Monday, October 19th dawned cold and overcast with the threat of rain for the afternoon. Stomping our feet to keep them warm, the 50+ NPS employees and feral horse study team gathered for the 7:00 am briefing. It was emphasized that the task at hand needed everyone's full attention, with an emphasis on safety. The goal was to capture and work as many of the 164 horses as possible while remaining calm, quiet, and respectful toward them and one another.
As the briefing broke up, all eyed turned upward to the windsock high above our heads. Slight winds and a high enough ceiling meant the gather was on. Mike intended to bring the horses in band by band as much as possible with no more than 20 being brought at one time. With a pulsing roar the two choppers took to the sky. Mike was in one and another NPS man in the other. A student of the low stress livestock handling method, Mike was determined to use that method throughout the operation.
Everything was ready at the handling facility on the far east side of the Park when we heard the throbbing of the chopper engines in the distance. Mike radioed that they had their first band of horses moving toward the capture pens about a half hour out. When the choppers rose above the buttes south of the wing fence, all personnel reported to the safety zone north of the high wooden pens. Only the gate keepers would be allowed out of that area until the helicopters left for another gather. Only after letting the horses settle in the fist large capture pen, did personnel walk into that grassy area and on foot bring the first band of horses into the corrals for processing. Henry's and my job was to identify each horse as it came in and follow it through the chutes so that no mistakes would be made as to which horse was getting which procedure.
Animals to be sold all had blood drawn for their Coggins test for EIA, a requirement to cross state lines. Project stallions had blood drawn and all mares had fecal samples, blood samples, palpation, and ultrasound to determine pregnancy. Most of the horses submitted amazingly well for wild animals. The Doc. was able to draw blood from little Talkington with just a hand on his neck. The Veterinarians did an amazing job of making the procedure as quickly and low stress as possible.
Since all the necessary procedures for the contraceptive study took a little longer, the choppers continued to fly, bringing horses into the pen slowly and carefully. Friends watching in the Park were amazed at how slowly the pilots brought the horses in, often at a walk. Because the horses were not so stressed when they came in, they came though the chutes much more relaxed. Less than a half dozen mares had to be sedated.
Over the two and a half days of the roundup, 154 of the 164 horses were brought in and processed. A kick to the front leg of a yearling filly was the only significant injury and she was moving well by the sale three days later. Sale horses were sorted by age and the older ones by sex so that they would not injure one another in the pens. The "keepers" were turned into another large grassy area to band up again before being released.
The afternoon of the last day, after a celebratory finishing briefing, everyone walked out to watch as a few people encouraged the horses to exit though a large gate into the Park. Dolly was the first one to find the open gate, but soon others, realizing the gate was open, walked out to freedom. They momentarily settled to eating just north of the handling facility while stallions fretted over their harems to make sure they would not be stolen by another band stallion. Quietly several stallions rounded up their mares and headed for their home range; topping the last hill they disappeared into the horizon.