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Cheyenne – Three years ago, the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) was appropriated $250,000 to do wild horse research, and two major projects have been taken on with that money, as well as several smaller projects.

“It’s been said that Bureau of Land Management (BLM) undercounts horses by up to 30 percent when we look at the census data,” said Chris Wichmann, WDA Natural Resources and Policy Division manager. “We started looking at wildlife impacts because the state is very interested in how wild horses impact crucial winter ranges, wildlife habitat and especially sage grouse habitats.”

Wichmann provided a report to the Board of Agriculture during their April 11 meeting in Cheyenne.

Research directions

Originally, WDA sought to define what constitutes rhe “thriving, natural ecological balance” stated in the Wild Horse and Burro Act.

The University of Wyoming (UW) was provided with $10,000 in sseed money to look at the question.

“We wanted to define that, but some people didn’t want to go that direction because cows weren’t part of a ‘natural’ system,” Wichmann explains. “There wasn’t political will to do that.”

Horse surveys

“We gave about $40,000 to the U.S. Geological Survey to do high-definition infrared horse counts,” Wichmann said.

The infrared technology allows surveyors to fly higher, which reduces disruption to wild horse herds.

“They get a heat signature, which can be compared to live video and the animals can be identified,” Wichmann said. “They use GPS and count the horses.”

The study was conducted on the McCullough Peak herd in northwest Wyoming where the number of horses is known.

“There’s a strong volunteer group that counts those horses, and we know that there are 154 horses up there,” he continued. “This survey counted 153 horses. The technology is good, and we like it because there’s no observer error.”

The research is promising, added Wichmann, who noted that BLM is also considering use of the technology.

“USGS and BLM are going to look at using this method simultaneously with their normal survey methods to compare them,” he said. “We have shown that it’s a good method with good results.”

WDA Director Doug Miyamoto commented, “We always get reports of how far over appropriate management level (AML) our populations are, but we haven’t had a high degree of confidence in the census data.”

“When we had the chance for funding to look at a method we may have more confidence in, we had to look into it more,” he continued. “We need to be confident in our population numbers, and it’s really good news that we’ve been able to make progress in this area.”

More surveys

“We also gave about $80,000 to Western Ecosystem Technologies West to do a survey. They look at using a different method of census to compare to BLM’s numbers,” Wichmann continued.

Western Ecosystem Technologies West is one of the nation’s leaders is wildlife surveys.

Counts done by the company involved several herd management areas (HMAs) that are perpetually over-objective.

“We asked them to fly the Green Mountain Complex and the North Lander Complex,” he added. “They did a direct count and added a confidence interval.”

The research showed that the North Lander Complex had 1,050 horses, well above its AML of 536 horses.

“We’re double our objective there. They haven’t gathered horses in five years now, but a gather is proposed for this fall,” Wichmann said.

The Green Mountain Complex has an AML set at 1,200 horses, but the direct count showed 2,600 horses. On the Green Mountain Allotment individually, the survey showed 1,200 horses in an allotment with a 300-horse AML.

Distribution

Without fences, Wichmann explained that wild horse movement in unhindered, so they have also mapped usage patterns.

“When they saw the horses, they used a model and GPS data, and they can apply that to summer and winter ranges to look at where horses are at,” he said, adding that they will next identify riparian areas, domestic water and other features to determine features that are being used.

Interestingly, Wichmann noted that, during summer months, horses tended to congregate in bigger groups of 25 to 100 horses, while in the wintertime, they ranged in groups of three to 25 horses.

“They’re overlaying maps to look more at usage of the land,” Wichmann said. “We’ll keep an eye on this research.”

Overall messages

“The biggest message in all this research is that we’re almost four times over AML for wild horses in the state,” Wichmann said.

At the same time, wild horse gathers are also contentious and often litigated.

This year, Wichmann commented that gathers are planned for the checkerboard area in southwest Wyoming and the North Lander area. During those gathers, horse populations will be brought to the low AML.

