Wild horse gather begins this week

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began its much-anticipated gather of wild horses this week to remove excess wild mustangs from the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. The gather is expected to include the removal of some horses that have become familiar faces to the many wild horse advocates who frequent the range and keep a watchful eye on the horses.

“It’s easy to get attached to certain horses, to connect with them,” explained Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center Director Lori Graham. “For some people it’s like connecting with another person, so it’s really hard to see them taken out of the range like this, but we know it has to happen.”

Bait traps have been set in the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range like this one set up in the Layout Creek Area. The BLM is using the bait traps to gather excess horses that will be removed from the range.

BLM officials have spent the last few weeks preparing for the gather and removal of excess horses from the range. This preparation includes the construction of portable pens that will be used as baiting pens with mineral blocks and in some cases water. The pens are set up for several days to allow the horses to get used to going inside for the bait. Eventually, the gate to the pen will be closed and certain horses that have been preselected based on age and genetic factors and marked with paint ball guns will be removed. Those not targeted for removal that end up in the pens will be released back on to the range. Those targeted for removal will be loaded into horse trailers and taken to a safe area where they will, in some cases, be “gentled” in preparation for adoption.

The BLM has been working with local advocates from the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center and others who keep close tabs on the horses to determine which horses will likely be removed. The decision is based on which horses will cause the least detriment to the genetic diversity of the herd if they are removed. The group keeps meticulous records of the horses, including photos and a record of their bloodlines and even names them, but most of all, it keeps an eye on their well- being.

The BLM plans, as much as possible, to gather horses that are nonessential to the overall genetic diversity of the herd. The horses that are gathered and removed will be sold at auction to individuals who have met certain criteria that prequalify them to adopt the horses. None of the horses will be slaughtered.

“We know that this has to be done because they are fenced in and this needs to be done so they can stay healthy and survive for years to come,” said Graham. “If this isn’t done some of the horses could starve. Even the ones we don’t have a large representation of could starve and that would be bad for the whole herd. We don’t like this but we have accepted it.”

The non-helicopter gather, which is considered the most humane method by many, is designed to “manage the appropriate number of wild horses so that rangelands and horses can be healthy and productive for years to come,” states the BLM on their website. The current wild horse population is approximately 170 horses, not including the estimated 21 foals born this spring. That number exceeds the established Appropriate Management Level (AML), which calls for 90-120 horses.

“If the range wasn’t fenced we wouldn’t have to do this,” said Graham, “but the reality is that they are fenced in and so the numbers have to be kept down to keep them healthy.”

The rough terrain of most of the range is a somewhat hostile environment for the tough-as-nails mustangs that have survived on limited resources for food and water for more than 100 years on the range.

The PMWHR/Territory Environmental Assessment and Herd Management Area Plan, which was developed in a public planning process and issued in 2009, guides the management decisions regarding the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range (PMWHR).

The gather comes at the tail end of a lengthy legal process that allowed several periods for public comment.

“We gave them our opinion in writing about which horses we think should stay on the range and which ones would cause the least problems if removed,” said Graham. “Of course, we’d like them all to stay, but we have to look at this from a scientific point of view not from an emotional one.”

BLM officials spent this week monitoring and tracking wild horse use patterns at trap sites. The water in springs near two of the trap sites are drying up, and the BLM staff plans to haul water to existing troughs at those locations to encourage the horses to frequent those areas.

The BLM encountered some problems when they marked the horses in the higher elevations because the horses rubbed against each other, rendering the markings useless. So far, they have not encountered the same problem at the lower elevations, which includes the horses of the Dryhead area located near Lovell.

Bait traps have been constructed at Cottonwood Spring, Bad Pass Seep and Layout with salt/mineral blocks inside the panels.  The horses were shot with the paint ball guns to mark their hindquarters, using a carefully planned color-coding system that identifies horses slated for removal and horses that will stay on the range. The bait trapping and removal will continue for a period of several months.

The 38,000-acre wild horse range is located north of Lovell and extends along the Montana-Wyoming border. It consists of BLM, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service managed land. Since the wild horses are not considered “wildlife,” they are not afforded the legal protections of other animals like wolves and bears.

By Patti Carpenter