By Kelsey Dayton, WyoFile
For many, the horse is one of those animals symbolic to the American West. Yet on America’s public lands the animal costs the government millions of dollars each year and finds itself in the center of roiling political debate.
The Bureau of Land Management, charged with managing wild horse populations on public land, uses birth control, adoptions and roundups to help keep the populations in check due to the stresses the animals can add to the range. Horses that are gathered and not adopted are sent to holding facilities. There are currently about 50,000 animals in long- and short-term holding facilities.
As the BLM works to find ways to better manage the animals, some might find homes at so-called “eco-sanctuaries” — private ranches where owners partner with the BLM to care for the wild horses and provide tourism and educational opportunities to the public. The country’s first eco-sanctuary is located near Centennial, Wyoming.
The second wild horse eco-sanctuary could be near Lander; the 900-acre Double D Ranch about seven miles outside of Lander. If approved the ranch could be home to up to 250 wild horses, gathered primarily from Wyoming public rangelands. The Double D Ranch eco-sanctuary would be funded by the BLM, and open to the public for eco-tourism, which would help cover some of the operating expense. The BLM would sponsor the eco-sanctuary, paying amounts comparable to costs in the Midwest for long-term pasture use, which is about $1.30 to $1.40 per day per horse, including the BLM’s administrative costs, said Sarah Beckwith, a spokeswoman with the BLM.
Money from tourism — such as admission fees and souvenirs — helps offset the BLM costs, she said. It’s difficult to estimate how much revenue tourism might generate. Tourism dollar figures for the Deerwood Ranch, the country’s first eco-sanctuary, were not readily available.
Long-term plans for the Double D Ranch’s wild horse sanctuary include a learning and visitors’ center with a focus on Native American culture and the role of the horse in it, as well as tours, a gift shop and a campground. Public comment on the proposal is now open and closes on March 14. After the scoping period ends, the BLM Lander Field Office will write an environmental analysis to determine the impacts of the eco-sanctuary followed by another public comment period.
If the plan moves forward, the Double D Ranch could get horses as early as late summer. In addition to the ranch near Lander, the BLM is considering a similar partnership with a ranch in Montana and another with a ranch in Oklahoma, according to Scott Fluer, wild horse specialist with the BLM.
The BLM’s wild horse eco-sanctuary effort targets horses 10 years old and older that have gone through multiple adoption events and still have not found homes. In recent years wild horse adoption numbers have declined, leaving more horses in holding facilities, Fluer said.
The BLM still uses birth control, called PZP, to manage horses on the range, but it is only effective every two years.
As of January 2014, there were 14,860 horses at short-term holding corrals managed by the BLM – 1,200 of those animals are in Wyoming, according to Beckwith. There are an additional 33,511 horses in long-term pastures. In fiscal year 2013, which ended Sept. 30, congress appropriated $71.8 million to the wild horse and burro program. Of that, holding costs accounted for $46.2 million, or 64 percent, Beckwith said.
Some people believe the use of an eco-sanctuary is better than leaving horses in long-term holding. Suzanne Roy, director of the Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, says it’s preferable, but it’s still not a solution. “There’s nothing natural about removing horses from their natural habitats and breaking up their family bands and keeping them in storage facilities and pastures,” she said. “These are sex-segregated facilities where the horses do not get to live as nature intended.”
If people want to see wild horses they can visit the herd management areas and see the animals living naturally on the range, she said.
Roy adds that the term “eco-sanctuary” is misleading. “This is just a greenwashing of the BLM’s holding program,” she said. “It’s a step above the long-term holding because it’s open to the public. It’s just putting a nice word on the BLMs broken round-up, remove and stockpile program with wild horses.”
Instead of focusing on the eco-sanctuaries, Roy suggests the BLM should focus on managing the horses on the range, using PZP as birth control to stabilize the herd numbers. BLM should also adjust herd management numbers. Lower population numbers causes the horses to reproduce at a higher rate. Roy believes the range resources should be shared fairly between wild horses and livestock.
“The eco-sanctuaries are not a solution to the BLM’s problem, because they can’t keep removing the horses from the range by the thousands every year. It’s just not sustainable,” Roy said.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said the organization supports ranchers using their land however they wish, as long as it’s properly fenced. The association requested of the BLM that, if approved, the eco-sanctuary house Wyoming horses instead of bringing in horses from elsewhere.
Magagna said the problem is the program don’t address the large issue of thousands of horses on the range that should be removed. “The only simple-ish answer that would address the problem in a reasonable time is to allow the destruction of horses either by process slaughter or shipping them overseas.”.
At the Deerwood Ranch near Centennial, owners Jana and Rich Wilson continue to avoid the politics they know swirl around wild horses. They started offering tours of the ranch in June 2013 and continued through the early fall. About 350 people toured the ranch during that period, including students on a field trip. They offer tours in the winter when the weather allows.
“It’s just a thrill to come over a hill and see this huge group of horses together,” Jana Wilson said. “It’s kind of an ‘oooh’ and ‘aah’ factor when you finally go out and find the horses.”