“When it comes to our strategy for feral horses, what we’ve been pressing for is the ability to use the resources and tools available and authorized to manage populations in the Wild Horse and Burro Act,” Miyamoto said, noting that actions like spaying and gelding wild horses are allowed in the act. “We also know that the federal government is spending a big chunk of their budget to try to feed wild horses off the range.”

“Step one to manage wild horses is to come up with a better mechanism to count the total number of horses,” Miyamoto commented. “Then, we have to look at how we can influence policy to do what we need to for management of wild horses.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

On Oct. 10, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld a Wyoming district court decision by Judge Nancy Freudenthal, dismissing a lawsuit by the State of Wyoming demanding the Secretary of the Department of the Interior remove wild horses from public lands.

“The Attorney General appealed a federal district judge’s 2015 decision to dismiss Wyoming’s suit against the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over wild horse management in Wyoming. The 10th Circuit upheld the 2015 ruling,” says Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

Mead continues, “I am disappointed and have asked the Attorney General to review our options. BLM is not managing wild horse populations as required under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.  Wild horse populations, according to the BLM March 2016 report, are over appropriate management levels in every herd management area except one in Wyoming.  Wyoming wildlife and wild horses are treasured assets. Mismanagement adversely affects all species and the rangelands necessary for their health and survival.”

“In August of 2014, Gov. Mead notified federal officials of his intent to sue if they did not comply with a federal legal mandate regarding excess wild horses on federal lands in Wyoming,” said Mountain States Legal Foundation’s (MSLF) William Perry Pendley. “We are disappointed in the outcome here. We believe the Secretary has a duty to remove excess horses that cause damage.”

Pendley and MSLF represented the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) in the case. WSGA joined in support of the state of Wyoming. MSLF also brought the original lawsuit challenging the government on behalf of Rock Springs Grazing Association.

“Wyoming argued excess wild horses destroy habitat, injure species and damage land,” Pendley explains. “In a friend of the court brief, WSGA urged the 10th Circuit to reverse the dismissal.”

WSGA’s Jim Magagna comments, “From a legal perspective, this case really just affirmed the decision of Judge Freudenthal in the district court that dismissed the Wyoming case, saying it didn’t have a cause of action.”

He continued that the decision isn’t entirely unexpected, but it also brings to light the implications of wild horse management in the future.

“The issue it brings to light is the fact that, as the courts have interpreted the Wild Horse and Burro Act, although BLM has developed appropriate management levels (AMLs) for each herd management area (HMA), those are not binding as a requirement to manage horses,” Magagna says. “The state’s claim was that all seven of the HMAs that were part of the litigation were all above AML, and BLM was obligated to proceed to the gather.”

Rather, Magagna says that the court’s decision implies that the Wild Horse and Burro Act is discretionary on the part of the BLM.

Magagna also notes, however, that this lawsuit does not apply to checkerboard lands.

“BLM has an affirmative obligation to remove horses from private lands,” he explains. “Those issues are quite different.”

Additionally, Magagna mentions that, while the suit does not preclude the State of Wyoming from reaching an agreement with BLM regarding population numbers, as was done in a previous Consent Decree, it does make the issue more difficult.

“Wild horses have become such an emotional issue,” Magagna comments. “BLM certainly gets some sympathy because they have a huge problem and a limited number of resources each year, and a greater percentage of that is gobbled up each year by horses in captivity.”

More than 60 percent of the wild horse budget for BLM is spent on managing those horses in captivity, a problem that will only be exacerbated by continued gathers.

“If they don’t continue gathering at the current or a faster pace, the resource damage will get worse,” explains Magagna. “It’s a tough position for BLM to be in, and frankly, given BLM’s reluctance to be more bold, this points to the need for congressional action to give the agency more precise direction to manage wild horses to appropriate management levels.”

