Two herds – Act 1

It is with some trepidation that I write this blog.  I do feel fortunate to be able to visit so many beautiful places and horses easily like I am able to do living in Wyoming.  At the same time, I enjoy having the outdoors to myself.  As more people realize what is out there and visit it increases knowledge and support to protect the places and animals I love to visit.  Yet, still, I want it all to myself.  
I am going to write about two herds, and the major differences between visiting them.  The first is probably one of my favorites for a variety of reasons.  One is that I never run across anyone else while visiting it.  Part of this could be due to their remoteness.  It is 30 miles from the East to the boundary on probably the most “friendly” dirt/gravel road.  I usually prefer comig down from the North but don’t think it is any less distance.  

It is not the distance that keeps me from visiting the herd more.  I have become quite fond of desert areas to escape as I have visited them more.  Arriving late Thursday night, I set camp up on my favorite knob toward the bottom of Fenton Pass Road.  Out in the desert like this you can see so much of the sky.  I didn’t set my tripod up, but took a few pictures with the camera open to 30 seconds lying on its back on the ground.  I don’t think pictures can convey the awe of staring up at a fully open sky filled with stars and galaxies at distances that are hard to comprehend.

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Probably the reason that I like this herd so much is that this herd is still so wild compared to most of the horses that I visit.  That is also why I do not visit them as much.  I feel that if I visit too much it will either make them become acclimated to me and humans, or if they don’t it will stress them as they move away from me.  These horses must be approached differently than other horses due to their wildness.  I was fortunate on this trip that I was able to locate them first thing in the morning from my camp and they weren’t near as far as normal to hike to.  Unlike the horses in the second act, where I would normally let them see me and then circle around or just stand and let them approach me, I knew that I needed to move along ridges and valleys where I would not be seen, and would not be able to get very close.

A third reason that I love this herd is that the landscape around them is so colorful and geologically interesting that viewing the horses from farther off and getting more landscape shots of them in the environment is a good thing.  You won’t see any close-ups of single horses in this array of photos as you will in act 2, but this isn’t a band where I know of any/many named horses and known band groups that people follow anyway.  I have been lucky to get closer pictures now and then, but this trip you can enjoy more gorup shots, although close enough to identify horses for anyone that does visit them or know any names.

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DSC_3645I don’t think the horses ever really saw me, but the wind was blowing toward them.  Winds can be tricky in this area as they swirl and will seem to blow in different directions in one canyon compared ot the next.  I think that the horse in the bottom left of the next picture smelled me.  It may have seen me too, but I have seen them ignore antelope moving around.  I don’t think that enough of my head looked over for it to know I was human and not an antelope or other animal, so my experience tells me that it was smell.  While I do not have a picture of it, I also saw its nose in the air, as if sniffing to place my scent.

DSC_3649With that detection of my scent a small band decided to move out of the area.

DSC_3654When one group decides there is something to make them leave, they all decide it is time to leave.

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The grass in the area looked very green, and fairly thick and long for late July.

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I did not see any other horses in the area and did not want to bother the main herd again. I found a cool little arch on this trip, and saw the usual birds and antelope.

DSC_3676 DSC_3679 DSC_3682While deciding whether to cross a wash due to the sand ( they turn to mud/quicksand when wet, but can be just as tricky with deep sand when dry), I found some interesting rocks.  They seem very light for their size, and have interesting features and formations that make me think they are something formed from lava.  Or a few look like dung.  If you know more about them, please let me know.

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Giving season

At this time of year, more attention is paid to giving and helping others than at any other time of the year.  Odds are you have heard or passed a bell ringer for the salvation army within the last week.  Schools run food drives, and coat/hat/glove collections.  This year, our church also participated in something new where we helped with gifts for children who’s parents are in jail and could not have given one easily on their own.  There are a multitude of other programs that gather gifts for children.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons that people, including myself, love this time of year so much, because it is refreshing to see the generosity and compassionate side of humanity that either isn’t as present at other times or it isn’t promoted and brought to the forefront as much.  

