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Pack horse left for dead survives 6 wintry weeks in Wyoming forest

A 6-year-old pack horse named Valentine is led out of the Bridger-Teton National Forest on Dec. 20. by Swift Creek Outfitters owner and operator BJ Hill. Valentine survived in the wintery backcountry alone for six weeks. (U.S. Forest Service)
A 6-year-old pack horse named Valentine is led out of the Bridger-Teton National Forest on Dec. 20. by Swift Creek Outfitters owner and operator BJ Hill. Valentine survived in the wintery backcountry alone for six weeks. (U.S. Forest Service)

UPDATED with more details and reaction.

HUNTING -- If you think you've had a tough winter, consider the plight of a Wyoming pack horse that was left for dead and survived on its own in the wolf-infested national forest for six weeks.

The Jackson Hole News & Guide this week is reporting the remarkable survival story of Valentine, a 6-year-old pack horse that had fallen ill during the November hunting season and was basically left for dead in the the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

When she was detected by a snowmobile trail groomer in midi-December, the outfitter was dumbstruck.

How did she recover from her illness?

How did she find enough food in snow that piled up to five feet deep and temperatures that dipped to minus 30 degrees?

And how did she elude the wolves that would have found her bogged down and easy prey?

It's an equine Revenant movie in the making.

“She hung high up North Forth and Fish Creek, and I think that’s what saved her from the wolves,” said BJ Hill, owner and operator of Swift Creek Outfitters and Teton Horseback Adventures.

Knowing the horse was alive was one thing. The rescue would be equally remarkable.

The mare was about 6 miles down from the Continental Trail — a sidehill snowmobile route that wouldn’t normally be packed and groomed at that point in December.

“I ride a brand-new 800 RMK snowmobile and it was challenging for the three of us to actually snowmobile down to where she was,” said U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Dirk Chalfant, who joined the attempt with the outfitter and his son.

But when the horse spotted them, she made it clear she did not want to be left behind again.

“She didn’t want to spend another night back there alone,” Chalfant told reporter Melissa Cassutt. “If we had to leave her and drive away, I think she would have been heartbroken.”

The men brought hay for the gaunt horse and used their snowmobiles to pack a negotiable path out.

The weather wasn't helping: a storm that day dumped about 8 inches of new snow as they worked.

The snowmobile groomer came in on a road below the rescue and assisted by packing a route out. The snowmobile rescuers would pack it more, and still the horse had to have a huge heart for survival to continue.

“That horse would walk in our tracks and break through into 5 feet of snow,” Chalfant said. “We just took the time it took. It basically took eight hours — 1 mile an hour — to lead it out.

“She never quit,” Chalfant said. “She never tied up.”

After what Chalfant estimated was 20 miles of travel, they finally reached the Moccasin Basin parking lot east of Togwotee Pass, where they loaded her up in a trailer to take her back to her winter home in Pavillion.

“To be honest with you,” Chalfant said, “when we went down there, we didn’t think we could get her out. But all the stars aligned.

“To me, it was a Christmas miracle.”

Update: This story is taking off on social media.  Predictably, a lot of people are calling for the outfitter's head. Some are saying he was an idiot for not having a gun, and in that case he should have put the horse down rather than abandon it in the forest.  

But Facebook reader Maury Jones offered a reality check.

Is it more humane to kill a sick horse or hope it gets well? If it gets well, it has lots of grass and water nearby. Put yourself in that position; You do not have a firearm, just pepper spray. You are 20 miles to the trailhead and have to make it there by dark because you are leading a long pack string of horses through grizzly country. What would you do? Yes, they had to leave it but the frequently checked the trailhead and asked anyone riding the trail if they had seen the horse. No one had, so BJ and his guide didn't "abandon" the horse.

When even more vile threats and comments were made toward the outfitter, Jones posted this detailed account in the comments with the original story by the Jackson Hole paper:

Here is the true story, and I knew it the moment I read the article. I called BJ last night and got the straight scoop and it was exactly as I figured it was. I know BJ Hill well and he takes good care of his stock and cares about them (and, by the way, he is no friend of the wolf). He had a riding stable right near mine in Alpine one summer so I know how he takes care of his horses. When his wranglers were packing out, the mare became ill. Couldn't continue. She was lying on her side groaning and breathing heavy. So his wranglers had the option of trying to kill her without a firearm on them (slit her throat with a Leatherman pocket knife? Beat her to death with rocks?) or leaving her hoping she would get well. They didn't have a firearm because pepper spray is the correct and non-lethal way to deal with grizzlies. A gun is just one more heavy thing to have to pack and carry. They chose to leave her there and, fortunately she survived but unfortunately it was a long time before she was found.

One would normally expect the horse to come on down the trail after she got better, before the snow got deep, the direction her friend horses went. That would be normal horse behavior, to follow the trail back. BJ and his staff checked the trailhead frequently and talked to people using that trail and no one had seen her. So BJ surmised she had died and been picked to the bones by coyotes, wolves, bears, eagles, and ravens. It wasn't worth a 20 mile ride back up there to see a pile of bones. He was surprised when she was located alive. It took BJ, his son, and a Forest Ranger a full day in below-zero temperatures to rescue the horse. 20 miles of working diligently to pack down a trail with snowmobile and help the horse along to get her home. BJ said she is in a corral next to his home and doing just fine.

I had a similar thing happen when I owned a kid's summer camp near Lizard Head Pass, Colorado. A horse got sick on a pack trip. Was down and wouldn't get up. Dying, we thought. Thin old horse. We didn't have a gun along to shoot her, so we took saddle and bridle off and just left her there, figuring she would either get well or would be bear bait. About six weeks later a Forest Service guy came into our ranch and reported a lone horse wandering around. From his description we knew it was her. We went up and located her and she was doing fine, much fatter than when we left her. Happy ending.

So this wasn't a cruelty thing for BJ Hill's wranglers and him. It was doing what seemed best at the time; giving her a chance to live. They didn't have any way to kill her if they had wanted to. Anyone who knows horses would think the horse would come on down the trail if it got better.

But thanks for being concerned. And, people, how about learning the facts before you use such abusive language on a person who did the right thing?


Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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