By Kelsey Dayton, The WyoFile
There was a charge in the air, the smell of incoming cold weather on a late November afternoon.
On the Deerwood Ranch near Centennial, the horses were restless. They gathered in small bunches and snapped and kicked at unwelcome interlopers.
They gave room, as two horses bowed their heads and aggressively invaded the others’ space. They reared up, hoofs flailing, manes blowing. When their hooves touched the ground they started the dance again, until one seemed to acquiesce and move away.
Moments later a group began to run. And then another group followed. Then another. Black and white and brown and spotted and painted animals by the dozens moved across the grass, past the tufts of willow trees of the Deerwood Ranch, the mountains creating a backdrop and the sense of a cinematic scene in a western movie.
The ranch, run by Jana and Rich Wilson, is home to 250 wild horses. It is the first, and so far only, wild horse ecosanctuary in the country. It is meant to be a place where people can observe and learn about the animals, while also helping the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in its efforts to manage wild horse populations; efforts that cost millions of dollars in taxpayer money each year.
The BLM gathers thousands of horses each year in 10 western states, including Wyoming, using a $75 million annual budget for wild horse and burro management, according to Tom Gorey, spokesman with the BLM. About 60 percent of the budget goes to holding costs for horses that don’t get homes. The agency has a holding capacity of a little more than 50,000 animals. There are now about 49,000 wild horses and burros in holding at long-term facilities and corrals.
Wild horses first came to North America in the 1400s with the Spanish. Horses abandoned on the range bred and thrived and were used by American Indians and ranchers. During and after war and times of economic struggle, people released animals they were unable to care for onto the range to mix with the herds. With no natural predators, a herd grows by 20 percent a year and doubles every four years, Gorey said.
The agency doesn’t want to gather horses it doesn’t have a place for, yet they also don’t want to allow the animals to overpopulate on the range.
Currently the BLM doesn’t have a solution for when it reaches capacity, Gorey said.
Leaving animals on the range hurts the land and could lead to thousands of horses starving.
Wild horses erode soil, causing excess sedimentation in streams. They destroy habitat and reduce forage important to wildlife like elk, deer, antelope, pronghorn and sage grouse, Gorey said.
Adoption used to be key in wild horse management, but in recent years adoptions have fallen. Last year, less than 2,800 of the 8,000 horses gathered, were adopted. Horses are considered luxury items and are expensive to feed and board. The economy impacts adoption rates, Gorey said.
The idea of an ecosanctuary first came up several years ago as a way to not only house horses, but also allow public access to the animals and education about the BLM’s management role. Tourism provides the possibility of raising money to run an ecosanctuary while defraying some of the taxpayer’s cost.
The Wilsons signed an agreement with BLM that allows for more flexibility than a standard contract where a flat rate is agreed upon, Gorey said. The BLM pays the Wilsons $1.30 to $1.40 per horse per day, the same rate for long-term holding facilities in the Midwest, Gorey said. Unlike regular holding facilities, however, the Wilsons will offer tours of the ranch to raise funds to help support ecosanctuary operations. They can even offer “virtual adoptions” where people can sponsor a horse on the ranch, eventually reducing the price the BLM pays. Money raised will alleviate what the taxpayers spend, Gorey said.
Because it’s the first of its kind, combining tourism and using private ranches for housing horses, how much the ecosanctuary will be able to generate in funds through tours and donations and how much it will reduce the BLM’s payments is still unknown, Gorey said.
The Wilsons’ ranch could support about 300 horses, but this year they’ll keep around 250 — all gelded stallions between 2 and 7 years old. The BLM was cautious because of the program’s newness, and also because of the drought conditions this year, Rich Wilson said.
The horses came from long-term holding facilities, but all were originally gathered in Wyoming.
The agreement lasts for one year with options to renew, said June Wendlandt, Wyoming BLM Wild Horse and Burro program lead.
Currently the Wilsons’ ranch is the only wild horse ecosanctuary in the country. Another ranch in Nevada is working with the BLM to create a similar model but using a combination of private ranch and adjacent BLM land.
“But it’s a long way from being settled,” Gorey said. “There’s really nothing comparable to the one in Wyoming."
Patricia Fazio, the statewide coordinator for the Wyoming Wild Horse Coalition, doesn’t believe the ecosanctuary should be billed as a way for tourists to see wild horses. When a horse is sterilized its behavior changes, she said.
Wild horses naturally form family bonds that mixed mares and stallions, she said. Separating the herds by sex alters group behavior.
“They are then just like domestic horses you would turn out,” Fazio said. “They shouldn’t be called wild horse ecosanctuaries if the horses aren’t truly wild.”
From a welfare point of view, Fazio doesn’t see a problem with ecosanctuaries. But it’s not enough. “You put 300 horses in an ecosanctuary, that’s great, but we need an overriding national solution,” she said. Fazio believes the BLM is far behind on efforts to manage wild horse populations through birth control.
The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign sees some benefit to wild horse ecosanctuaries — mainly that it keeps the animals in the West “where they belong” and that the areas will be accessible to the public, said Suzanne Roy, director of the Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
However, Roy agrees with Fazio. The term ecosanctuary is a misnomer. It’s not a revolutionary management tool.
“We think it’s another name for long-term holding for the horses,” she said.
The BLM should use the herd management areas as ecosanctuaries and let the animals remain naturally on the range, managed by birth control, Roy said.
