PRYOR, Mont. - The lone black stallion's battle cries fell on deaf ears.
As pink tendrils of morning sun climb over an alpine meadow on East Pryor Mountain, the agitated horse, Two Boots, wants his harem of mares back from Lakota, an upstart stallion who stole his herd the evening before.
A new day has dawned, and Two Boots emerges from the timber, arching his neck, nostrils flaring, ready to rumble.
But Lakota and the mares are nowhere in sight. And the other stallions are uninterested in Two Boots' dilemma, content to graze among their own herds.
On the prowl, the black stallion crosses the meadow, whinnying sharply for his abducted mares and for Lakota to answer.
All is silent except for meadowlarks and the muffled thunk of hooves moving across earth and rock.
His challenge unanswered, Two Boots trots urgently over a ridge, and is swallowed by the horizon.
"Some days it's like a soap opera up here, with horse herds changing, and stallion fights, " said Jill Fanning, range wildlife technician with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Part of her job is keeping track of Two Boots and the other wild horses that inhabit the Pryor Mountain National Horse Refuge, home to one of the last large herds of free-running horses in the United States.
Brushing the sky at about 8,600 feet, the Pryor Mountain wild horses thrive in a 31,000-acre preserve south of Billings.
Living link to the conquistadors
Like a plateau out of time, their home atop East Pryor Mountain is a giant pedestal holding to the heavens the remnant of a lost breed.
They live by savvy and spirit, forging an existence in country so rugged and remote, would-be human captors did not bother them.
"They are like a bunch of ruffians who roll into town to harass the stallions," said Fanning.
They have roamed Montana's skyline since the days of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806, but the blood of this herd reaches to the 16th century, said Linda Coates-Markle, BLM wild-horse and burro specialist and range manager of the herd.
These are not renegade former ranch horses. They are a genetic sample of Old World Spanish horses brought to North America with the conquistadors. Stamped with the traits of their lineage, the horses have distinct characteristics of modern-day Spanish parade horses.
Standing between 13.2 hands and 14.3 hands, these small rugged horses, the size of a large pony, have slender tapered muzzles, wide-set eyes, short backs and a low-tail set. Their heads have a slightly rounded profile, identified by horse breeders as a "Roman nose." High-stepping knee action helps them navigate the unforgiving terrain as they migrate from desert to mountaintop with the seasons.
But it is their coloring and primitive markings, throwbacks to their origins, that fascinates scientists.
There are grulla, mouse-gray, black-headed horses; duns, or cream-colored horses; blue roans; and pure black horses. Their genetic heritage goes back so far they have zebra striping on their legs and dark striping down their backs and withers.
"They are a unique genetic resource," said Phillip Sponenberg, a veterinarian and rare-breed researcher with the Virginia/Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.
"If we lose these animals they are gone for good, because they don't exist anywhere else," he said.
That they thrive in the care of East Pryor Mountain is no surprise to those who know the mountain best, said Frederick Lefthand, zoning director for the Crow Tribe.
Winter grazing grounds, where the desert meets the base of East Pryor, covers a territory named "Bad Pass Highway," once a route for Indians passing through the Yellowstone Basin - a path white men found inhospitable, Lefthand said.
Lewis and Clark left them behind
The origins of the herd are documented in Lewis and Clark's journal. They are believed to be remnants of the 65-head herd Army Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor bought from the Nez Perce to trade with the Mandan. By journal accounts, 15 escaped and the rest were stolen by the Crow.
"We know the story; we remember when it happened," said Lefthand. The horses remained unmolested for decades, partly because the Pryor Mountains are sacred to the Crow, Lefthand said.
Then in the 1960s, the BLM targeted them for elimination. Believing the horses were nothing more than unattended and unwanted ranch animals eroding grazing leases, the it announced a roundup to sell them to pet-food manufacturers.
People on the Montana-Wyoming border were so enraged by the BLM's plan that they formed the Pryor Mountain Mustang Association, which whipped up publicity in National Geographic, Newsweek, and national television networks.
When the roundup was scheduled in 1968, the Humane Society of the United States stepped into the fray and asked a federal judge to stop the hunt.
The public outcry pushed then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to put an end to the matter by declaring the area the Pryor Mountain National Wild Horse Range. In doing so, he created the nation's first public horse range, free and open to the public.
Three years later, in 1971, Congress passed the Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, defining the wild equines of the west as "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit." Today the animals are protected from capture, branding, harassment or killing.
Stallions and their harems
Currently about 180 horses with about 31 different harem groups - mares, foals and a stallion - roam the hills, with eight to 10 bachelor stallions on the periphery of the harems, hoping to win mares of their own.
When herd numbers reach a healthy 200, or to numbers the range cannot viably sustain, BLM will round up some horses for adoption, said Coates-Markle, the BLM horse specialist. The last roundup and adoption of the herd was in 1997. She does not expect another until late 2000.
"There's a lot to be gained from a conservation standpoint," she said. "Humans only understand them as a domestic submissive species, but they have a highly structured social order. This is our last chance to study the animals in the wild."
The BLM's Fanning and other government employees check the horses daily, noting which ones are with which stallion, which stallions are breeding individual mares, what rangelands are being occupied, and what plants are being eaten during the spring and summer months.
Although the horses are wild, they are given individual names to more easily identify them, Fanning said.
"It's just easier to call a horse Flash, or Plenty Coups than to say, `I saw number 823 grazing by 821,' " she said.
Government observations are bolstered by ongoing research by scientists at the University of Kentucky, Colorado State University and others.
"What we found is that there is very little inbreeding among the herds," Fanning said. "The stallions kick out their offspring when they are 2 years old."
In addition to the scientists, wildlife filmmaker Ginger Kathrens also has been tracking and filming the horses for the past four years.
"I was stunned in 1994 when I first came here," Kathrens said while filming the horses last month. "I thought they just stood around and grazed all day, but it is easy to see individuals - they have very intricate behavior, almost wolflike."
With a Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range Web site, film documentaries and national exposure in prestigious magazines, the Smithsonian and National Geographic, managing the range's human visitors has become a dilemma.
By fall, the last decade of research on the horses and the rangelands - research Coates-Markle considers the most comprehensive information of the ecosystem - will be analyzed.
"With that information we will look to what we need to do to maintain the herd for the the next 200 years," she said. "It would be nice if humans could exist in a situation with harmony with the horses.
"Should we be so arrogant to think we know everything there is about these animals and other species? I don't think so. I think there is a lot to be learned for human social structure. There is so much out there, we haven't even begun to scratch the surface."