A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF A FIELD TECHNICIAN FOR THE WILD HORSE RESEARCH PROJECT
By Marylu Weber
Winter had been typical in western North Dakota, with below zero temperatures and strong NW winds sculpting the snow into mammoth drifts, but spring was coming, though residents often wonder if warm weather is just a fond memory or something their “snowbird” friends brag about.
Out in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, there had already been one foal born. Mist had again been the first to foal, but little Autry didn't survive that pelting snow and cold. Every year our boss with the research project wants to get technicians in the field in March to document those early foals, evaluate mares, and watch for any behaviors that could be affected by the contraceptive vaccine. This year was no exception, but fate determined that April would again be the start of the 2014 research season.
Our former Lead Coordination, Maggie, our new Lead Coordinator, Tiana, another field technician, and I were scheduled to all get to Medora April 1, so that Maggie and I could train the new people. Watching the weather forecast, I talked to our boss and decided to go early, before a blizzard hit the Black Hills. The Medora area was predicted to get rain changing to snow, but no large accumulations. I left at 6:30 and was in the park by 11:00 am where I met up with Amber and Elizabeth, some FB friends and enthusiasts of the horses, to find horses and see if there were any new foals. Before the rain started, we were able to find Granite’s small band and the Double band of Red Face and Singlefoot. Amber and Elizabeth had seen a new foal with them the night before so we wanted to check it out. There was Pretty Girl with a cute light sorrel filly; we named her Cash, because the theme for 2014 is country music artists. Just as it started to rain, we met up with Lyle and showed him the shortest way to get to the band so he could get some shots of the new filly.
Overnight and into the next day the rain and light snow flurries became 8 inches of crystalline beauty. By the next morning the sun came out bright and warm, but the temperatures were still just above zero. Since the snow was soft and had not blown around much, with a “be careful” from a couple of the guys from the park, I set out around the 36 mile “loop” through the park in search of horses. What a magical experience it is to see the Badlands covered in a pristine blanket of white! That day I found the bands of Clinker, Gray Ghost, Silver, Satellite and the Double band. When Amber, Elizabeth, and I had seen Firefly in Silver’s band, we had thought she looked close to foaling so it was no surprise to see a brand new baby with Firefly. It was a cute dark filly; her name is Dixie. It was a fabulous day to be born and to just enjoy life.
The next day Tiana and I worked in the office while we waited for Maggie because another prediction of light flurries brought about 5 more inches of snow. Once Maggie arrived we drove just to the north side of the park and prayed that we would be able to traverse the loop the next day. Morning again brought bright sunshine but a biting NW wind. Going around the outside of the park we found Thunder’s band on the east side and Blaze in the bottoms to the NE. The snow was up to our knees in places, making hiking possible but very tiring. Neither of those two bands had new foals nor did Gary’s band on the south, but we started with the behavior study, documenting what each horse was doing every minute, on the minute for 20 minutes, and also making note of any aggressive or reproductive behaviors. Mares were evaluated for condition, pregnancy status, and any possible reactions at the site of injection of the vaccine.
Days six and seven brought warmer temperatures, melting snow, running water, and lots of mud. We had taken the large scope in order to identify horses at a long distance and I had finally braved bulldozing through the drifts to get to the top of Buck Hill. From there we could see Cocoa, Thunder, and Sidekick. There didn't appear to be any new foals with Cocoa or Thunder, but there was a little black foal with Sidekick that could be the one born in February or a new baby. They were so far away that we decided against going out to find them; a friend had offered to help out on his day off so he could go the next day. I dropped Maggie and Tiana off on Talkington so they could go after Cocoa. What would normally be a 3 hour hike, including the study, would become a 5 hour excursion through mud and running water. I had decided to keep glassing from Buck Hill and no sooner got back to the top when I spied the Double band on lower Talkington behind a small herd of bison. What intrigued me was the sight of another new foal, this one out of Flame. I knew the others would be gone for some time so I texted them that I was going after the Double band again for the new foal.
It took only about 15 minutes to skirt the bison and get to the Double band, grazing and resting just across Talkington Creek. It was an uneventful 20 minute study except for a couple threats from Red Face to Singlefoot. Having completed the behavior study, I needed to get closer to do mare evaluations and get a sex on the foal. The problem was that the creek had now risen to be about 4-6 feet wide and an unknown depth. Searching up and down the creek looking for a narrower place, I considered what the best plan of action was- jump for the other side, find a tree overhanging the creek, or maybe finding an area with rocks to step on? None of these options looked good. Out of frustration, I finally found a wide spot that didn’t seem to have any disturbances on the bottom. Reaching out with my walking stick, I tested the depth and found the bottom to be about a foot down. Tying my waterproof pants over the tops of my water-resistant boots, I figured I couldn’t get too wet if I sprinted across to the other side. After all, there was an animal trail there and I HAD to get a closer look at that foal. I made sure my backpack with my camera, paperwork, timer, glasses, etc. was secure on my back and my phone was zipped into a deep pocket in my jacket, took a deep breath, and made a run for it. Two steps in, I dropped into the gully running in the bottom of the streambed and stumbled to my knees. Muddy snow runoff was now covering all but my shoulders and head. Gasping from the cold, I scrambled across the rest of the way and stood up. Backpack-dry! Paperwork-dry! Phone-just a tiny bit wet on one end! Field Technician-soaked to the skin from shoulders to waist with water running down inside my waterproof pants and boots. I started to laugh hysterically. Well, I had saved the important things and now I was on the right side of the creek to get closer to baby and continue my study.
Baby was another filly who looked just like her sister Cash; since “E” was the next letter, I called her Emmylou. After I got some shots of the foals, the horses paraded themselves past me so that I could get good photos of their right hips in order to record any injection site reactions. I bid them adieu and headed off the try to find a way back across the creek. Hiking both directions found me nothing to make my crossing any easier until I came to a dead tree bent over to create a perfect arch about 4 feet high and 6 feet wide. It was located in the center of the streaming water but I could get to it from my side without getting too wet and hoped I could jump to the other side. Crawling onto the arch and to the other end I again reached into the water with my stick to test the depth. It was DEEP. My stick went down to about 3-3.5 feet. This was not going to be a good option. Back across the arch bridge, back through the ankle deep water and what could I do, but start hiking up Talkington Trail to where in intersects the loop road. There was gully after slimy gully where I had to slide down one side and clamor up the other through trees and brush in order to have any traction, but finally, after more than an hour, I made it to the road and back to the truck where I stripped off everything I could and sat alone, laughing with the heater running and the windows open, until Maggie and Tiana were ready to be picked up. Though I was by then soaking wet from my shoulders to the souls of my feet, I was never cold. It had been another ”Excellent Adventure!”
Maggie had to go home the next day. I stayed to help Tiana one more day before we set her off to face the challenge alone. We knew she would do well because she is dedicated, smart, and strong. Lyle would try to feed her as much information as he could about the location of bands and arrival of new foals. There will be a new technician starting in May, so Tiana will have full time help and I will go back to help once a month. As soon as I was on the road, heading back home, I was anxious to see my husband, horses, dogs and cats and the glorious Hills of home, but I was torn because I wanted to go back to the Badlands. They and the wild ones who live there will always have a special place in my heart.