DAYTON -- The Nevada desert looked still early Thursday morning, the smell of hot sage in the air.
The only sign of a roundup in progress was a distant cloud of dust rising above the rolling hills.
Slowly, the cloud began to grow and move closer, until a herd of nearly 30 horses appeared on the horizon, a helicopter floating above them.
A trained horse, known as the Judas horse, was turned loose and led the mustangs into a trap set up by the Bureau of Land Management in the Pine Nut Mountains.
Jim Gianola, wild horse and burro specialist for the BLM, credits the success of the operation to helicopter pilot Cliff Heaverne.
"There's a lot of people who can fly," he said. "There's not many of them who can do wild horses. He's one of the best."
"You just don't put too much pressure on them," he explained. "You just fly on the periphery. If you push them too hard, they'll run over the colts and the fastest ones will leave the slower ones behind.
"You'd just have a big mess going."
Heaverne grew up on a ranch near Battle Mountain and learned to fly in the military, serving in Vietnam.
Nearly 24 years ago, he combined his skills in ranching and flying to become a contractor to round up wild horses through his Fallon business, High Desert Helicopters.
"It beats working for a living and I get to have fun," he said, smiling beneath the brim of his cap.
He said the majority of his time is spent slowly trailing groups of mustangs through sagebrush and dust, travelling about six miles in two hours.
But he must always be watching for potential accidents or hang-ups, especially as they approach the trap.
"It's hours of boredom punctuated by sheer terror," he said.
Heaverne travels across the West with a crew of about eight wranglers, gathering wild horses for the BLM.
The 27 horses rounded up Thursday brought the total to 173, nearly split down the middle with males and females.
"This has gone real smooth so far," said BLM spokesman Mark Struble. "They're in real good condition."
About 320 wild horses will be taken from the herd of 439 horses on the Pine Nut range during the nearly two-week roundup.
Once the horses are gathered, they are separated by gender into holding pens where they are inoculated and their age is determined.
The older horses are loaded into large semi-truck trailers and are sent to sanctuaries. The younger ones will be put into adoption programs.
Horses between the ages of 6 and 9 will return to the range. Those horses remain in the pen until the roundup is complete.
Heaverne's crew feeds the horses daily.
"By the end of the two weeks they'll gentle down pretty good," said wrangler Dwayne Jackson.
Gale Thomssen lives at the foot of the mountains and has identified three of the horses as her favorites. She asked BLM officials to leave those horses free, and was granted her request.
When she can, she goes to the holding pen to observe the process of gathering and shipping.
"It's fascinating and it's painful," she said. "I don't like losing my horses. The whole reason for living where we live is because of the horses."