While I am writing this post at Christmas, it is a topic I wanted to write about last summer before school started and then just didn’t get around to.  It is about doing what you can to help the causes you believe in, not just at this time of year, but year round.  Most of the needs being addressed so prevalently now are present throughout the rest of the year.  Sure, the cold weather adds a little more urgent need for shelter and clothing in the winter, but food is something that is needed year round. Any charities searching for cures or trying to help children facing illness may see an uptick at this time of year, but have just as much need in June.  For the horse lover’s that I know follow my blog, groups like the Legacy Mustang Preserve or Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center are doing work that continually relies on the generosity of others.

While one point I want to make is to keep the giving spirit in your heart year round and see how you can help the people and organizations around you, the main focus I had in mind from this summer is that there are so many more ways that we can give of ourselves than just helping with money.  

At the end of July, I made a trip to the Fifteenmile HMA.  On my way in, I was fortunate enough to catch a rainbow from one of the many summer afternoon storms we had.

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I had already written the BLM that administers the area and knew that it was ok for me to cut and remove some tamarisk(or salt cedar).  Tamarisk is one of many plants that people thought was a good idea for landscaping, only to have it spread and cause problems.  One easy thing that I would ask all to do is try and plant vegetation that is native to your area.

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 It may look pretty when it is in bloom, but tamarisk is a water hog.  In an area like Fifteenmile that is already desert, the last thing that is needed is something like tamarisk growing in dense stands around the little water that is there and sucking it up.  As a result of the storm the previous night, I was unable to make it to the waterhole pictured above with the flowering tamarisk.  That didn’t stop me from my task, as there are plenty of other tamarisk pockets.  There was one that was fairly large along fifteenmile road right near where the Fenton Pass Road comes in.  It was hot work and in the dense section near the drainpipe that runs under the road for rain it was sometimes difficult to get to the plants base, but I was able to clear the section. I left the cut tamarisk in 3 piles and will need to go back next year to check for suckers.  There is a lot more in the piles than it looks like in the pictures.

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It was just a partial days worth of work, but something I plan on doing more of next year.  I will continue to support organizations that work for wildlife, but I can probably have just as much of an affect by helping physically improve the habitat in places where I am allowed.  In fifteenmile, the BLM even told me they can train me on how to use a herbicide after to prevent regrowth.  

There are so many ways to help out beyond giving money.  For example, many areas will be having their Christmas bird counts over the next 2 weeks.  It is an easy way to help out while also getting outside to enjoy nature.  If you want to see if there is one near you, check out the Audobon site here: http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count

As the sponsor for Key Club (high school level Kiwanis) at my school, I get to be involved in many volunteer efforts.  I can say that more often than not, it is the time and personal connections that make a larger impact than the money we can sometimes provide.  A quick example, the money we raised for Unicef will help to prevent neonatal tetanus, but never had a very personal feel for the students. This fall an early, bad ice/snow storm moved through Wyoming and left branches and trees down all across the area.  A lady that lives just below the school in Big Horn called and asked if any group could help because her husband was out-of-town working as an outfitter at the time and she had just had some back problems.  I was able to get 3 girls to come in on a Friday afternoon ( 1 on a break from volunteering at a cat shelter).  We took a few hours to load the larger branches on a flatbed until it was full and got the rest piled along the road.  Just a little bit of labor and time for us, but it was obvious that it meant more than that to the woman that we had helped. I believe that the 3 girls left that task much more aware of what they had done than from the trick-or-treat for Unicef.

As you go through the next year, look for opportunities where you can help either those around you or support the causes that you believe in.  Maybe some of the opportunities will be financial support, but you might find the most rewarding work you can do is through volunteering your time and effort.

Before I go, a little more from the fifteenmile trip. I was rewarded with 2 special sightings while visiting.  The first were some baby short horned lizards.  

