Oregon wild horse gather brings relief, raises questions

Oct 2, 2009

Oregon wild horse gather brings relief, raises questions

The Lakeview Resource Area Bureau of Land Management (BLM) completed a major horse gather last week on the Beaty’s Butte grazing allotment and Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge in eastern Oregon. All tolled, 423 horses were gathered off the range, reducing the Beaty’s Butte herd to 102 head. Herd numbers are once again within the limits established for the Beaty’s Butte herd management area, which requires herd numbers to be maintained between 100 and 250 head. There is no question that the recent gather will provide short-term relief for the eleven member ranches of the Beaty’s Butte Grazing Association (BBGA) who were forced to come off the range early this fall, and whose cattle have had to share range resources with more than twice the number of horses deemed appropriate for the management area. However, the fact that horse numbers were allowed to increase beyond twice the management limit raises some serious questions about the effectiveness of BLM’s horse management program.

The Beaty’s Butte allotment comprises some 600,000 acres on which BBGA runs approximately 4,000 head of cattle from spring to fall. Typically, Oct. 10 is the out date for BBGA cattle. However, ranchers were required to be off the allotment between a month and a month-and-a-half early this fall. According to Theresa Romasko, BLM rangeland management specialist in the Lakeview resource area, the early out date on Beaty’s Butte this year was not due to the vast overpopulation of horses. Romasko explained, "The members did come in a little bit early, but it was not because of horse grazing impacts. It was because we had such a dry year."

Stacy Davies, manager of Roaring Springs Ranch and president of BBGA, is skeptical about BLM’s explanation. When asked what effect the overpopulation of wild horses had on the association’s permit this year, Davies pointed out that 450 surplus horses grazing for 12 months consume 5,400 animal unit months (AUMs), which is around 20 percent of the 25,000 AUMS designated for BBGA cattle. Says Davies, "If those extra horses had not been on the range, then we could have stayed on the range to fulfil our permit. Simple math points out that there’s competition."

Further, Davies noted that the unusually dry spring ended with significant rainfall in June: "The way the year started, we were way short of water and feed. Then June came, and we had an abundance of feed and water both."

To be sure, dry spring weather did threaten an impending crisis of feed and water shortages on the butte, and according to Davies, plans were already in place in May for an emergency horse gather and a July cattle removal date (which was later extended, after the June rainfall). However, in Davies’ assessment, the early dry weather only represents a superficial reason for the early removal of BBGA cattle from the Beaty’s Butte allotment.

According to Davies, at the core of the issue is the overflow of wild horses currently being kept in long- and short-term holding facilities by BLM. Despite existing adoption programs, thinning the numbers of wild horses through adoption has been difficult. Horses being kept in such facilities currently number around 30,000 (close to half the number of horses on the range) and cost BLM around 70 percent of its wild horse management budget to maintain. In theory, BLM should conduct routine maintenance gathers to keep herd numbers within the designated limits. However, with holding facilities filled to capacity, it is currently difficult for BLM to routinely maintain herd numbers within their designated limits. Indeed, according to Bob Hopper, BLM wild horse and burro lead for Oregon, a gather on Beaty’s Butte was scheduled to take place a year ago, but there was simply no space at long- or short-term holding facilities to accommodate the horses.

The situation has pushed BLM into a mode of crisis management. Often lacking the facilities to accommodate horses gathered for routine maintenance of herd numbers, BLM has sometimes been forced to postpone gathering excess horses until situations approach critical. When the welfare of horses, or the welfare of natural resources are critically threatened, BLM is then able to justify overextending its already overstocked facilities and gather horses off of the range. But because it frequently lacks the facilities for routine maintenance gathers, BLM must frequently manage horses by moving from one crisis to another.

According to Davies, ranchers are caught up in BLM’s need to demonstrate crisis conditions to justify horse gathers. "There’s a conflict between livestock grazing and wild horses. How can the BLM argue that (there is a crisis) if a rancher gets all his AUMs?" In Davies’ assessment, BLM’s demand that the grazing association gather cattle early this year was in large part motivated by BLM’s need to justify a horse gather to reduce the horses’ overwhelming numbers. Basically, removing horses from the range because of poor feed conditions doesn’t make sense if cattle are allowed to continue grazing: "(Given that) horse numbers were double the maintenance limits and there were negative impacts on water and rangeland resources as a result of ... grazing, the BLM requested the BBGA remove cattle early to minimize ecological impacts and to justify that conditions on the range necessitated a ... gather."

Whatever BLM’s motives for the early removal of cattle from the allotment, clearly it must be counted as a positive that BLM made a priority of reducing the number of horses on Beaty’s Butte. But if the situation on Beaty’s Butte leaves one lingering question, it is this: Why were horse numbers ever permitted to rise to double their maximum in the first place?

According to Romasko, the cause was most likely that horses were drifting into Beaty’s Butte allotment from outside areas. Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge, and the Burns BLM district all border on the allotment, and horses have been known to cross from one area to another.

Although Davies is aware that drift must account for some fluctuation of horse numbers, his view is that overpopulation is primarily due to poor management policies on the part of BLM; not enough gathers, maxed-out holding facilities, and not enough tools to reduce ever-growing horse numbers. Says Davies, "The gather was beneficial, but that misses the larger point. Numbers never should have gotten so high. The BLM should propose some kind of workable horse management plan so they can keep numbers where they should be. Their plan as it is now is not working."

In particular, Davies suggested that BLM should aggressively begin sterilizing horses as an additional means of population control, as well as euthanizing unadoptable horses. Adoption alone, particularly in the present economy, is simply not sufficient to maintain appropriate herd numbers.

Obviously, many management methods are objectionable to special interest groups. But Davies believes it is BLM’s first responsibility to take command of the situation and fulfill their obligation to manage the wild horses within the parameters established by the government:

"Rather then stand back and be picked on, they need to stand up and they need to take the leadership and solve the problem. Long term, that gather was a good thing. But they need to keep (numbers) below 250. They need to truly get a handle on the number of horses that utilize Beaty’s Butte. They are legally required to manage these horses within the management plan for that management area. (By not doing so) they are basically breaking the law. Any (public lands) user who breaks the law gets penalized heavily and quickly. The BLM should be held accountable and forced to manage the horses within the law. They should hold themselves as accountable as everyone else." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent