Unwanted herds offer harsh dilemma
Tribe weighs preservation of beloved symbol, health of feral horses
By SAMANTHA TIPLER
East Oregonian Publishing Group
Baby Brown was born a wild horse. "He's from right up here," said Lawanda Bronson, pointing at the foothills of the Blue Mountains, east of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Her brothers and a friend were riding up near Deadman Pass three years ago when they discovered the friendly colt on its own. They surmised the colt's herd had been spooked by a passing pickup truck.
"They left the baby. He was probably a couple weeks old. He couldn't keep up with them," Lawanda said. "And my brothers were riding by and he just started following them. He followed them home."
Baby Brown was just one of what the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation estimate may be as many as 300 wild horses roaming the mountains, foothills and wheat fields on the reservation and surrounding lands. What to do with horses like Baby Brown is a vexing question.
Tribal members tend to fall into one of two camps in their views about dealing with wild horses. They either want to manage the horses or just leave them be, said Carl Scheeler, CTUIR wildlife program manager.
"I think the people that don't actually own horses, they're inclined to just think to leave them alone," agreed Fred Hill, a member of the CTUIR board of trustees and a member of the National Tribal Horse Coalition. "But those that are active in going out to the actual areas ... they would be more inclined to say we need to reduce the numbers."
Wheat farmers who lease land on the reservation also would like to see the horses managed. Horses eat acres and acres of wheat in the winter and spring, and into the bottom line for those farmers.
Tribal members feel the bite, too, as the wild horses graze and trample areas for traditional first foods, such as roots and berries. The horses also cut down on the food source for traditional game like deer and elk.
Feral, not wild
Scheeler believes most of the 300 horses roaming the reservation are descendants of abandoned horses. He is hesitant to call them true "wild" horses, and prefers the word "feral," referring to once-tame horses now gone back to nature. True wild horses, Scheeler argued, start to look like mustangs, with zebra-like stripes and smaller stature.
"When you get to that point and you've had a freely breeding population for a number of generations, they do start to some extent to be considered 'wild,'" he said. "But what we have here on the reservation is a fairly recently managed herd of feral horses. Some of the rangers and tribal families, over the generations, have changed out stallions in the herd groups and taken colts out. So there has been some management going on."
Now it may need to manage them again. But how can the CTUIR control a population of animals that is on one hand a bit of a pest, and on the other an important part of American Indian culture?
According to tradition, horses have been a part of Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribal lives since the 1700s, when an old story tells of how they bought one stallion and one mare from the Shoshone. The tribes later interbred those descendants of Spanish horses with others traded from French Canadians.
The horse brought a new mode of transportation to the tribes and extended their territory to California, the Willamette Valley and the Great Plains. At one point, the tribes kept 20,000 horses on their traditional lands. The Cayuse bred a horse known for its speed and endurance.
"There was active management of horses because they were an important part of tribal members' day-to-day lives," said Gordy Schumacher, CTUIR range program manager. "They used them for travel and trade -- it was a trading product in and of itself -- and for defending themselves and waging war."
But that didn't last forever. When the tribes signed the treaty of 1855, chiefs wanted to make sure there was enough land to support tribal horses.
But the allotment act, which divided reservations into plots for individual tribal members and sold off the rest, vastly decreased the land available for horses.
"In essence, we were forced to give up our most precious resources," the history portion of the CTUIR official feral horse policy says. "Our annual expeditions, roundups, horse races and horse breeding were all but a memory in the few Cayuses and Appaloosas that remained."
By the end of the 19th Century, most of those Cayuse horses were sold off.
The wild horses on the Umatilla Indian Reservation still hold that special status for some tribal members. Horses, whether the iconic Cayuse or a feral horse, are still important because of their place in tribal culture and history.
Baby Brown, now 3 years old and broken to ride, knows nothing of his place in the wider scheme of things. He has grown up from the friendly colt to an affable young horse.
"Yeah, he's a big baby," Lawanda said, sitting atop Baby Brown's saddled back. "He always wants to follow you around. He was a real nuisance, I guess you could say. When you go out to catch 'em, he's the first one that'll come to you like, 'Come on! Take me!'"
Though Baby Brown wandered into their lives, the Bronsons in years past were a horse wrangling family. Every year or so, they traveled into the foothills and mountains to round up horses they would then break or sell.
"We used to round up horses all over," Lawanda said.
Her father, Virgil, remembers growing up with the horses and learning to wrangle them from an elder.
"As soon as school was out I'd go over the hill and stay with him all summer," Virgil recalled. "We'd go out camping, chasing wild horses. It was fun, yeah, riding all the time, seeing different country, different horses."
When he was young, Virgil would spend weeks at a time wrangling horses, he said. When he started his own family, it was part of their tradition as well.
"When you gather horses you have to know where they roam," Lawanda said. That tells the wrangler where to set up a pen to catch the horses.
That process can take a few days. Capturing the horses takes another full day.
Everyone involved has to know their place, whether it's getting the horses started, catching them along the way and herding them in the right direction, or being the kid ready to close the gate on the pen.
"You gotta hide from 'em so they don't see you before they get in past the gate," Lawanda recalled. "Then you got to come running in from wherever you're at to shut the gate."
Some horses they broke for riding. Wild horses were good for packing, hunting and herding cattle, Virgil said. Those that wouldn't be broke were sold as bucking horses.
Historically, family roundups like the Bronsons' kept the horse population around 100 or fewer. But the years have passed without a true roundup, as many Bronson family members have gone on to other pursuits.
And the market for horses has suffered from high hay prices and a down economy. Consequently, the horse population on the reservation has increased, according to Schumacher and Sheeler.
The CTUIR hopes the key to properly managing the wild horse population lies in those old practices. It would like to revive the roundups and then sell or adopt out the horses, first to tribal members and then to the public at large, according to tribal policy.
"The policy modernizes what the tradition was," Schumacher said. "The tribal members did run all their horses in common. When they rounded them up in the spring or fall, whenever they had their horse roundups, they did cull horses. That was part of the management of the tribe. We're proposing to do those similar or same things."
New and old
Sitting atop Baby Brown, Lawanda said she just wants to make sure the horses are protected.
Virgil would like to see the roundups come back. He put the old and new policies in a simple way.
"Just leave 'em up there and fetch some of 'em and sort 'em out. Take the culls out and turn the good ones loose. Keep one or two and break 'em," he said. "We'll do that."
Even though he is too old to round up horses himself, Virgil said he still drives up into the foothills to see the horse bands grazing on hilltops.
"I drive upriver there. They're on both sides of the river -- and look up at 'em once in a while. Wish I was able to ride up and go get some," Virgil said. "There are people that don't want 'em up there -- I know that -- doing the things they do. I think them horses got a right to be up there."