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|
|Intruders! Move mares!|
|We came across several bands in a short distance.|
|It was a gorgeous day!|
|It got pretty slick, though what's under the tires now doesn't portray that.|
|My favorite picture, I think. "Saige in the Sage."|
|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