Goat Lake, Idaho's highest named lake.
Photo by Rick Gerrard
"Into the Pioneers" airs December 3rd.
I’ll confess up front - I knew next to nothing about the Pioneer Mountains before working on our new show, “Into the Pioneers.”
At a very young age, I had become enthralled with the Sawtooths - and later the White Clouds - and seldom ventured beyond those mountains. Never felt the need.
I now know why so many people love the “Pios.” They have everything, from big mountains to big fish, from big game to big cirques, big meadows and impressive changes in terrain.
Like many others, I had thought of the Pioneers as mainly a series of foothills. Little did I know that these mountains - positioned between glamorous Sun Valley and desolate Craters of the Moon -- are Idaho’s second highest range, with a crest of about 11,000 feet. Only the Lost River Range is higher.
Old Hyndman Peak and the black dike.
Photo by Terry Lee
The Pioneers also hold the distinction of having the highest named lake. We hiked up to Goat Lake - elevation 10,438 --on July 27 to discover that a third of the lake was still frozen over. And every day we were there, we got to experience a good old-fashioned summer storm, complete with wind, rain, lightning, and hail.
One can’t help but be impressed with the “feel” of the place. It’s not official wilderness, but it’s every bit as wild as the congressionally designated wildernesses of the Sawtooths, the Boulders, and the White Clouds.
I was delighted that so many of my colleagues wanted a piece of the action. Melissa Davlin organized a group that successfully summited Old Hyndman, braving the infamous black dike.
Viewing the eclipse near Pioneer Cabin.
Photo by Peter Morrill
Marcia Franklin and her team followed world champion cyclist Rebecca Rusch for a bike race up Trail Creek and through Copper Basin. And videographers Jay Krajic and Peter Morrill hit some high mountain lakes on their own, bringing back exquisite video. They also joined a group of us who hiked up to Pioneer Cabin to catch the solar eclipse on August 21. About 30 others had the same idea; and no one left disappointed.
But these special places really come alive for us when we meet the people who love them and spend time in them. And by that standard, the Pioneers are an Idaho masterpiece. We’ve included many of these “characters” in our hour-long tribute to this mountain range.
As one of them said to us while sitting on a horse near Copper Basin, “My soul is happy here. When you see these peaks, you feel like you’re completely in God’s country. This place feeds your soul.”
Wildhorse Canyon. Photo by Jay Krajic
Wild horses, or mustangs, come with a lot of controversy these days. The agency charged with their management is caught in the middle of a political and public affairs crisis as the current administration moves to cut the BLM wild horse budget. If this happens, the fate of up to nearly 50,000 horses and burros currently fed by the government in holding corrals or off-range pastures is uncertain. Advocates fight for solutions that won't lead to euthanasia or possibly slaughter, but their voices compete with nearly $50 million taxpayer dollars spent on maintaining the horses.
Currently, about 75,000 horses and burros roam free on designated grazing areas around the West; these are called HMAs (Herd Management Areas). That's about three times the number originally set forth by Congress in 1971 under the Wild Horse and Burro Act, designed to protect the herds from abuse and extinction. The Act came about after Velma Bronn Johnston, a horse lover from Nevada, spent nearly twenty years campaigning to gain protections for mustangs after she had witnessed horrible abuses of the animals in gathering practices across the state by profiteers who then sold the animals for slaughter.
Horses in the Owyhee desert. Photo by Tim Tower
After decades of protection, the herds have produced more horses than the land can hold. At the same time, BLM-sponsored adoptions have declined dramatically, resulting in over-crowding and what amounts to off-range feedlots for the overflow of horses. With so many sides to this issue, it is incomprehensible to imagine an outcome that will satisfy everyone. Cattle producers want more land for grazing cows; wildlife advocates don't want cows or horses taking up more habitat; and animal advocates think horses deserve more ground.
In Idaho, the Bureau of Land Management currently runs six HMAs across the state. Each HMA has a set amount of horses allowed per acre within the designated area. In 2017, the total number of wild horses in the state hovers around 700 head, spread over 418,000 acres of open land. Two of the HMAs were temporarily closed after the Soda Fire of 2015 raged through the Owyhee rangeland. The horses who survived that fire were gathered and placed in off-range holding corrals. The BLM hopes to return the set amount of horses to those HMAs when the land has recovered enough to provide feed.
Exploring this subject has been both interesting, enlightening, and difficult. From the perspective of an observer, I will say that watching the wild herds up close is impressive and moving. Even though they look like domestic horses, their behavior is most definitely of a wild nature; the studs jockey for dominance, while the mares protect and rear their young in a land that can be harsh and unforgiving. Decades of natural selection have culled the weak and truly made these horses strong and resilient, and yes, proud.
In Wild Horses, the Outdoor Idaho crew visits the herds and talks to the stakeholders as we examine the current state of mustangs in Idaho, and beyond.