Northwest Tribes Take Steps To Corral Growing Wild Horse Population

By Tom Banse, NW News Network

Growing populations of wild horses in the inland Northwest are creating headaches for federal land managers. Wild and feral horse herds overrun tribal lands in our region too.

A National Academy of Sciences review of federal wild horse management recommended greater use of birth control injections to control overpopulation. Horse lovers want to see that happen on tribal lands too.

University of Missouri biology professor Lori Eggert, who took part in the National Academy report, said “extensive and consistent” contraception can stabilize a horse population on a range.

“It is not over the short term going to take these horses down population wise,” Eggert said. “It will simply slow the growth. There may have to continue to be some gathers and removals from the range until these populations come down.”

Injecting wild mares with birth control on a regular schedule seemed impractical to the tribal range managers I heard from. Jason Smith of Warm Springs said his tribe does have a castration program. He said it castrates 100-150 wild stallions per year to help with population control.

The question of how to proceed in some ways boils down to different world views. People from animal advocacy groups describe wild horses as intelligent, magnificent creatures, symbols of the West and the embodiment of freedom on the open range. On the reservation, rodeo champion Smith said the horse is a “really respected animal,” but fits another category.

“Warm Springs has always considered the horse as their livestock,” he explained. “It is just like cattle is, livestock. We love our horses. They are our tool. They are our work force.”

Smith said he’s looking forward to the next wild horse inventory on the Warm Springs reservation next spring. He’s hoping to see a major decline in numbers from the 5,700 to 6,000 horses counted by an aerial survey in 2011.

Economics of tribal wild horse management

People with an interest in wild horse management also are keeping an eye on Congress. Members of Congress must soon decide whether to keep a de facto ban on domestic horse slaughter for human consumption. The 2014 federal budget signed by President Obama barred the U.S. Agriculture Department from spending money on necessary inspections of commercial horse slaughterhouses.

The last domestic horse processing facilities closed in 2007 after an earlier Congress withheld funding to provide inspections. That is why horses destined for slaughter are exported to Canada or Mexico.

Last year, the Warm Springs tribe and Yakama Nation joined a lawsuit in federal court in defense of the planned opening of a private slaughterhouse in New Mexico. In written testimony, Yakama Nation biologist James Stephenson described how high transportation costs have undermined the economics of tribal wild horse management.

“Before cessation of horse slaughter in the United States, members of the Yakama Nation could sell horses at a price of approximately $150 to $400 per animal. Now, if you can find a buyer, such horses are often sold for prices of $5 to $20 per head,” Stephenson wrote.

Wild horse advocacy groups are marshaling their arguments to prevent any resumption of domestic horse slaughter. In addition, sympathetic senators and representatives have proposed to go further and ban the transport and export of American horses to foreign slaughterhouses.

However, those measures have not advanced in a gridlocked Congress.

Meanwhile, a Prineville, Oregon-based nonprofit proposes to open a completely different type of facility from a slaughterhouse to take horses removed from tribal lands. Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition founder Gayle Hunt envisions a “horse gentling” program where prison inmates could break wild horses and train more of them to be suitable for adoption or sale as riding horses.

“Problem offenders within the community are actually rehabilitated at the same time they are rehabilitating the wild horses of Warm Springs,” Hunt said while describing her vision.

She credits the idea to a Nevada Department of Corrections program that uses inmates to saddle-train wild horses gathered by the Bureau of Land Management from public lands in Nevada and Oregon.

Bill seeks to allow states to manage wild horses

 This 2013 file photo shows some of the hundreds of mustangs the U.S. Bureau of Land Management removed from federal rangeland. (Photo: Scott Sonner/AP file photo )

This 2013 file photo shows some of the hundreds of mustangs the U.S. Bureau of Land Management removed from federal rangeland. (Photo: Scott Sonner/AP file photo )

 By Martin Griffith, Associated Press

A Utah representative has introduced legislation to allow Western states and American Indian tribes to take over management of wild horses and burros from the federal government.

U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has mismanaged the animals on public rangelands and states should have the option of managing them.

An overpopulation of horses is pushing cattle off the range, the Republican lawmaker said, and leading to the destruction of important habitat for native species.

“States and tribes already successfully manage large quantities of wildlife within their borders,” Stewart said in a statement. “If horses and burros were under that same jurisdiction, I’m confident that new ideas and opportunities would be developed to manage the herds more successfully than the federal government.”

But Anne Novak, executive director of California-based Protect Mustangs, said her group opposes the legislation because it would lead to states and tribes killing the animals or selling them off for slaughter for human consumption.

The government is rounding up too many mustangs while allowing livestock to feed at taxpayer expense on the same rangeland scientists say is being overgrazed, she said.

“We’ve had firsthand experience with states and tribes managing wild horses, and it’s horribly cruel,” Novak said in a statement. “They ruthlessly remove wild horses and sell them to kill-buyers at auction. Severe animal abuse would be the result of the (legislation).”

The Bureau of Land Management says it’s doing all it can, given budget constraints, overflowing holding pens and a distaste for the politically unpopular options of either ending the costly roundups or slaughtering excess horses.

The bill’s introduction comes at a time when the bureau has been under increasing pressure from ranchers to remove horses that they say threaten livestock and wildlife on rangelands already damaged by drought.

In Utah, Iron County commissioners had threatened to gather up hundreds of mustangs themselves, saying the government refuses to remove enough horses in herds that double in size every five years.

Iron County Commissioner Dave Miller said he and commissioners from Utah’s Beaver and Garfield counties are trying to drum up support for a resolution in support of the legislation at the National Association of Counties annual conference in New Orleans, which ends Monday.

“The resolution will be instrumental in getting Chris Stewart’s bill through Congress because it shows support across the nation,” he told the Spectrum in St. George, Utah.

Stewart said his Wild Horse Oversight Act would extend all protections that horses and burros enjoy under the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 while giving states the opportunity of implementing their own management plans.

Under the bill, the states could form cooperative agreements to manage herds that cross over borders, and the federal government would continue to monitor horses and burros to ensure that population numbers as prescribed by the 1971 act are maintained.

The bureau estimates 40,600 of the animals — the vast majority horses — roam free on bureau-managed rangelands in 10 Western states.

The population exceeds by nearly 14,000 the number the agency has determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses.

At a glance

Some 49,000 horses and burros removed from the range are being held in government-funded short- and long-term facilities.

SOURCE: Associated Press

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.