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While I was unable to locate the large herd, the second reward was a set of three bachelors that I was able to locate.  I had to hike out to them across the hot, desert floor.  One advantage of them being bachelors is that instead of them taking off without a chance for many pictures like often happens in fifteenmile with the large herd, they  were a little curious and ran in reasonably close to look at me, allowing some photos.

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I look forward to getting back to fifteenmile next year and doing what I can to help these beautiful animals, whether it be by taking pictures so that more are aware of them or by spending time removing invasive plants and improving their habitat.

 

Fifteenmile HMA

When I left the Pryor Range on Monday, the plan was to go to a ghost town called Kirwin on Tuesday.  I drove through Clark and Meeteetse to the Wood River.  One of the best things about this area is that the two campsites are free.  I did give a donation, but you don’t have to if you need a cheaper trip.  There was only one other group that came in to the campsite that night.  It won’t show up great in the picture, but it looked like it was snowing with the sun sparkling off of the cotton from the cottonwood trees ( the white dots).

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Tuesday morning I woke up at sunrise and started back the 9 miles to Kirwin.  I stopped to take a picture of an area marked “slide” on my map, just in case I want to show pictures to illustrate the difference between landslide, slump, creep etc. for my physical science class.  I am not sure that it is really important to know the difference, but it will strengthen the understanding of porosity, permeability and mechanical weathering for those that get it.

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The first river crossing was not too bad, but the second one looked more sketchy.  A piece of advice: do not stop as you move across the river, as I did when I took this picture looking downstream. As saltation occurs the rocks around your tire will be removed.  In a slow current it probably doesn’t matter too much, but when the current is faster it can present problems.

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I had actually not stopped to take the photo, but to check how deep the water was on the tires as I don’t think I had quite reached the deepest part yet. I went to back up and my tires just spun and dug in a little.  I stopped and worried I had just stranded my FJ  2 miles from the nearest people, who had a vehicle that would not have been able to help.  Then I remembered I was still in 2-wd.  I put it into 4-wd and was able to back out without further trouble.  I debated whether I should try to go across in 4-wd or just bag it for now. I didn’t know if there were other crossings (at least 1 more on google earth), or how much deeper this one was.  I decided to come back in August when the water was lower.  The view upstream of where the water comes through the willows and I had to cross may give a better idea of what I was debating going through.

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I decided to head to Fifteenmile a day early. I did see a young looking coyote on the way out.

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It is only 30 miles from Meeteetse to the Fenton Pass entrance of the HMA.  I know it now, but finding the way in can be tricky the first time.  One of the reasons I do love Fifteenmile is that I rarely see anyone there.  No one the 2 times I have been there this year, and only a rock collector or two last year.

I will not be doing a story of the horses like I would for the Pryor herd.  For one, I only know the name of maybe one horse.  I am not sure if many people, if any, know their names. The BLM may still just have numbers for many of these.  Even if there was a list with all of their names, this herd does not offer the same chance to observe them and get to know their personalities like some of the other herds do, for reasons that may be more clear after reading about the range in general.

When I reached the last part of the descent from Fenton Pass to the desert floor, just above the dry waterhole. I stopped to scan the distance for horses.  I looked to the benches to the right where I have often seen a majority of the herd, but did not find any there.  That is one difficulty of Fifteenmile, a lot of them are in one large group so if you don’t find them it means you need to be lucky to find the few anti-social groups. There is a chance you leave without seeing any at all.  I did see a group of four on a ridge to my left, and it appeared there was a foal.

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A second difficulty of the Fifteenmile HMA is that while you might see horses, getting to them is not always easy.  There are a lot of little spurs along the desert floor, but some are impassable.  The ridges, rock formations and draws also create a maze, so while you may see a road you might not be able to know which ones to take to get to it.  So I had the choice of hiking all the way to them, or trying to find my way to the road I could see below them.

