Three horses.

Wild horses are pictured in the Big Summit Wild Horse Territory in the Ochoco National Forest in an Oct. 16, 2020, file photo.

U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service will reduce the wild horse population on a 27,000-acre range east of Prineville to a level horse advocates say could lead to the herd’s elimination.

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The most recent count of wild horses on the Big Summit Wild Horse Territory of the Ochoco National Forest puts the population around 130, but the Forest Service estimates it closer to 150. (Counts for the past two years have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The management plan approved Friday will cut the herd down to 47-57 horses total over the next five years.

“We want to make sure that we manage this herd for its genetic viability,” said Kassidy Kern, public affairs officer for the Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland. “We want to make sure it’s a healthy herd.”

“Excess” horses will be captured and relocated to public and private corrals where they will be put up for adoption. The agency will use contraception and sterilization to keep the wild horse population down and will use genetic analysis to guide future management of the herd. The Forest Service will not euthanize horses as part of this plan.

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Gayle Hunt, founder and president of the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition and a former Forest Service employee, said her group was hopeful the herd had reached a self-regulating size.

“We had hoped for years that [the plan] would be something better,” Hunt said. “We’re just so disappointed in the agency that this is what we’ve got.”

She worries that reducing the Big Summit wild horse population as the Forest Service plans to do leaves the herd at risk of genetic collapse or too small to survive catastrophic winter weather events.

“It’s come to basically the Forest Service wanting to eliminate this herd,” Hunt said, “because that’s what will happen at that number.”

Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971 to protect and manage iconic wild horses across the American West. The previous wild horse management plan for the Ochoco National Forest was from 1975 and capped the population at 65, but numbers have often exceeded that amount.

The final decision asserts that the new plan is a “relatively small change” to the 1975 plan and is based on the available forage in the horses’ winter range.The Forest Service contends that it needs to reduce the wild horse population to prevent overgrazing and damage to riparian zones. (Hunt says the agency “has not even begun to prove” that claim.)

“When we look at what the ground can hold, for us that means what kind of forage is out there on any given bad winter for those animals,” said Kern, with the Forest Service.

Kern says the agency must manage the landscape so that forage is available for wildlife, including horses, and domestic livestock.

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