Saturday, March 5, 2011

Wild Horses: Best Birthday Ever

I woke up this morning dreading my birthday. It was just to be another start to the weekend spent in my apartment studying and listening to Saige whine because I had to put my nose in a book or stare glossy-eyed at the computer screen. However, after I administered a healthy dose of my morning stimulant (coffee, of course), I got to moving. I planned to run errands (groceries and see Jiggs), come home, put Saige down for a nap, and be productive. This lovely schedule was not to be. I got as far as one block, with the beautiful sun shining down on the hills surrounding Kittitas Valley, before I turned around and ran back for my camera.

In a spontaneous decision that I am so glad I made, Saige and I decided to go see free-roaming horses!

In Yakima, I picked up a friend and hit HWY 97, eager and my heart doing excited flutters in my anticipation. It was not too far south of Toppenish when we saw our first glimpse of some ponies on the hillsides. Folks have not been kidding around that they are…right there! I remember driving this same route to Goldendale all the time six years ago and I never saw these horses. Today, they are not to be missed. They grazed the hills in plain view of the two-lane highway below, where semi’s and cars whiz by.

We took several of the dirt roads down to the right. First thing I noticed was that there was no mistaking what was the dominant wildlife in the area: horses. Their tracks and defecation were everywhere. I could not believe the amount of stud piles seen within view of the road, or on the road! The grazing was limited and shrubs aplenty. Speaking from what knowledge I know, overgrazing causes an increase in woody vegetation, and there was certainly not a lack of sagebrush. We did not see any horses on our first dirt road jaunt, but did see a strewn skeleton that was very well bleached and picked clean.  It was not really a bad thing.  It is the natural ebb and flow of life.

Saige following her Auntie Megan

We had more luck on the next road I turned down. Since the first road followed water, and horses tend to drink at dawn or dusk, I made sure this road went up. Sure enough, we caught our first close look at a buckskin stallion and his bay mare. I took several pictures of the two of them before they skirted down the hillside. These horses are very skiddish. If I am to catch any decent photographs of them, or the Kigers this summer, I will need a better lens.

Bay mare and her hunky buckskin

Continuing up, I noted again the signs of predominant horse-use in the area. There were well-worn trails along the road with hoof prints, stud piles, and little forage. It might be because it is early spring, but there was certainly a lot of bare ground.  It was concerning.  While death is a natural occurrence to maintain the balance of wildlife populations, horses have few predators and a high growth rate. They are not only grazing themselves out of "house and home" but also the other wildlife that utilize the area. The people and their traditional food sources are impacted as well.

Mount Studpoo, one of many

The farther up we went, the more horses we saw.  There are so many of them!  I think in five short miles we came across four or five bands.  They all looked to be in decent body condition - at least what one would expect for horses coming out of winter.  But, they would not let us very close and my 18-55mm lens certainly does not zoom in enough to get any detail.
Intruders! Move mares!

We came across several bands in a short distance.

It was a gorgeous day!

 There were some beautiful vistas to be seen up there.  My truck did great, though I had to shift it into four wheel drive as we climbed in elevation, the road got stickier and stickier.  By sight, it did not look muddy at all, but I got out and looked at my tires and they were caked in slick mud.  The ruts left in our wake were indicators of just how yucky it was.  No wonder it had such a hard time climbing.

It got pretty slick, though what's under the tires now doesn't portray that.
It got to the point where the road was much too slick to continue, so after we crested the ridge and saw some horses, I opted to turn the truck around and head back down.  The resource manager was coming out in me as I let the truck coast down hill.  Now that I had seen all the horses, I took care to note the lack of any herbaceous height.  I could not see any amount of bluebunch wheatgrass, cheat grass, or whatever else grows on these central Washington ranges.  There was a lot of sage-brush.  It did smell oh-so-sweet though.  I had to stop and pick some to perfume my pickup, and of course take a picture of Saige in the sage.

My favorite picture, I think.  "Saige in the Sage."
Finally, we hit the paved road and made our way back to civilization.  After spending hours away from the hustle and bustle, it is always a heavy feeling to be turning back towards home.  However, my  mind was still churning over the Yakama's great population of free-roaming horses.  With what little forage I saw, how do they survive?  What will happen to them all?  What will happen to the range?  I noted, after I dropped my friend off and was watching the hills slide by between Yakima and Ellensburg, that there was a great difference in ground cover.  Between Yakima and Ellensburg is the Yakima Training Center.  I believe they  have not allowed grazing on their range in at least a decade.  These ranges were covered in grass.  Sage-brush was also less dominating (though past overgrazing has allowed more woody plants to encroach in some areas).

YTC Ranges (photo taken while driving on I-82)

Forage, what forage?  I saw a lot of this on the road where we saw all the horses.

I plan to return to see the horses soon, if I can.  Now that I have been once, I am hooked.  I want to go again and see if forage improves with the coming warmer weather.  It will also be interesting to make mental comparisons between the Riddle Mountain HMA in Oregon with what I have seen here south of Toppenish.

Certainly, the amount of bare ground and erosion I witnessed today is proof that free-roaming horses must be managed to maintain the ecological health of rangelands.

The photos here are just a select few.  The rest can be found on Facebook


  1. Great write up, Jessie! I know your Birthday ended up more special than you planned, this is great! know my addiction! You do come over to OWS, right?? That is my passion!!

  2. I certainly do! It will be so much fun to see them in person if I can make a jaunt over to the South Steens when I am down there on Riddle Mountain this summer.

  3. Good article Jessie.
    I am headed to the Steens in the next two weeks and plan on checking the Yakima, Toppenish horses out with my zoom lens also. There are definately to many of them on that range! The Yakima Indians need do do something to down size those herds.

  4. They do. However, from what I understand, their options are limited. They do not have the federal funds that the Bureau of Land Management does. And what are they to do with 10,000 excess horses? It is a tough situation. I'm not sure what they have planned. Though I think they want to get some fertility control out there, if they have not already.

  5. Thorough! I adore the picture of Saige in the sage - so cute!

  6. great post and great pictures even without the zoom! I love that drive, US97 downn through Oregon! We do it quite often. Never took notice of the horses though. So, here's my question. How does one distinguish a "wild horse" from some farmer's herd in the field? I never even knew those guys were out there, though I've heard Karen from the Roughstring talk about the Oregon wild horses a lot.

  7. If you know to look for them, you sure can't miss those horses up on the hillsides. These "wild horses" are distinguishable from ranch/farm stock because they have been running feral on the Yakama reservation for generations - otherwise there is no difference. Same goes for wild horses on public lands. Those horses have been feral since the 19th century for the most part when ranchers, tribes, farmers, etc let them run free It's a pretty amazing history.