In the mountains outside John Day, Ore., a wild horse made a tasty find. Hay was strewn about on the forest floor. As she went to eat, the mare took one step too far, tripping a line that slammed a gate closed behind her. She had trapped herself.
On August 4, 2012, a government contractor backed his rig up to the passive trap, preparing to haul the wild horse to the Bureau of Land Management corral in Burns, Ore..
The mare wanted nothing to do with it. As the contractor tried to load her into the trailer, the mare fled in fright, slammed into the metal bars of the trap and broke her neck.
Faced with a horse crippled and in pain, the horse trapper had just one option. He euthanized her.
Fatal injuries like this are more often associated in the public eye with helicopter roundups, which have led to substantial protests over the last few years. However, data shows passive traps have been even more lethal in Oregon.
And once they’ve made it to the corrals, records show that wild horses aren’t out of danger.
Records obtained from the BLM show that passive traps in Oregon have been more deadly than helicopter roundups were in the state. Since 2010, under 1 percent of the horses have died in both types of operations.
Two weeks after the mare broke her neck, contractor Larry Osborne was out to collect three more horses who had ensnared themselves in a bait trap. Everything appeared to be going smoothly until the moment he and his partner tried to get the horses into the trailer.
Just as they neared the rig, the horses resisted, turned and ran. One bolted head first into a panel. This time, it suffered no serious injury.
Five minutes later, all had boarded uninjured.
“Well I can say one thing honestly, the way we catch them is the most humane way,” Osborne says.
He works frequently for the government capturing horses and he’s not a critic of the agencies that pay him.
Still, he concedes he’s not a particular fan of BLM’s more common method of using helicopters to roundup wild horses.
“Well, that’s probably the worst, as far as I’m concerned,” Osborne says. “The little colts, sometimes they run them too far."
Long time critics of BLM roundups have praised bait traps for being the most humane way to capture mustangs.
“Of all the range of options available to the BLM, the bait traps are the best method,” says Scott Beckstead, Oregon director of the Humane Society of the United States. “The baiting process is so much quieter and doesn’t involve the terror, the panic that goes along with being chased by a helicopter.”
Wild horse protection groups have long complained about helicopter roundups. Cowboy pilots chase herds over miles of high desert, trying to direct the frightened horses into traps. Animal rights activists have documented injuries and deaths, posting visual evidence online.
Oregon BLM Wild Horse Manager Rob Sharp says contractors take great care, but some horses panic and get injured. “Some degree of serious injury or mortality should be expected in the handling of wild horses, even domestic horses,” Sharp says. “Accidents happen.”
Beckstead feels differently. “In terms of its percentage it’s a low number but I would submit that that’s still too many dead horses,” he says.
The Humane Society supports bait trapping if the government then injects the mares with birth control and promptly sets them free. The group does not support removing the horses from the range.
The BLM announced new policies early in 2013 which it says would “ensure humane treatment of animals.”
Once horses make it to the BLM’s short-term corrals or long-term holding pastures, it’s generally accepted that the horses will live longer than they likely would in the wild. They get hay and fresh water and face none of the competition they would on the range.
However, corral life is deadlier than many people realize.
BLM’s “Dead and Destroyed” reports, obtained by OPB through the Freedom of Information Act, show that 199 horses died in the Burns corral between 2010 and 2013.
That figure “seems very high to me, and troubling,” Beckstead says. He was particularly surprised that 81 mustangs were simply found lying dead in the corrals, 41 from unknown causes.
That means, Beckstead says, “they found the horse and don’t know the cause and never figured out what the cause was. That’s pretty disturbing.”
Comparisons to survival of free roaming horses are nearly impossible. The BLM does not track how many horses die while living on the range.
Visit the full digital story on mustangs and join the online conversation here: Wild Horses in Crisis.