“I’m not optimistic that we’re going to see sale of horses for slaughter return anytime soon, but it would be helpful to at least have some ability to sell horses to some other use without so many restrictions,” Magagna says. “Greater ability and freedom to use permanent sterilization tools without being threatened by litigation would also be helpful. These are some of the things we need to do.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

“We have to recognize that other people’s experiences and expectations may not match our own, but they are valid,” states Veterinarian Tom R. Lenz from Louisburg, Kan.

Lenz has been working with the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to find solutions for what is termed the “unwanted horse” issue.

Unwanted horses

“The unwanted horse is the first major welfare issue in the horse industry with players entered into the discussion who are outside of the horse industry,” Lenz comments.

Federal and state governments, animal activists and the general public have all weighed in on how unwanted horses should be handled in the United States.

“This whole thing started out in 2000 when there was an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Europe,” he explains.

Because beef was considered unsafe, the consumption of horsemeat increased dramatically in countries that include it in their diets.

Horsemeat

“It drew the attention of American media, which went over to look at the issue and came back wondering if we eat horses here in the United States,” he continues.

Members of the media found that U.S. slaughterhouses processed horses for consumption and sent the meat to Europe, South America, China and Japan.

“When they published that information in magazines and newspapers around the country, there was a huge outcry by the American public, which fostered the introduction of federal legislation to ban the slaughter of horses in the United States,” says Lenz.

Unwanted horses are those that are no longer wanted by their current owner due to injury, sickness, behavioral problems or other undesirable traits. These horses are often sold to new owners and slaughterhouses or euthanized.

BLM horses

“The BLM horse or the wild horse is an interesting group. Many of those horses are wanted because they are pretty darn good horses, but a lot of them are not, and we don’t know what to do with them today,” Lenz notes.

Currently, there are approximately 16,000 horses in the BLM system.

“It costs about $8,000, from the time one of those horses is caught to go through the entire process and be adopted,” explains Lenz.

If the horses are not adopted before five years of age or after being up for adoption three times, they are sent to long-term sanctuaries in Oklahoma and Kansas.

“The government pays ranchers $500 a year to keep those horses until they die of old age,” he adds.

As wild horses, the average age of those animals is 15 years, but with good nutrition and protection, they often live up to 25 or 30 years at the sanctuaries.

“They spend $45,000 per horse on those that are in long-term sanctuaries and right now we have almost 34,000 horses in the sanctuaries,” says Lenz.

The federal government acknowledges that it is not a cost-effective solution and is actively seeking new proposals for managing wild horse populations.

“The horse issue is one that, the more we know about it, the more difficult the solution becomes. It is very complicated,” he comments.

Perspective

It is complicated because many people consider horses to be companion animals, while the agriculture industry considers them to be livestock.

“As long as they are considered livestock, the federal and state governments provide research dollars and money to help us track down disease outbreaks and regulate movement of horses. The day they become companion animals, that all goes away,” Lenz says.

The issue is further complicated by differing opinions on horse slaughter and consumption.

“It’s also complicated by the fact that, whenever we have a controversial issue involving animals, activist groups fire up because it is a great opportunity to raise money and carry forth their agenda,” he adds.

The American population has increased while farm income has gone down. Most people do not know how to care for large animals, and the public loves horses, complicating the issue even more.

“Because they love horses, they want a voice in how horses are cared for, even if they don’t know what that means,” notes Lenz.

Animal welfare, he explains, is defined differently depending on perspective. 

“In animal-related businesses, welfare is really important because we like our animals. We want to be productive and take good care of them, but we have to deal with costs, production efficiencies and making a profit,” he explains.

Working together

Unfortunately, representatives from the ag industry are often viewed as cold and clinical because they present information with science and facts.

“We are not very emotional, and that is a problem. We need to learn to be a little bit more warm and fuzzy,” he says.

Lenz encourages dialogue, saying that everyone needs to listen to each other and work together toward common-ground solutions.

“Activists come from all walks of life, and most don’t know a lot about how animals should be cared for, but they are driven by a genuine interest in doing what’s best for the animal, even though they don’t often know what that means,” he explains.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Washington, D.C. – As members of the Public Lands Council gathered in Washington, D.C. for their annual legislative meeting, the organization heard from a variety of federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

“I’ve been with BLM for five years, and for three of that, I’ve been director,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze on April 11. “This is a complicated organization. We do everything including the most intense development of the largest transmission lines, the largest coalmines and the largest gold mines. At BLM, our duty is for multiple use and sustained yield.”

From sage grouse to land use management, Kornze noted that BLM has tackled a number of challenges over the past several years, but he added that wild horse and burro management is at the top of BLM’s priority list.

Wild horse plans

“There’s a lot of coverage on wild horses and burros, and we need ranchers’ help,” Kornze said.

He explained that 15 years ago, the U.S. Congress directed BLM to start warehousing horses as a means of control.

“So we started taking them off the range and sticking them on ranches and other properties, mostly in the Midwest,” he said. “It felt like a solution for a while because we had enough money to feed that program.”

However, during the Obama Administration alone, BLM has doubled the amount of money spent on maintaining wild horses in long-term confinement.

“We went from $40 million to $80 million a year that is spent on the wild horse and burro program,” Kornze emphasizes. “It is absolutely unsustainable. It has huge impacts on the rancher, and we are at a point that we can’t absorb any more costs into our system.”

However, horses continue to proliferate, Kornze said, adding that discovering solutions to the problem has been more than challenging.

Solving the challenge

“We need new approaches, and one of the things I’m hoping we can work together on is creating a table and showing folks working in this arena that it is not the third rail of natural resource politics,” Kornze said. “Very few people are willing to step forward and into the arena of wild horses and burros for fear of what might come out of it.”

The fear to work on wild horse issues extends beyond partisan politics, and Kornze noted that solutions moving forward must be bipartisan, common-sense answers to help the horses, range and wildlife.

Populations

Currently, nearly 50,000 wild horses are present on western rangelands, according to Kornze. Appropriate management levels (AML) establish that fewer than 30,000 should be present.

“We also have 50,000 horses that we have taken off the range that are sitting in long-term holding,” he continued. “We have 15,000 horses in corrals, as well, where we are paying five to six dollars a day to feed them.”

Each horse in long-term holding costs $50,000 to support through its lifetime.

“It’s a serious issue,” Kornze said.

New research

Kornze noted that one area of interest is in birth control and population control research.

“When I asked our team about the status of birth control research, they said we’ve got well-intentioned folks we’re working with, but they’re working on a very small scale,” he said, adding that BLM hopes to establish more widespread research.

“We went out to the universities, pharmaceutical companies and research communities and said, help us set a baseline that we can build from,” he said. “If we are going to start a significant research program to really find out how to limit the population, how do we do that?”

BLM then launched a call for proposals, and currently, 15 different population control projects costing $11 million are being funded.

“I have committed every spare dollar we had last year to fund these projects,” Kornze said.

Kornze further added that additional efforts should also be made to focus on adopting out wild horses.

In 2002-03, BLM adopted 8,000 to 9,000 horses per year. Now, they struggle to adopt 2,000 horses out each year.

“My guess is that it’s related to the prohibition of slaughter plants because there are 60,000 to 70,000 domestic horses on the market for adoption,” Kornze said. “Folks are finding it easier to take a domestic horse rather than an untrained wild horse.”

Spay and neuter

Kornze also said that robust discussions about spaying and neutering wild horses are being pursued with the general public.

“We can’t wait for those drugs to come into the market. With a five- to 10-year wait for those research projects, we’re going to have to take some interim steps,” he said. “We have folks who are doing serious research on spay and neuter.”

He also encouraged people to utilize the terms “spay” and “neuter” because the general public is familiar with the language.

“Every fourth grader in American can deal with the fact that their cat and dog gets spayed and neutered,” Kornze commented. “What we are doing to horses is, in fact, the exact same thing that many families have done smartly, carefully and thoughtfully to their family pet.”

