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Over 6,500 feral horses have been rounded up on the Wind River Reservation in 2023

Bureau of Land Management

Funding from Governor Mark Gordon, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and other federal sources helped round up more than 6,500 horses on the Wind River Reservation this year. The efforts have been met with some concerns and questions. The removals were a collaboration between the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes, the BIA, the state of Wyoming, and various wildlife management agencies.

Feral horses is a term that refers to wild horses on lands other than those managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The roundups are a controversial but consistent practice by wildlife management agencies throughout the West. The horses were removed because of concerns about their impact on the grassland ecosystem and the availability of grazeable forage for wildlife like elk and mule deer.

At a Select Federal Natural Resource Management legislative meeting in Casper in early October, Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game director Arthur Lawson said the impacts of the removal on the surrounding ecosystem were rapid and obvious.

“The results are phenomenal. Wildlife is making its way back, the reservoirs are still full of water, and the sage chickens are all over – you can see them on the highway and pretty much any mountain road you go on to,’’ he said.

But at a Select Committee on Tribal Relations legislative meeting in July, some reservation residents expressed concern about the methods used to remove the horses and advocated for an alternative management plan for the animals that would include a wild horse training program for struggling youth and community members battling addiction.

During public comment at that meeting, community member Sybil Thunder Hawk said she was troubled by the harm the roundup caused to some horses.

“One of my concerns was how dangerous the gathering was – with an airplane [helicopter] flying low, forcing the horses to run. Breaking their legs, biting each other, fighting each other, and some of the horses would be arriving to their destinations dead,” she said.

Helicopters are used to locate and herd feral horses into corrals during the roundups.

During the more recent legislative meeting in October, Lander-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Pat Hnilicka shared slides and photographs depicting forage-less rangelands where there had previously been high densities of feral horses – and emphasized that the size of the feral horse population had been at a “crisis point.”

“There were enough horses out there that if something wasn’t done, like, right now, they would get to a population level where it was irreversible,” he said. “It would be really difficult to bring them back to any manageable numbers.”

According to a committee report, Governor Gordon contributed $400,000 to the two tribes to support one roundup that removed almost 1,500 horses. Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game director Lawson added that funding from the BIA supported the removal of another nearly 4,500 horses, while the Governor’s Natural Resources Policy Advisor Nolan Rap said additional matching funding from federal and other sources resulted in the removal of another 600 horses.

Lawson said that the Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game will work with the BIA this winter to survey the wild horse population and figure out how many horses are still on the reservation. The current estimate is about 3,000.

Based on those results, the different agencies involved will plan future feral horse gathers – but no more round-ups are planned for this year. The goal is to bring the population to about 500 to minimize their impact on the landscape.

During the October meeting, Wyoming Representative John Winter of Thermopolis wanted to know where the horses went after they were rounded up on the reservation.

“It’s my understanding that the Canadian facilities have been closed, so are you sending them to Mexico? What’s going on?,” he asked.

Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game director Lawson answered that the majority of the horses are shipped to Mexico, as well as Nebraska and Texas. He added that some horses went to sanctuaries, while others have been kept and sold to local residents.

Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game was not available to comment on what type of facilities the horses were shipped to at the time of this article’s publication.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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