Monday, October 27, 2014

One Mustang Adopted, 50,000 to Go

My friend Matt Livengood had a little over three months to teach Bud the Mustang everything he needed to know to become an adoptable horse. Bud arrived in April, 100 days before the Extreme Mustang Makeover event in Nampa, ID. By the end of July Bud was a different horse.

Bud wore his Bureau of Land Management (BLM) neck tag for weeks; he wouldn't let Matt get close enough to put a halter on him. The tag had been Bud's ID since he was rounded up on the Black Rock Desert of Nevada and taken to a BLM holding facility. Bud left behind 50,000 other horses and burros waiting for adoption in BLM corrals.


When I visited Bud the first time he stayed as far away from me as he could in his round pen. He watched me closely and smelled for danger. Bud got his name from his size and resemblance to the Budweiser Clydesdales: he looked like he could pull a beer wagon when he trotted, furry fetlocks flying. Matt hoped his full name, This Bud's for You, would encourage bidders at the Mustang Makeover auction.


The early Bud was a rough-looking, wary guy. He was anxious and didn't look like a happy horse.

Several of Bud's fans were on hand the first time Matt sat on his back at the end of May. Bud was wearing his summer coat by then, which let his dabbles show. By this time, Bud would let his fans feed him grass and pat him.

Matt might have been more patient with Bud than Bud's own mother was. Because Matt never got flustered, Bud had no reason to misbehave.

Bud's a thinker. Once he had time to mull over his new life, he was in with all four feet. He watched, tried, learned, and seemed to enjoy the new activities and experiences. When the Makeover rolled around, the formerly free-roaming mustang was living in a stall, riding in a trailer, and behaving like a saddle horse. Bud was ready to leave Matt for a permanent home.

When I walked up to Bud at the Makeover he greeted me and wanted to know all about me: what I smelled like, what I sounded like, what my shirt tasted like, and whether or not I was going to use those handy human appendages to scratch him. (I did.)

Somewhere along the way, Bud had learned about paper. He decided it was good to eat. One bite and much of the diagram of the trail course he was to follow at the Makeover disappeared. Alayne Blickle, Matt's wife, said Bud just wanted to digest the course. Matt studied what was left and took Bud through his paces as if they were at home in their own arena. Except, at home there wasn't a crowd of people making a big scary noise with their handy appendages. You can watch Matt and Bud here.

"Team Bud," the friends who had come to cheer him on and see him off to his new home, was thrilled when our pair finished the prelims in the top ten and moved on to the finals. We sprang into action and developed a beach-themed routine for the evening performance. Team members ran to the dollar store for supplies, created a cardboard Dalmatian to ride in a borrowed red Radio Flyer wagon, and downloaded and dubbed music. We were sure Bud would have as much fun with the routine as we did.

Matt kept the diagram for the finals away from Bud as they practiced.

Bud turned to show off his dapples as he warmed up.


I made my horse show debut in a Hawaiian shirt when I helped set up beach chairs and a horse-sized beach ball in the arena. Despite Bobby McFerrin singing Don't Worry, Be Happy on his soundtrack, Bud was worried. He saw an even larger crowd of people and an odd collection of objects; his ears hurt from the rock concert-level PA system. Bud wasn't happy.

Team Bud watched its namesake melt down in the arena and knew we'd gotten carried away and pushed Bud too fast.

Matt stayed calm and waited to see if Bud would relax on the beach. He didn't. By the time the Budweiser ad at the end of his soundtrack suggested that "you've said it all," Bud had had all he could stand. Once he got away from the noise and strange sights, Bud calmed down and recovered.

Team Bud huddled in the stands and worried about what kind of home Bud would go to after we'd upset him with our beach idea. My stomach hurt and my mouth was dry while I watched the other finalists' routines.

It was hard to listen to the bidding for our dappled brown, melted down Bud. A woman in back was bidding. She seemed nice; would she get him? Yes. No. Yes; she did!

I wasn't the only member of Team Bud who quizzed his new owner after the auction. When she told me her plans for Bud, I knew she had looked through his temporary loss of composure and seen the sweet, curious, willing horse he is: Bud will be her next extreme trail riding horse.

These events test horses' and riders' ability to go over, under, and through obstacles made of wood, water, and soil. The horses have to back through some obstacles and others move when the horses step on them.

Bud has been elevated to royalty in his forever home: he's now Prince of Bud, or Prince for short. His new human companion is thrilled with his "willingness to learn, calm demeanor, and how fast he picks up on new things." In short, "He truly is my dream horse." No word on how many times her kids have used the excuse, "The horse ate my homework."

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Extreme Mustang Makeover, the Bud Edition

As a child, I was enchanted by the story of "Wild Horse Annie" fighting to save America's free-roaming horses. I was desperate to leave boring junior high in snoozeville Minneapolis and head west. I dreamed of spending all day outside on a horse and sleeping under the stars every night.

As an adult, I live in the West and sleep outdoors more than most people would want to. But the "wild" (they're actually feral) horse question is more complicated than it seemed in junior high.