With the question of wild horse and burro management looming, Kornze added, “We need to have these conversations together.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Washington, D.C. – Wild horses gained the attention of national leadership recently, and a Wild Horse Prize Workshop was organized to draw those with interest in wild horses together for a solution.

Dick Loper, grazing and rangeland consultant in Wyoming, was among the members invited to participate in the workshop, which aimed to determine those questions that must be answered to address wild horse challenges.

“We visited, and someone said the timing is right to try something different with respect to coming up with solutions,” said Loper. 

The group worked to come up with questions to be answered by private individuals seeking a monetary prize for their efforts. 

“They needed a group of people knowledgeable about wild horse issues to come up with the questions to be put out for a challenge grant,” said Loper, who described that the group accomplished its goals. 

“I wasn’t completely pleased with our results, but I’m not critical of what we accomplished,” he added. “We want to continue efforts that may or may not work.”

Solutions

Loper noted that one of the final questions addressed long-term permanent contraceptive methods with field-level delivery capabilities.

“Right now, all we can do is roundup horses and give them the PZP shots,” he explained. “PZP, however, is only good for one or two years and causes problems if the horses can’t be rounded up. We are looking for a longer-term, or many even permanent, contraceptive.”

While Loper and the ranchers in the group advocated for castration or spaying, the group wasn’t receptive. 

“They are looking for a chemical solution and long-range delivery methods,” he added. 

Loper noted that the group also wanted to increase adoptions. 

“Increasing adoptions is always a good idea, but it’s virtually impossible,” said Loper. 

Continued advocating

Brenda Richards, vice president of the Public Lands Council, and Loper continue  to advocate that BLM put out a challenge grant to investigate what is or is not a thriving ecological balance. 

“That question did not make it as a final question from the group,” said Loper. “We think it is perfectly suited to a challenge grant proposal.”

Because of the prevalence of the issue, he said they will continue to fight for farmers and ranchers.

“We feel like the importance of farming and ranching to local communities is critical enough that the wild horse issue is related to other issues in a lot of places,” Loper said. “The horse program is so badly out of sync with reality and the carrying capacity of the range that, if communities have to suffer economic hardship as a result of the failed horse program, we feel like that issue should be front and center at BLM.”

Discussions

During the group’s meeting, Loper noted that wildlife came up multiple times.

“What came across an awful lot in the discussion was the critical importance of finding a way to get the wildlife community involved in the wild horse program,” he said. “Until the wildlife community finds interest in the horse issue, the odds of getting anything done are slim.”

Loper also noted that some environmental groups sought to have wild horses considered as part of the multiple-use, wildlife community.

“I don’t think wildlife agencies would support that, and most of us can’t support that,” he said. “Additionally, I think one of the reasons BLM doesn’t want to classify horses as wildlife is because then state agencies would have legal responsibility over horses.”

Opportunity

“We have a window of opportunity to seriously talk about real solutions for the wild horse issues in the West,” Loper commented. 

He cited several reasons for the assertion that the current climate is ideal for handling wild horse concerns.

First, he said the wild horse program isn’t working and has reached the point where no short- or long-term storage is available to accommodate horses.

“Congress is in no mood to increase the budget and accommodate additional storage,” said Loper. “BLM also said they can’t gather horses because there is no room to store them. BLM is out of options unless Congress changes their attitude.”

Additionally, House Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) home state of Nevada is seeing pressure from his constituents to address wild horses.

“Nevada, in particular, is becoming more than a crisis,” said Loper. “Harry Reid is catching an awful lot of heat from multiple segments of the industry. It sounds like his office is willing to talk about potential solutions.”
At the same time, BLM’s new director, Neil Kornze, is also from Nevada.

“The stars are lining up to talk to people who are directly affected in a way they haven’t been affected before,” Loper commented. “It has been bad, and now it is getting overwhelmingly serious.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..