Roger Porterfield was a courteous, but reluctant host when 90 uninvited guests began showing up at his ranch, grazing his land and depleting his water holes. Even as the guests brazenly took hay from his cattle feeders day after day, Porterfield accommodated them, until one day enough was enough and he asked them to leave.
In late 2013, Porterfield, of Porterfield Ranch in Dorris, Calif., filed an official complaint with the Bureau of Land Management stating wild horses were moving off the nearby Red Rocks Lakes Herd Management Area and onto his property in search of food and water. At the time, Porterfield noted about 30 to 40 horses were bypassing his fences and helping themselves to his livestock stores.
“Feed and water are crucial for the ranch operation, especially in drought years,” the complaint read. “This situation is totally unacceptable.”
On June 10, BLM officials surveyed the 18,000-acre Red Rocks site and discovered all of its 17 water sources — including the area’s two namesake Red Rock Lakes — were completely dry.
“There’s not even mud in them,” said Doug Satica, manager of Litchfield Wild Horse and Burro Facility near Susanville, Calif.
Just two days later, the agency approved Porterfield’s complaint and began removing wild horses from his ranch. In all, 90 were collected — 30 studs, 45 mares, and 15 foals — and transported 170 miles to the Litchfield Wild Horse and Burro Facility, where they are awaiting adoption.
“Like the rest of the West, it’s abnormally dry. Northern California, by most accounts, is having one of the driest seasons on record,” said Jeff Fontana, BLM Northern California District public information officer.
Water sources dry up
The Red Rocks Lakes BLM Herd Management Area (HMA) is named after the Red Rocks Lakes that, when combined, cover about 75 acres. According to Litchfield manager Satica, they are the area’s main water source.
Alan Uchida, a rangeland management specialist with the Alturas, Calif., BLM office, said the lakes, although shallow, typically hold water for a few months after a wet spring, but the mild winter produced little snow and left fewer water reserves.
“The last time I visited the lakes, they were plumb dry,” Uchida said.
Uchida explained the Red Rocks HMA sits atop a ridge and is surrounded by private land on all sides. He said horses occasionally travel off the HMA in search of food or water, but he’s not surprised many are making regular visits to Porterfield’s property. Porterfield manages 2,000 head of cattle and has the most reliable water sources around, he said.
Fontana explained Red Rocks’ horses and livestock are sustained through summer months by 17 water holes, which are a mixture of natural water sources, like springs and the lakes, and manmade pits positioned to utilize natural runoff flows.
“But we haven’t had a drought like this in a long, long, time,” Satica said.
The drought, which encompasses most of the West, has left horse managers north of the California border, eying emergency plans as well. Jeff Clark, an Oregon BLM public information officer, said his agency hasn’t received any nuisance complaints about mustangs and private water sources yet, but it has plans in place if water becomes scarce for the state’s 4,200 wild horses: Some Eastern Oregon livestock grazers are working with the BLM to keep watering holes full even after their cattle have moved on, and last year in the Lakeview District, water trucks hauled hundreds of gallons of water to replenish wildlife watering holes.
“More than likely, that’s going to happen again,” Clark said.
All wildlife affected
In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to protect, manage, and control wild horses and burros on public lands. The act is intended to allow the animals to roam within reasonable populations that are balanced with other species’ rangeland needs. Although the Red Rocks HMA has a management objective of 16 to 25 horses, officials initially estimated the herd could be as large as 80.
Since Porterfield’s complaint was approved in June, nearly 100 horses have been gathered from his ranch and officials believe there could be more on the HMA.
Rob Sharp, a wild horse management specialist in the Burns BLM office, said horses are no different than other livestock, and although they tend to travel quite a bit between water and forage sites, resources restrict how far they will go.
“When things get really poor, you’ll start to see horses congregate on whatever water source is left, along with other wildlife,” he said.
Fontana emphasized HMAs are not devoted exclusively to horses; domestic livestock, mule deer, pronghorn, upland birds and countless other species utilize the same water resources.
“If there’s no water for horses, there’s no water for wildlife,” Clark said.
Craig Foster, a district biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the water situation in the desert east of Lakeview isn’t dire yet, but some animals are moving to higher elevations, where springs may have received more precipitation.
“If the 95-degree-plus weather continues, water is going to be an issue later in the summer,” he said.
Foster added research has shown when water gets tight, wild horses will protect and defend a resource, preventing other animals, such as deer and pronghorn, from using it. He said if conditions remain dry, it’s likely conflicts between the horses and wildlife will arise.
“It’s going to be a concern, especially in the Beatys Butte area,” he said, noting the Lakeview District’s horse population also is well over its management objective.