According to a recent Bureau of Land Management census, 150 adult horses and 17 of their foals live on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. Based on previous research conducted by the BLM, this is about 30 horses more than ideal number or AML (Appropriate Management Level) to support both a healthy range and a healthy herd, which according to BLM studies is 90-120 adult horses, excluding the foals.
The BLM proposed a gather earlier this year to reduce the size of the herd. A comment period was opened for the entire month of August, where the public was invited to provide input about the methods the BLM plans to use to gather the horses, which includes bait trapping, water trapping, herding or a combination of these techniques to capture and remove the excess number of horses from the herd. A report was released this month outlining the public’s response to the gather.
“Although we received a lot of responses, most were form letters that really didn’t provide the kind of input we were looking for,” said public affairs specialist Kristen Lenhardt on behalf of the BLM. “Out of the thousands of comments we received, the number of unique comments was only about 12. The rest were just the form letters or did not address what we were asking about, which was the gathering methods proposed.”
The report stated in its findings that few members of the public appeared to be aware or understand BLM’s current “management prescription” and few understood the BLM’s “obligations” under federal law. It also stated that many members of the public misunderstood the process to be a “referendum” or vote and didn’t seem to understand that the “scoping process” is designed to gather information that will be used in an environmental analysis that will take place prior to the gather.
The management prescription, according to Lenhardt, refers to a comprehensive study that was conducted over a two-year period of time in 2007-2009. The study, which was conducted by scientific experts, took into account both environmental impact of the horses on the range and the ideal conditions (specifically the numbers) required to maintain a healthy herd based on the food and water provided by nature within the confines of the 38,000 acres that makes up the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.
According to Lenhardt, this study established the policy of how the horses would be managed and established the ideal number of horses on the range to be between 90-120 adults. The BLM is required to maintain this number and doesn’t have the option of varying from this program.
“We wish more people would have taken the time to understand what we were asking,” maintained Lenhardt. “We were asking about the gathering methods
not whether we should do it or not. We are required to keep the herd population with a certain number of horses that can be supported by what the range has to offer. That was already considered in the previous study.”
Lenhardt said the “bait and trap method” proposed by the BLM will trap small numbers of horses in pens or corrals that are created using portable panels throughout the wild horse range. Food and water (or bait) will be placed the pens. Once the horses enter the pens, someone will close the gate. The horses will be identified and based on a number of factors including age, health and genetic considerations, certain horses will be removed from the herd and, for the most part, will be offered to the public at auction.
Lenhardt clarified that “no horses will be sent to slaughter” and went on to say that it is “illegal to kill wild horses or send them to slaughter.”
“One of the most common misunderstanding people have is they believe the horses that are captured are sent to the slaughterhouse,” said Lenhardt. “This is absolutely false. We do not send horses to slaughter.”
The BLM is charged with the task of maintaining both the range and a healthy herd under the “The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.” Although not afforded the protections of “wildlife,” the horses are afforded certain protections under the law, and as Lenhardt pointed out, the horses are not hunted like other wildlife and are managed and protected as long as they remain on “public land.”
“We don’t object to a non-helicopter gather that takes into consideration the bloodlines and genetic factors that influence the survival of the herd,”
said Lori Graham of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center (PMWMC), a non-profit advocacy group for this specific herd of horses.
The group monitors the humane treatment of the horses and maintains a meticulous record of their gene pool. Some evidence indicates that this particular herd maintains a fairly pure bloodline that dates back to the horses of early Spanish conquistadors.
Graham feels the BLM does make efforts to take genetic factors and phenotypes into consideration and is pleased with the working relationship her group has developed with the BLM.
“We work with them also to help identify these factors and they have become very knowledgeable on their own,” said Graham.
She hopes that the BLM won’t remove older mares and stallions from the herd. It’s her understanding that they are only looking to remove horses that are yearling through 4-year-old age from well-represented bloodlines.
According to Graham, PMWMC supports this type of selection as long as the bloodlines remain well represented in the herd and humane methods are used to gather the horses. The group does not support helicopter gathers.
“The helicopter gathers are sad because babies and mothers get separated,” explained Graham. “Families get separated and young ones get hurt.
It’s a lot of stress on the poor horses.”
The BLM has implemented a program of fertility control where certain mares are selected based on genetic factors to receive an annual birth control shot. The shot is administered by dart. Graham hopes that this method of population control will eliminate the need for helicopter gathers in the future.
“In 2009, the herd went through the largest gather since the creation of the range,” said Graham, who has only been with the Wild Mustang Center a short period of time and has not actually witnessed a gather. “I hope the fertility program eliminates the need for large gathers in the future.”
In a letter to the Bureau of Land Management, the PMWMC recommended that the population of the horses “slowly be moved toward the appropriate management level of 120 (adult horses) through a series of smaller gathers.”
“We recommend that no more than 10 horses be removed annually in a series of gathers. These horses should be chosen through careful evaluation of such cri
teria as age and kinship; we will continue to provide information on herd demographics and individual horses to the Billings Field Office to allow for the best decisions to occur on making removal determinations based on the recommended criteria.”
According to Lenhardt, the BLM is taking this and other informed suggestions into consideration as they continue their environmental analysis of the range and the horse population that has inhabited that range for hundreds of years.
To see a complete copy of the recently released scoping report, go to http://www.blm.gov/mt/st/en/fo/billings_field_office.html.
The next step is for BLM to draft an environment analysis using the input from this scoping report and other information to establish more specific details of the gather. Lenhardt estimated that the report will be completed and released to the public for another round of comments sometime in December.
“We encourage people to go to our website and really become informed about the process and to use that information to make comments and informed suggestions during the pubic comment period,” said Lenhardt.
Lenhardt expects the gather to take place sometime in the year 2012. Since a series of smaller gathers is what is being proposed, Lenhardt anticipates that the gathers will be conducted in different parts of the range on more than one date.
By Patti Carpenter