I chose to drive and made a quick run to 2 waterholes I have often seen small bands at before.  There was no one there, so I began my search for their road.  I eventually got to a road that would have crossed the flat to the road that went up to the top of where I had last seen them.  Since it crossed a wash I didn’t like and I hadn’t seen them in hours, I decided I would eat lunch and see if there was a better way to go.

I decided to check the waterholes along Fifteenmile Creek road again, and went a little further west than I usually do.  I tried a side spur I had never used that went back toward some cottonwoods, which usually means water. It ended at one of the widest washes I have found out there, and the straight ledge didn’t even leave passing as an option.  I checked the creek bottom to the North and did find water, and a plant many might like because of its pretty pink flowers.

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I hated seeing it though, because I knew what it was.  Tamarix, or salt cedar is an invasive species that is an extreme water hog.  While the water is usually already alkali, their deep taps roots bring up even saltier water which can kill intolerant plants.  I think that I have read that when their leaves fall they exude salt into the air and that can kill out competitors. A single plant can produce up to 500,000 seeds a year.  They can sprout vigorously when cut, so you need to treat the stump with herbicide. I have written the Worland BLM volunteering to do so on some of them I find, but have not heard back yet.

From my location, I was able to see the main herd of horses back near Tatman or Sheets Mountain, I am not sure which.

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There are no roads back in this area that I have ever found. Here is one of the biggest decisions when visiting the Fifteenmile herd, whether to hike to them when you do locate them in that area.  It is a long hike through a usually very hot desert. There are washes that drop straight down and must be either jumped or sometimes you can move up or down the draw and find a way to get down and up them.  The horses are very human intolerant, so there is a good chance you hike a long way, briefly see the horses before they run off, and then hike all the way back.

Of course I decided to make the hike.  It was about 3 miles back to them.  Fortunately, while I usually had to make my long hike from Fenton Pass Road and cut across gullies, go up and over ridges and walk through sage and prickly pear, this time I was going directly up the draw on a horse path.  It was much easier than the other way and I may try more North-South than East-West in future visits when possible.

I was able to get to a rock outcropping that was semi-close undetected.  The horses were still a decent way off and I could tell from the heat waves between us that I would not be able to get a sharp picture, but I also knew that I wasn’t going move any closer without them seeing me.  I stayed behind the hill and peaked over now and then, hoping they would eat in my direction and present a better shot.  While they are soft, I did snap a few pictures to show the diversity in colors and patterns on the range.

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I wish I could have seen the one in the middle closer, it looks uniquely patterned.

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A paint section with a fight going on. “war paints”

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I think they noticed me, but just my head so instead of running they were curious and came slightly closer to check out what was there.

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This little foal would have been nicer to see close, too.

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Despite some close ones knowing something was there, most continued business as usual.

While the close ones never got antsy, one of the far groups must have been nervous and started moving.  once they did others joined in and pretty soon the whole herd was heading to my left.  We happened to be near the ridge that would spill into the next draw.  Instead of staying to get what pictures I could now, I retreated a little further away and disappeared over the ridge.  I then moved up the next draw, expecting them to come over before I could get closer.  After I got to about where I thought they were, I moved to the ridge top and looked over.  I was fortunate enough to actually be near the horses and get some close shots.  It is not likely you can get pictures of the entire herd before they are gone, but I was able to get a lot more than I could have expected.

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Not one of the above 2. I love his 80’s rocker hair.

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While some had spilled over into the draw and were crossing, the main group decided to head back to the right.  The ones that had gone left did not want to be away from the main herd so they came running back over to join the rest.

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I did not want to bother them any more  since they were moving away but not running, and felt lucky to have been able to see this herd as close as I had.  I made the trek back to the FJ. I did find one reminder of the harsh desert life on the way back that I had not seen going in.

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It was only 5:30 when I got back to the bottom of Fenton Pass.  It was too hot and shadeless to just hang out in the desert, so I decided to run to McCullough to look for horses before dark and camp.  I will tell that story in my next blog.