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reports that almost 50,000 feral horses and burros still roam the western range. The agency, which manages the federal lands where the animals live, also houses a similar number in pens and pastures.

The BLM periodically rounds up and removes some of the horses so they don't interfere with other uses of public land. The agency tries to find homes for them, but their corrals are starting to look like the Humane Society during kitten season. In 2013, only 2,671 horses and burros were adopted, less than half the number adopted in 2005. A steady parade of horses leave the range and end up in the permanent limbo of BLM holding facilities.

A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report points out that the BLM doesn't actually know how many feral horses roam the West. The NAS detected a lot of guesstimating in the agency's counting process, but was able to conclude that the horse population is growing 15-20% per year.


The report's most discouraging finding is the reason for the rapid growth rate: the BLM's removal program. When there are fewer horses on the range, there's more food for those left; the remaining horses get busy and make more horses. Although birth control would be a humane solution, the NAS doubted that it alone could reduce population growth to a sustainable rate.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation tells the story of the free-roaming horses that fired my imagination as a child. Their Extreme Mustang Makeover springs a handful of lucky horses from BLM limbo and pairs them with experienced trainers. Each pair has 100 days to get ready for the show ring, after which the horses find new homes at auction. The transformation from wary mustang to confident companion was recorded in the documentary Wild Horse Wild Ride. Spoiler alert: get your hankies out; the auction breaks up some close cross-species friendships.

My friend Matt Livengood was selected to participate this year. He's teaching This Bud’s for You (Bud, for short) everything he needs to know to be a safe, relaxed, equine partner for a successful bidder. A group of friends got together at Matt and Alayne's Sweet Pepper Ranch on Memorial Day. After a barbeque, beverages, and bantering, we gathered at Bud's corral to watch his progress.

Matt had Bud's saddle and bridle on before I got my camera out. Bud was already a pro at this part.

Matt had been putting weight on the saddle for many days...

...and even lying across the saddle while he patted Bud, swung the stirrup back and forth, and got Bud used to the strange things people do when they ride horses.

There were lots of human and canine spectators offering Bud advice during his lesson.

Whoa! Once in a while Bud had to stop and collect himself.

Matt kept working with Bud until...he swung up and sat on him. Bud couldn't believe his eyes; there was a person on his back for the first time!

Good job, Bud--and Matt!

Matt and Bud listened to each other constantly during the evening.

Bud looked pleased with himself (and relieved) after his first ride.

Bud even followed Matt without a lead rope. It showed he was paying attention and trying to understand what Matt wanted him to do.

Come watch Bud and Matt in Idaho's first Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Nampa Horse Park, July 25-26. If you languished in junior high, dreaming of roaming the West on horseback, this Bud could be for YOU.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Farmington, NM Library Remembers the Past, Plans for the Future

The ancient residents of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, tracked the seasons from rock observatories. Current residents of the nearest large town can track the seasons across the stone floor of the library.

When I visited the Farmington, New Mexico library in mid November, the low noon sun touched the edge of the winter solstice marker engraved into the floor.

If I had visited on December 21st I would have found the phrase “Winter Solstice 12:00” framed in light and the solstice celebration in full swing.

On June 21st the noon sun shines from overhead through a window atop the east door of the library to illuminate the summer solstice marker.
The Farmington Library sought community input while planning their new building, which opened in 2003. The cultures and landscapes of northwest New Mexico are reflected in the Native American and high desert motifs of the building.

The main entrance echoes the east-facing doors of hogans on the Navajo Reservation west of town. The central atrium, where the sun traces the time and space between the solstices, is the heart of the building. The library’s collections and services encircle the atrium and follow the cycle of life in a clockwise circuit.

Life’s journey starts in the Juvenile Collection on the south, moves to the Teen Zone in the west, and continues through the adult nonfiction and fiction sections. Multimedia resources and magazines wait on the east side, next to the entrance.

The library’s round design reflects nature in its paucity of straight lines. Chrome bookshelves fan out to in pie slices in the adult section, between the atrium and the glass wall on the north. The round windows in the interior and exterior walls remind me of portholes.

I checked email and downloaded digital photos and GPS coordinates in the Southwest Collection, protected by legions of kachina dolls dancing in glass display cases.


Beyond the rows of kachina dolls, a modern protector watches over the library’s materials. The Farmington Library was the first in the country where patrons check out all their own books and media. Their system uses radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, instead of the bar codes used at most libraries and in supermarket checkout lanes. The RFID readers in the atrium don’t have to “see” a visible bar code or demagnetize security “tattle tapes.” Borrowed materials just have to be close enough that the machine can scan their RFID tag with radio waves.

Pet owners use RFID tags when they get their cats and dogs “chipped.” If a pet gets lost, their name and owner’s contact information can be read with a hand held scanner.

I first heard of RFID tags in salmon. Thousands of young fish in the Pacific Northwest are tagged and tracked as they swim down the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean and again when they return to inland streams as adults to spawn and die.

