By Brett French, Billings Gazette
A wild-horse advocacy group that has often been at odds with the Bureau of Land Management in the past over its management of the Pryor Mountains’ herd stepped forward last week to defend the agency.
Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based group, sued the BLM on Friday in U.S. District Court in Montana claiming that the agency failed to consider the combined impacts of removing 20 horses this summer and six to 12 annually in coming years, along with ongoing fertility control to curb the birth of foals.
The lawsuit prompted The Cloud Foundation to come to the BLM’s defense.
“There is much misinformation being circulated about this herd and this removal, and we decided to underscore the facts,” said Linda Hanick, TCF board member, in a press release. “If every herd were this well documented, all our wild horse herds in the West would be in much better shape.”
The Cloud Foundation has been working with the Billings BLM to develop an “on the range” management plan that does not include helicopter roundups. Instead, the horse removal is done using bait traps and targets specific horses for removal to ensure the genetic diversity and viability of the herd.
Fertility control applied through darting has reduced the reproduction rate from 17 to 18 percent to about 8 percent, said Jim Sparks, Billings Field Office manager for the BLM.
“Maybe there’s been a realization that we’re trying to do the best thing for the horses,” Sparks said.
Paula Todd King, TCF communications director, said the main problem for the Pryor herd is a reduction in the amount of rangeland after the Forest Service and National Park Service, which border the range, fenced off their lands.
“There are a lot of groups out there that scream and yell, which does not solve problems,” King said. “It’s much better to sit down and talk to them and offer solutions to the problems.”
Ginger Kathrens, founder and executive director of The Cloud Foundation, has documented and advocated for the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Herd on the Wyoming-Montana border for two decades. The herd has become famous largely because of Kathren’s documentary films about Cloud, a pale palomino stallion.
“Our goal and the goal of the Billings BLM is to eliminate removals in the future,” Kathrens said in the statement. “We’re not quite there yet, and I’d rather see fewer than 15 young horses removed this time around, but I believe that the current management strategies are leading to a day when no young mustangs will be removed, and every single foal born wild will live its life in precious freedom.”
The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range consists of more than 38,000 acres of desert, forest and high mountain meadows.
In its most recent management plan, the BLM is proposing to remove 15 to 20 horses this summer using bait traps set up near water sources. The herd will remain at a genetically viable level of more than 150 horses. Only specific horses are targeted for removal to create the least impact on the herd. Horses from well-represented family lines are targeted first, so family lines and unique colors will be retained on the mountain.
There are no livestock grazing leases on the wild horse range, which was established in 1968 for exclusive use by wild horses and other wildlife. The 170-animal herd is believed to be descended from horses used by Spanish conquistadors.
Periodic roundups have removed 700 horses from the area since 1971. The last roundup took place in 2012.
“That helicopter gather in 2009, which we had to do because the herd was so big, I don’t want to do that again,” Sparks said