Dave Dohnel can read the tracks of wild horses as easily as you read the day's headlines. A stallion, four mares, and a baby have been through here this morning - the hoof prints they made in the dust of this rugged wilderness are just hours old.
Dohnel, the owner of Frontier Pack Train, is leading a group of 25 riders through the hot, spectacular country of Montgomery Pass. We're searching for the wild horses that live in this high-desert country along the California-Nevada border. I'm preoccupied with how beautiful it is up here at 7,500 feet. But Dohnel is all business. Suddenly, he spots what he's looking for.
"Hand me those binoculars," Dohnel says. In an instant, he's scanning the sagebrush with a powerful pair of Futuras. He spots three wild horses: dark-brown mustang stallions. We slide down from our horses in an instant and walk slowly behind Dohnel through the sagebrush for a better look.
The mustangs may sense we mean no harm, for they only move a little closer to a grove of pines as we draw nearer. Cameras click and whir. Moments later, the wild horses have vanished.
A Good Match
Dohnel's been leading people up to wild horse country for more than 15 years. When he was 22 and working in the Los Angeles production offices of U.S. News and World Report, he paid his grandfather a weekend visit at his pack station at the foothills of the eastern Sierras. He's never looked back.
"I knew right then, this was my deal," says Dohnel.
After working in Rock Creek Pack Station, Dohnel struck out on his own when Frontier Pack Train came up for sale. At about the same time, Ron Weschler - who runs the equestrian program at L.A.'s Pierce College - was planning an educational horseback trip into the Sierra high country. He hired Dohnel's outfit, the two men hit it off, and they've been working together ever since.
But they do more than run pack trips into the backcountry to view the wildlife. If it wasn't for Weschler and Dohnel, the mustangs we see might not even be here.
Fight for Survival
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, this Bureau of Land Management property was home to the Mustangers - men who made a living rounding up wild horses to sell for slaughter. An act of Congress put an end to the killing in 1971, but the government couldn't protect the wild horses from themselves. With few predators, horses across the open lands of the West multiplied, threatening to overgraze and destroy the rangelands. BLM began periodic roundups to thin out the herds, putting the captured mustangs up for adoption.
In 1986, the BLM thought there were still too many horses on the 500,000 acres of land in Montgomery Pass. But Weschler and Dohnel knew from firsthand experience that the land wasn't overgrazed. They teamed up with other backcountry people and convinced the BLM to study the mustang herds to find out what their real numbers were.
"We gave them input about what we'd find as we'd ride around here," says Weschler. "One year, a mare would have a baby, and the next year we'd see her without that baby. Obviously, there was something out there getting the foals. It turned out to be mountain lions."
In the last 10 years, the number of wild horses living in this area has fallen by more than 60 percent, from about 400 horses to fewer than 150.
So what should be done? "I think the right thing to do is to keep bringing people out here to educate them," Weschler says. "Let nature go about her business how she sees fit."
"It's a tough deal," adds Dohnel. "Eighty percent of all the colts get killed by lions."
But lions are protected by law, as well. "The population of mountain lions is increasing," Weschler points out. "And if it continues that way, it's very possible we might see complete devastation of the wild horse herd."
It's just an example of the complexity of managing the public lands that belong to all Americans. We decide how that land will be used and how we'll share that space with the animals that live there. People need good information to make hard decisions.
"I think any time somebody from a big metropolis comes out here, they get the real story," Weschler says. "And they take the real story back. So we encourage people to come out here and see the wild herds."
Going on a wild horse trip is an amazing experience. Wild horses are beautiful, complex creatures. Come see them. You'll be glad you did.
For information about this trip and other horseback expeditions in the Eastern Sierras, call Ron Weschler, (805) 527-2242, or Frontier Pack Train, (760) 648-7701 or (888) 437-6853, or visit www.frontierpacktrain.com.