While ecosanctuaries provides care for some horses it is a distraction from the real issue, which is on-range management efforts to reduce the population, according to Roy. Even if the BLM approves more ecosanctuaries they still won’t make a substantial dent in the tens of thousands of horses in holding facilities, Roy said. The BLM needs to put more of its resources into on-range management, like administering birth control and rangeland improvements, instead of spending money on round-ups and holding horses, Roy said.
“Until they do that, they will never get off the treadmill they are on, the constant round-up and removal of horses,” she said.
The BLM is working on management tools, like birth control, to reduce horse populations to get them to appropriate management levels, Wendlandt said. Many mares gathered are inoculated with a birth control known as PZP. The BLM is testing a longer lasting birth control and is considering spaying and gelding horses before releasing them back on the range, Wendlandt said.
“We’re at critical mass right now,” Wendlandt said. “All the holding facilities are full and we have a lot of horses on the range, too, and with the drought situation across most western states, it’s not a good situation.”
Wild horses have long been the bane of ranchers.
Niels Hansen, a rancher near Rawlins, said he isn’t supposed to have wild horses on the grazing allotments where he has livestock, but they almost always are there. They devastate the grass because they bite so close to the ground, he said. Sometimes they are only a slight nuisance, but if there are a lot of them, they can decimate riparian areas to standards below what is acceptable for grazing livestock, so he isn’t allowed to move his animals into some areas where horses have been.
“It’s more than just the grazing competition,” said Jim Magagna, vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “It’s the long-term damage horses do to the range.”
Horses often stay in the same areas year round, whereas wildlife migrate and livestock are moved. The horses eat the grass down to the point nothing grows in the area, Magagna said.
Magagna said he is fine with private ranchers using their land as they see fit, such as an ecosanctuary, but he opposes efforts like the one in Nevada that would combine BLM and private land. He also feels current efforts, including the ecosanctuaries, are not doing enough and the BLM needs to start using permanent sterilization and possibly horse slaughter.
The horses are like stray dogs and cats in big cities, Hansen said.
“Unfortunately the ways to get a handle on them are all distasteful and nobody likes it — the ranchers don’t like it. Nobody likes it,” Hansen said. “But the horse population is so bloated it’s just out of control.”
The population growth has to be slowed, Hansen said. The BLM should be using permanent sterilization, not just birth control. Hansen said any efforts to get horses off the range, including ecosanctuaries, are helpful. However, he thinks ecosanctuaries should be a private enterprise and the government shouldn’t pay for it. Too much money is already spent on wild horses.
Wild horse management costs millions of dollars each year, when there are more important things that government money could go to, Magagna agreed. Yet if horses are left on the range the problem is exacerbated. Not only are wild horses not native, most aren’t even descendants of the horses brought by the Spanish, Magagna said. Most of the horses on the range were let loose in the last century.
The BLM knows wild horse ecosanctuaries won’t solve the problem. But they can help, Gorey said. Gathered horses have to go somewhere. There are 37,300 wild horses and burros roaming BLM-managed land in 10 western states.
That free-roaming population exceeds the appropriate management level, a population estimate determined by the BLM that is believed to balance the horse populations and other public rangeland uses, by about 11,000 animals.
Gathered horses are sent to adoption events around the country. Those that aren’t adopted are sent to short term holding facilities, like the one in Rock Springs, and then eventually to long-term facilities in the Midwest.
About a year ago, the BLM solicited ranches to become ecosanctuaries, Gorey said. Of the 19 ranches that applied, the Deerwood Ranch was the only one that qualified. The applicants had to own or control the property, which had to be large enough for at least 200 horses and at least 10 miles away from wild horse management areas.
The Wilsons knew little about wild horses and didn’t follow the issues swirling around their management. They might have seen wild horses on the range, but it’s often hard to tell from the car.
The Wilsons saw an ad in the paper about using land for grazing horses. They’d always loved horses and owned 13 their family used for competition and riding. They liked the idea of having more horses on the property, so they applied.
Before the Wilsons could house the horses they had to make improvements to the 4,700-acre ranch, creating horse and wildlife friendly fences and removing cattle guards. The upgrades were done in partnership with the BLM with a cost share agreement, Jana Wilson said.
The ranch offers open range for the horses to run and graze, as well as treed areas for shelter. Normally they don’t get deep snow in the winter, so they hope they can avoid supplemental feeding, Rich said.
Supplemental feeding might be used occasionally if necessary, Gorey said. Ranchers are also authorized to kill severely injured or sick horses if needed. The BLM does pay for veterinarians to treat wild horses in long term holding areas and that could be an option for the Wilsons, although it will be decided case-by-case, Gorey said.
“For the most part, we want to keep ‘em wild,” Rich said.
The horses arrived at the ranch in small batches starting in October. They were tentative at first, slow to discover the creek for drinking water and stumbling over ditches, Jana said. They quickly formed groups and found favorite spots.
The Wilsons plan to start tours this spring out of Centennial. They hope it will bring visitors to the small town. They haven’t set times, dates or rates, but already people are coming by to see the horses. One person cried watching them in the picturesque setting, Jana said.
The horses will help the Wilson’s land, providing natural fertilizer on the pastures and eating weeds around the trees.
But the real benefit for the Wilsons, they said, is the beauty the animals bring. Jana finds herself outside just staring. Some are strange, like the black horse with extremely swayed back, but all are striking.
“When you see a group of them take off and run …,” Rich said, unable to finish, staring out across the land.
The Wilsons have continued to stay out of the management debates. They just like the horses, they said.
No matter people’s opinions on wild horses and management, few can disagree on the majestic qualities of so many horses on the range, Rich said. If the ecosanctuary can only do one thing, share that beauty, for the Wilsons, it’s enough.