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

Valentine is led out on a trail by a snowmobile. (Courtesy photo)
Valentine is led out on a trail by a snowmobile. (Courtesy photo)
Rich Landers

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 for six weeks in a wolf-rich national forest.

The Jackson Hole News & Guide this week says Valentine, a 6-year-old pack horse, had fallen ill during the November hunting season and was basically left for dead as the outfitters had to get the loaded pack string out of the the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

When the mare was detected by a snowmobile trail groomer in mid-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 to minus 30 degrees?

And how did she elude the wolves?

It’s an equine “Revenant” movie in the making, since those questions may never be answered.

“She hung high up … and I think that’s what saved her from the wolves,” said BJ Hill, owner of Swift Creek Outfitters.

The rescue would be an equally remarkable 40-mile round trip in below-zero temperatures. The mare was about 6 miles down from the closest trail.

“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 Dirk Chalfant, a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer who joined the rescue with the outfitter and his son.

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 Cassut. “If we had to leave her and drive away, I think she would have been heartbroken.”

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

A storm was making the effort even more difficult, dumping 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,” he said. “She never tied up.”

After what Chalfant estimated was 20 miles of travel, they finally reached the 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.”

This story has taken off on social media. Predictably, a lot of people are calling for the outfitter’s head.

Some are calling it a case of animal cruelty while others are saying the outfitter was negligent.

But Maury Jones, who knows the outfitter and says he takes good care of his stock, offered another point of view.

The mare became ill and was lying on her side, groaning, breathing heavy and unable to move, he said. The unarmed wranglers had the option of trying to kill her with a knife or leaving her hoping the horse would get well and follow the trail out.

“That would be normal horse behavior, to follow the trail back,” Jones said. “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 said Valentine was in the pasture beside the outfitter’s house this week, “and doing just fine.”

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