A handful of miles south of Boise, the wind turned a late-fall afternoon particularly cold. The Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse Corrals sit on the fringe of the Treasure Valley's civilization, out on a scruff of high desert. It felt like the valley's string of strip malls and beige suburbs were half-a-world away.
With a late October wind whipping to beat all get-out, a recording of the proceedings was nearly all garbled or muffled like some sort of cotton or sand rubbing against an already-scratched LP. Among the noise and chatter, BLM spokeswoman Heather Tiel-Nelson said something clearl as the big blue Idaho desert sky: "It was awful."
Tiel-Nelson was speaking of horses dying by fire, relaying images of horrific pain and burned flesh. Tiel-Nelson spoke briefly about the ultimate deaths of 37 wild horses, victims of this summer's Soda Fire, a grasslands blaze that swept across the southwest Idaho/eastern Oregon border. The Soda Fire began Aug. 10 and scorched nearly 300,000 acres—much of it on Owyhee County rangelands—scores of miles from where Tiel-Nelson stood. In it, 29 wild equine died directly in the flames. Another eight wild horses were euthanized after being injured in the blaze.
Against that backdrop, the good news is 186 horses survived and were brought to the BLM Wild Horse Corrals.
"A lot of the mares and foals came in with some pretty significant burn injuries, but really, they're looking good," said Tiel-Nelson. "Yeah, they're really starting to hair up; better than they were when they first came off the range."
Tiel-Nelson pointed to a 10-year-old mare that was brought to the protected rangeland about two months prior. She said the horse's condition had significantly improved since.
"She had burn marks all over her hips," Tiel-Nelson said. "You can see her mane, how scraggly it is. Even so, the improvement is marked. She looks amazing."
The mare—along with many other, older wild horses—are expected to remain at the BLM corrals long-term, possibly a few years. But 43 other wild horses were hand-picked to be auctioned off Nov. 7. On that day, 32 of the 43 that BLM deemed to be available for adoption were sold, bringing in $3,485. Bidding started at $125 per horse. One gelding fetched a highest-bid of $400.
The entire herd—nearly 200 horses—was rescued in late August and early September, when their grassland food source in the Owyhee desert was either decimated or threatened by the Soda Fire, then in the late stages of containment.
Of those wild horses not auctioned off, many are expected to be released back to their native rangeland within a few years. Still, BLM officials said even though 32 of the horses were auctioned off to new owners on Nov. 7, the future of those horses may still be uncertain.
Some, they said, could be turned into beasts of burden. Others may toil on southern Idaho cattle ranches and a few may become packhorses on hunting treks into rugged Idaho terrain.
A BLM press release stated ranchers in the region "lost livestock and other property" on private and federal land during the Soda Fire. Boise resident Paul Valentine, whose family owns cattle ranches in New Plymouth and Weiser, rested an arm on a fence at the BLM corrals and surveyed some of the captured horses. Valentine described himself as "an avid hunter" who would likely put two horses to work.
"We have quite a bit of cattle, and [the horses] might be good to herd cattle," Valentine said. "It's a process that takes time and training and a lot of trust that you have to build with these mustangs."
Boise resident Leanne Smith said she saw the horses differently. Smith, a social worker at St. Luke's Regional Medical Center, said she likes to "take lessons and rides." On her first visit to the BLM corrals, camera in-hand, Smith said she enjoys the aesthetic of horses.
However visitors and participants in the Nov. 7 auction saw the animals, the formerly wild horses are among the few survivors the Soda Fire.
"We knew that we needed to gather those horses because there simply wasn't enough forage to sustain them," said Tiel-Nelson.