By Willow Belden, Wyoming Public Radio
Every year, the Bureau of Land Management removes thousands of horses from public land in Wyoming. They ship most of the horses to long-term holding facilities in the Midwest. But that’s expensive … and they’re running out of space. So now the BLM has partnered with ranchers to create a so-called horse “ecosanctuary” right here in the Cowboy State. It’s the first of its kind in the nation. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.
WILLOW BELDEN: The ecosanctuary is located on a private ranch in southeast Wyoming. Open fields give way to wooded hills. A branch of the Little Laramie River trickles through, flanked by bushy foliage. And everywhere you look, there are horses, grazing calmly. Black horses, and gray ones, chestnuts, and paints.
BELDEN: Rich and Jana Wilson run the ranch. As they drive me around, the horses lift their heads curiously. When we stop, several come over and sniff our hands through the open truck windows. Jana Wilson says they’re prettier than she expected wild horses to be.
JANA WILSON: I guess I was expecting them to be kind of dirty-looking and wild, and just wild manes with stuff hanging out of them or whatever, and that just wasn’t the case. They are pretty.
BELDEN: Rich Wilson says the 228 horses here are all geldings, and were all removed from public lands within Wyoming. The BLM routinely removes horses too keep herd sizes manageable. They try to find homes for them, but it doesn’t always work.
RICH WILSON: If those horses aren’t adopted, then this is where they come and will live out the rest of their life.
BELDEN: The Wilsons won’t train or domesticate the horses; they’re supposed to stay as wild as possible. But they couldn’t help naming a few, even though one of their contacts at the BLM said not to get too attached – after all, they’re wild animals.
JANA WILSON: She kept saying, ‘No, you can’t get attached to these horses and make pets out of all of them.’ And there’s just some that … they’ll just walk up to you, and how can you not pet them and love them?
BELDEN: The Wilsons say turning their ranch into an ecosanctuary isn’t actually that big a change. Traditionally, other ranchers have paid to graze cattle on the Wilsons’ ranch. Now, the BLM is paying to graze horses there.
JANA WILSON: Whether we graze cattle or graze horses, it’s just part of the business, and that’s what we’re doing.
BELDEN: And in fact, grazing horses is financially less risky than grazing cows, because the BLM has promised to keep boarding the animals for life. That means the Wilsons won’t need to negotiate new contracts each year. Plus, they’re planning to start offering tours of the ecosanctuary this spring … and they’re hoping that will bring in some extra money.
Diane Shober with the Wyoming Office of Tourism says it’s a good plan.
DIANE SHOBER: One of the things that visitors do that rates high on the list is the authentic western experience. And when we say western, that doesn’t mean necessarily just what you would think of in the traditional sense of cowboys. … It’s about wide open spaces; it’s about wildlife. … And it’s great when you have ways that you can really deliver on that promise to visitors.
BELDEN: Shober says having additional attractions like the horse sanctuary in southeast Wyoming could prompt visitors to stay longer, on their way to the national parks … which in turn could boost the tourism economy.
The BLM says the ecosanctuary will be good for other reasons too … most notably, because they need more space to keep horses. The agency’s June Wendlandt says the BLM removes thousands of horses from the range each year … but at most a few HUNDRED get adopted. As a result, 49-THOUSAND horses are currently in long-term holding facilities.
JUNE WENDLANDT: Nationally, we are running out of space in the horse and burro program altogether, in our short-term holding facilities and our long-term holding facilities.
BELDEN: To be clear, the new ecosanctuary can only accommodate a few hundred horses … so it won’t solve the overcrowding problem. But Wendlandt says it’s a start – AND it’ll be good for the BLM’s bottom line. The agency pays the Wilsons the same amount they’d pay to keep the horses in long-term holding facilities in the Midwest. But the agency will get some of the money that comes in from tourists who visit the ecosanctuary. AND they don’t have to pay to transport the horses to the Midwest.
Not everyone is thrilled with the ecosanctuary model, though.
SUZANNE ROY: To call it an ecosanctuary, I think, is really a misrepresentation.
BELDEN: That’s Suzanne Roy, with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
ROY: These are wild horses who have been taken from their natural environment. The stallions have been castrated; the families have been separated. … They’re no longer able to engage in the type of natural behaviors that wild horses have evolved to engage in.
BELDEN: She says instead of removing so many horses, the BLM should administer birth control to more mares and leave them on the range. It would take years for the BLM to reach its population objectives just through birth control, though. So in the meantime, the agency is hoping to open several more ecosanctuaries across the west. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.