The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is scheduled to soon publish its 10-year plan to curb the growing horse population on more than a quarter million acres of public land.
Malheur County is home to about 2,500 wild horses across nine herd management areas. Federal officials with the Vale BLM say the area could sustain up to less than a thousand.
Meanwhile, wild horse specialists with the Vale BLM said the population is growing by roughly 20% annually and has become too large for the range. The wild herds are overgrazing native plants, which reduces feed for other wildlife in the area.
Shaney Rockefeller, a wild horse specialist with the Vale BLM, said under the new plan the agency would gather 350 wild horses from Three Fingers, located 25 miles north of Jordan Valley, and Jackies Butte, 10 miles south of Rome near the Owyhee River Canyon. The combined area covers over 160,000 acres.
Rockefeller said the agency would truck as many animals as possible from both herd management areas. From there, the agency will inspect the animals, identify those they intend to keep and administer a contraceptive to the mares.
Those horses the BLM chooses to remove permanently will be placed in private care and prepared for adoption or sale. Then, the agency ships the remaining horses to BLM pastures in the Midwest.
Rockefeller said the agency holds the mares for up to two months after the first month.
She said the BLM would likely use a contraceptive that requires an annual booster after about two years. The boosters, Rockefeller said, are administered via darts shot at the horses.
Once the BLM in Washington, D.C., authorizes the plan, the agency can begin rounding up the horses. Rockefeller said the BLM would truck as many as possible to its corrals in Burns. There, the horses would be checked by veterinarians, vaccinated, and microchipped. Those mares selected to remain in the management areas will receive a birth-control vaccination.
The plan, Rockefeller said, is to return 75 mares and 75 studs.
According to the agency plan, federal officials anticipate three gathers over the next 10 years. However, Rockefeller said the agency would need to administer booster shots annually. She said the boosters would be administered by volunteers with a nonprofit the BLM has worked with since 2017.
Rockefeller said the organization comprises local ranchers who helped with fertility treatments on rangelands in Fields and Harper. She said the volunteers darted roughly 400 horses and went on to form the nonprofit High Desert Strategies.
Rockefeller said about 20 volunteers helped in the effort. She said the volunteers camp out during the summer by watering holes and darting the mares when they approach.
Rachel Amick, volunteer and rancher from Harper, said the overpopulation on the range was increasingly impacting the conditions on a grazing allotment her family uses and the situation became unmanageable.
She said they encountered damage to allotment fencing, not enough forage for their cows and dangerous situations with aggressive studs coming after their family when riding mares.
She said the studs, who can smell the mares from a great distance, have become aggressive and tried to scoop them up into their harems, creating a dangerous situation for her family when they were riding a mare when out herding their cattle on grazing allotments.
“A stud can smell from a mare from a mile away,” Amick said. “So, (the stud) is going to try to come after (the mare).”
She said it would become scary when her kids would be riding a mare in the wide open because studs could go after them.
“It was becoming a big, big problem,” Amick said. She said the relationship between the ranchers and the BLM had been strained up until that point — largely due to the situation with the wild horses.
“I think we were very skeptical at first,” she said. “We were not sure how (the darting program) would turn out.”
She said the population is manageable now, and her cattle and horses seem to be doing well.
“It was a team effort,” Amick said. “It was nice that we could work together and find a solution.”
While the wild horse population doubles in Oregon every four years, with the total population now around 4,500, not everyone believes the state is overrun by horses.
Wild horse conservationists say the BLM needs to manage the land better to provide a more abundant habitat for the horses.
Gayle Hunt, the founder of Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition based in Prineville, said she does not discount that wild horses cause damage. However, she said the agency should more fairly balance the management of the wild horses and livestock grazing across the west.
She said it’s an oversimplification to conclude that horses are the sole cause of range damage.
“We have not gotten to the root of the problem,” she said, “and that is we have had way too many cows and sheep for the last century. And if we don’t look at everything, we’re not fixing the environment.”
Rockefeller said the agency issues livestock permits annually and the amount is based on conditions in those areas managed by the BLM. Additionally, she said, the grazing is allowed only in the spring and summer, while wild horses graze all year.
“If we don’t take care of the landscape, then it won’t be here for all the native animals,” Rockefeller said. “Horses are part of what we manage, which means keeping within (manageable) numbers.”
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