in the country can successfully bring in a band of mustangs.

Timing is everything.

First, you have to spot them, then fly low enough to get them moving and then drive them at a comfortable pace that won't hurt them.

This group of 17 were guided more than 10 miles to the trap site.

Back before the use of helicopters, many a saddle horse went lame because they couldn't match the endurance of a mustang.

"You'll see," predicted Guy Perkins, while he waited for the 17 horses to come in. "They've been running and running and running and they'll get here, take a deep breath and be ready to go again. It's amazing how much stamina they have."

The trick, said pilot Allen Carter, is to hang back enough so you don't drive them too hard or cause them undue stress but follow close enough that you can guide them.

Carter, who has been gathering wild horses by helicopter for 24 years, said it's a task that demands careful attention.

"It keeps you awake. You don't doze off."

About three weeks from now, the BLM will return about 150 of those horses to the Cedar Mountain range.

At that number, they'll find enough food to survive the rest of the summer and the winter.

Bennett and another small crew of BLM employees will load the horses up, travel to the remote area and turn them loose in the place where they were initially found.

The tails will stretch out behind them, the manes will fly and they will thunder past.

But this time, the group will get to watch as the wild horses run home. It is, Bennett said, one of the best feelings in the world.

E-MAIL: amyjoi@desnews.com