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Fish & Wildlife | Politics | Environment | local

The West's Wild Horses: Protected, But Not Completely Free

The federal government spent about $76 million last year to manage wild horses. But many believe that the herds out west are growing too large. Feral horses can’t be shot or slaughtered. Few are adopted, so many are shipped to pastures in the Midwest. The cost of housing, feeding and shipping the horses is nearly $46 million a year. Earlier, we heard about trapping methods used to move wild horses off Oregon federal lands. Aileen LeBlanc reports from Kansas on what the animals’ lives are like at a long-term holding facility there.

Mares near a lake.

Mares near a lake.

Aileen LeBlanc/OPB

It’s not hard to see in your mind the Indians who lived in these hills thousands of years ago, long before there were horses or white men. With the exception of a few widely-spaced fences and one interstate, the Flint Hills of Kansas carry their history right on the surface.

Once you leave the paved road,  signs of man almost disappear. A bumpy truck ride carries you back into the 777 Ranch. This ranch, and the adjacent Shadow Valley Ranch, spread across 35,000 acres of tall grass prairie. You won’t find cattle, or crops — just a few wild horses.

The horses are chestnut, bay or gray. Some have stars on their foreheads and white socks.

Geldings having morning meal.

Geldings having morning meal.

Aileen LeBlanc/OPB

It’s a windy day in Kansas, and it’s 9 degrees. A truck unrolls a huge, round bale of hay, and about 100 or so mustangs begin to eat breakfast. Pat Williams watches from his truck to keep out of the wind.

“They are provided supplemental feed in the wintertime and that’s simply because the grass — as you can see, there’s still a lot of available forage, but it doesn’t retain the protein needed to sustain good health within the horse,” says Williams, who is with the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Program.

The horses here are not provided with any veterinary care, Williams says. “They are not provided any hoof care and so they’re completely self-sustaining other than the supplemental feed.”

Pat Williams of the Bureau of Land Management on the 777 Ranch.

Pat Williams of the Bureau of Land Management on the 777 Ranch.

Aileen LeBlanc/OPB

The horses here in Kansas — like those in nine other states — came from the public lands of the American West, but they didn’t wander here on their own.

They were rounded up, often chased by helicopters, into holding pens. They’re inoculated, the males are castrated, and they’re put in semi-trailer trucks to be taken to places like this one, called long-term holding facilities. They live out their lives here, many to the age of 25 or 30, roaming free within a very large and diverse captive space.

“When horses become overpopulated in a herd area, it is our responsibility to make sure that they are not eating themselves out of house and home,” Williams says. “And the only management tool that we have is to gather excess wild horses, offer them for adoption. Now those horses that are not adopted or are deemed too old for adoption are taken to these long-term holding facilities.”

There are 4,400 wild horses on the 777 and Shadow Valley. These are private ranches. The BLM contracts with the local ranchers to keep and feed the animals. The government pays them, usually between $1.35 and $1.40 per head per day, which for this ranch adds up to more than $2 million a year.

Ranchers pick up the cost of hay, ranch hands, fence maintenance and insurance. Though the owner of the 777 arranged for access to his property, he didn’t want to be interviewed on tape.

Brome hay stacked on the ranch.

Brome hay stacked on the ranch.

Aileen LeBlanc/OPB

“It doesn’t take as much labor to run a long-term holding contract as it would if you were running cattle,” Williams says, explaining why a rancher might switch from cattle to horses, as happened here. “You don’t have to worry about sick horses or replacements. And you don’t have to worry about transportation costs. You don’t have to worry about the volatility of the cattle markets.”

But Williams adds that the BLM is competing with the cattle industry right now.

“Ranchers can make more money running yearlings for three months out of the year than they can running horses year round,” he says.

But do wild horses belong here? And should your tax dollars pay for moving them here?

Stephanie Boyles Griffin, with the Wildlife Response, Innovations and Services Division of the Humane Society of the U.S.,  says the law — the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 — has been misinterpreted.

Fury with a BLM neck brand.

Fury with a BLM neck brand.

Aileen LeBlanc/OPB

“It did not intend for stallions to be gelded and held in captivity for the rest of their life, even though they’re being held in beautiful pastures in the Midwest,” Boyles Griffin says. “It intended for them to live wild and free in family bands and in herds roaming wild and free across our western landscape.”

Boyles Griffin says the solution is birth control for the mares. It’s a solution that the Humane Society is pressing the Bureau of Land Management to adopt. The BLM is slowly moving toward this alternative. But last year, the BLM only treated 509 mares. Boyles Griffin says the BLM needs to treat 5,000 for a period of three to four years in order to show some reduction in herd size.

Wild horses remind us of our companions and of a nostalgic past as stars of the old Westerns, even shows and films fictitiously located in nearby Dodge City. That helps keep them in a special category: wild but protected and, sometimes, not completely free.

Geldings finding the best breakfast.

Geldings finding the best breakfast.

Aileen LeBlanc/OPB

At 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, OPB’s Oregon Field Guide TV program devotes its entire show to wild horses. Visit the full digital story on mustangs and join the online conversation here: Wild Horses in Crisis.