Why Do We Gather Wild Horses?

Nov 1, 2019

The sun was just rising as a group of people struggled out of their cars and start getting their things put together. We are about 35 miles northwest of Worland in the badlands.

As everyone mingled around and greeted each other, a tall, slim woman called out, "Can we gather over here please?!"

BLM public affairs specialist Sarah Beckwith is in charge of the 18 members of the public who have come to observe the Fifteenmile wild horse herd gather. And the public observation group needs to get to the observation point before the gather can start. Beckwith told everyone to follow her and we follow car tracks around a hill.

Public Observers look at map of the Fifteenmile Wild Horse Herd Management Area.
Credit Kamila Kudelska

"This is our hill. You can see the jute at the top that's what we will be hunkered down behind when the horses are in the area and when the helicopters are in the area," said Beckwith.

The Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says the overpopulation of wild horses is the biggest challenge in managing public lands. William Perry Pendley says the BLM needs to increase the number of wild horses it removes from public lands by about 61,000 a year?. But their its method of doing this is controversial.

Wild horse roundups are a management tool the BLM uses to reduce the number of horses on public land. The BLM tries to use a helicopter to herd horses into a corral. They will later try to adopt these horses out. According to the agency, the animals have no natural predators so they reproduce quickly, and the land can't support such a high number of wild horses in the nation.

"We are potentially gathering up to 700 horses. One hundred horses will be returned to the herd management area (HMA) so if we do gather 700, only 600 would be shipped," Beckwith said.

The BLM says the Fifteenmile wild horse herd should be closer to 200 rather than its current level of 700.

All of the sudden, the low rumbling of a helicopter filled the air. "Is it just a helicopter?" I ask the woman next me.

"No, it's a whole bunch of horses. Just right out there. There's probably, what would you say? I think this is at least 40," said Ginger Catherines. She's the executive director of the Cloud Foundation. That's a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of wild horses and burros.

We were crouched behind the brown netting, or jute, so that the horses wouldn't be able to see us. Catherines, like some other people observing the gather, do no approve of rounding wild horses, especially by helicopter.

"In a heartbeat, they are going to lose what they value most and that's two things: family and freedom," Catherines said.

Public observers watch as a helicopter herd the wild horses towards the trap.
Credit Kamila Kudelska

We sat and watched as a big group horses galloped through the badlands kicking up red dust, passing sand buttes, right until they ran into a V-shaped trap that leads them right into corrals contractors have set up about a mile and a half away. All the while the helicopter is close by.

"One reason they put us so far away is when you are over there and they are running them in, you can see the bodies crashing. And you can hear the sounds, and you can feel the terror and hear them screaming," she said.

Catherines and others like her, don't disagree that wild horse populations are too big to manage. But she calls these gathers inhumane and thinks they should focus on preventing birth.

"There's ways to do this with safe vaccines. PZP is the time tested one. It's been used for several decades," Catherines said.

The BLM does manage some horses with birth control, said Jason Lutterman, public affairs specialist for the BLM National Wild Horse Burro Program, on-range branch. But he said the most common drug, PZP, only lasts one to two years.

"We would be conducting those gathers every, every other year in order to give a booster of that fertility control to that mare in order to maintain that infertility," he said. "And you can imagine that would come with its own suite of logistical and budgetary issues."

Lutterman said the agency is investing in developing better, long-lasting fertility vaccines, but they just don't exist yet.

"The best way to manage the populations is to still gather and adopt out the excess animals while using fertility control where we can and where it can be effective."

The group of observers naturally split into two smaller groups. Catherines is part of the group against gathers while the other group are people who live in the area.

"We don't want the horses to suffer. If there's not enough food for them and the land can't support it, I just have to defer to the BLM because I don't know what's really going on except a helicopter chasing a bunch of horses," said Kevin Cook.

Cook brought his two young daughters and wife so that his girls could see the horses. He said his daughters really want to adopt a wild horse now.

Wild horses run away from the helicopter.
Credit Kamila Kudelska

The Fifteenmile wild horse herd gather took six days. A total of 607 animals were gathered, and 95 were returned back to the management area. And there were 11 deaths. The BLM says that leaves approximately 107 horses on the land. The rest have been transferred to off-range corrals in Rock Springs. Scott Fleur, the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Off-Range pasture specialist, said they will first try to adopt them out.

"Excess horses that are non-adoptable will go to private ranches under contract with the BLM, and those horses will go on pasture and live their lives out there on a pasture setting on private land," said Fleur.

The BLM says the number of adoptions has slightly increased recently, but they are nowhere near the numbers they need to have a completely successful program. So in the near future, the helicopter gathers are likely to continue.