I can't help picturing schools of shimmering books leaving the sea of library shelves and heading out into the world through the east entrance. I imagine the books expanding the minds of fifth graders, retired police officers, aspiring carpenters, and middle school teachers before returning to the stacks. Happily, the books, unlike salmon, make many round trips in their lifetimes.

When books return to the library, they are either walked in the front entrance or driven behind the READ sculpture to the automatic return in back. After patrons slide their returns through the slot, the RFID system checks in the materials and provides a receipt and a coupon for $5 off library fines.

This video shows the system in action. The last part, where materials are automatically sorted into bins, reminds me of the automatic gates that open and shut to sort tagged salmon for researchers to study.

The self check out--and in--system frees the library staff to help patrons and answer visitors’ questions. This has transformed the Circulation Desk of my childhood into the Service Desk in the Farmington Library’s atrium. A whiteboard next to the desk tells everyone they count: the board lists the number of people who visited the library and the number of book they checked out (themselves) the previous day. (A helpful reader pointed out that the numbers in the photo were from a Sunday, when the library is only open for four hours. On other days, 1050 to 1400 people visit the library.)


The library’s circulation system also freed up a security guard to do a short demo for me. He showed me the postage stamp-sized RFID tags inside each book. Then he showed me what happens when someone forgets to scan a book before they leave the library. We got prompt attention from the Service Desk.

The late afternoon sun had slipped below the southwest windows and the patch of light on the floor had disappeared by the time I left the library. I drove west into the sunset to Shiprock, NM before I turned north toward Boise.


The sun has made ten trips back and forth across the floor of the new library building. Last fall, before the winter celebration, the Farmington Library again asked the community to help plan their future. Area residents shared their ideas and hopes for the library in a time of shrinking budgets and growing populations.

The ancient residents of New Mexico faced their own challenges of dwindling resources. Farmington's modern library is meeting its challenges while grounded in the area’s ancient traditions.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Late Winter Rains and Army Cutworms

Southwest Idaho's Winter of Ice Fog ended when snow fell in early February. The ridge of high pressure that had smothered us under a season-long inversion broke up. This allowed a procession of rainstorms to wash in from the Pacific.

The Treasure Valley smelled of damp, warm soil. Ranchers, farmers, and water managers cheered the promise of grass, irrigation water, and ample snow pack. An artist used every shade from Absinthe to Wintergreen to paint the Boise Green Belt in living color.

The rains were too late to save this year’s crop of cheatgrass in the dry areas along the Snake River, south of town. Last fall, a prodigious storm had germinated a flush of the winter annual grass, along with its annual mustard cousins. Sadly for the plants, their good luck didn't last. Happily for me, their misfortune confirmed an accusation I'd made 11 years earlier.

Large numbers of miller moths had preceded the rains. The eggs they laid hatched into army cutworms a month or so later. The larvae soon got down to business eating the tiny green plants.

The dry winter that followed was ideal for the cutworms, which develop fungal diseases in damp weather. But the cheatgrass and mustards struggled without rain. The annual plants died from lack of water or were consumed by army cutworms. Perennial grasses, mostly short Sandberg bluegrass, survived on the hills above areas where the annuals had died.


Hungry army cutworms roamed the bare areas looking for food...


...or hid under cowpies, out of the wind...


...but within reach of hungry centipedes.


The larvae became arboreal and climbed sagebrush...


...and fourwinged saltbush and kept eating.


Army cutworms also climbed the hills to munch on Sandberg bluegrass, which seemed able to outgrow the larvae's feeding.


When they ran out of plants to eat, the cutworms dined on their fallen relatives.


In 2003, I saw bare areas around Winnemucca, NV that resembled this year's dieoffs along the Snake River. After months of sleuthing, I found that army cutworms were probably responsible for the 2003 damage. This year, I caught the culprit cutworms in the act.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2013 Sugar Beet Harvest was a Challenging One

Metal dinosaurs come to life each fall across southern Idaho. Joints flex and belts whir to life at rural crossroads from Blackfoot to Nampa. Convoys of trucks unload sugar beets into the clanking creatures through the short fall days and into headlight-filled nights. 
The beet dragons arrange the roots into tidy piles that demonstrate betaine physics in their angle of repose.
Trucks shoulder past each other on the narrow roads between the “beet dumps” and the fleets of harvesters in the fields.
Each harvester is attended by a bevy of trucks waiting their turn for a high horsepower, high volume pas de deux across the corduroy soil. As one truck is filled and peels off, another smoothly cuts in to take its place.
When the beet fields are empty and the dumps are full, larger trucks carry the beets, which look like sturdy, white garden beets, to processing plants. The plants extract from the lumpily pyramid-shaped roots the granulated white sugar we use in cooking. Livestock eat the high fiber beet pulp that is left.
In 2013, Idaho sugar beet growers produced record high yields, but were hit by a double whammy of low sugar content in the beets and low prices for the crop. I wrote about the challenges of this year’s harvest in a recent issue of the Intermountain Farm & Ranch section of the Idaho Falls Post Register. Growers hope that new higher-sugar beet varieties and careful management will boost sugar contents, and profits, next season.