Guest Editorial: Ruling on wild horse fence to affect future

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RBC I On April 21, The Cloud Foundation (TCF), Front Range Equine Rescue (FRER) and noted equine photographer Carol Walker, director of field documentation for Wild Horse Freedom Federation (WHFF), filed an appeal in District of Columbia Circuit Court to U.S. District Court’s November 2013 dismissal of a lawsuit against the Custer National Forest (FS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regarding wild horses there.
“We brought the Forest Service into the suit when they issued a call for bids to build the new fence in 2010,” said Ginger Kathrens, founder and executive director of TCF. “The fence threatens the survival of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Herd by eliminating thousands of acres of vital late summer and fall grazing.”
The case has the potential for setting a precedent for future fencing plans in the West.
The two mile long, six-foot-high fence across a subalpine meadow blocks wild horses from historic and critical high elevation grazing in the Pryor Mountains of Montana and mars an otherwise pristine landscape. The controversy over this artificial boundary began long before the fence was built in October 2010. TCF contends that the fence, which is on the boundary line between U.S. Forest Service and BLM land, only exists because the FS refuses to manage horses in an area the herd has used since long before the FS and the BLM were created.
Range expansion is crucial since the Pryor herd is small, isolated and vulnerable to genetic decline. An August 2013 report by leading equine geneticist, E. Gus Cothran, Ph.D., of Texas A&M University warns of declining variability in the famed herd. Analyzing the genetics of wild horses removed from the Pryor range last year, Cothran urged the BLM to “increase population size if range conditions allow.”
“The Pryor herd is one of the oldest in the West, is a unique genetic link to the Spanish Colonial horse, and is a closed herd (i.e. no access from an adjoining herd),” Kathrens said. “Although the herd appears to be strong with remarkable longevity there have been several cases of limited vision or blindness, hernias, and cryptorchidism. These physical defects could be a reflection of narrowing genetic variability,”
Kathrens has followed the herd for 20 years, producing three PBS Nature documentaries about Cloud, a pale Palomino stallion who lives wild in the Pryors.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s herd numbers were in the low 200s. TCF would like to see the herd managed at numbers even higher than these, but that is difficult based on the current acreage available for their use. TCF and their partners will be working to return the Sorenson Extension in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (BCNRA).
“This will be great for tourism, giving the public a higher probability of seeing wild horses in the Dryhead area of the range, including mares that might be in the core breeding population and have foals,” Kathrens adds. Wild horse viewing in the BCNRA has increased over the years and is an important economic driver for the nearby community of Lovell, Wyoming.
“The BLM will be adding the Administrative Pastures at the very bottom of the mountain and we applaud them for this,” states Carol Walker. The 3,000 plus acres contained in the Administrative Pastures are not productive lands but they will allow for the herd to grow a little, and they provide the best chance for wild horse bands to get out of deep snow in the higher elevations. “This was an area used extensively by Cloud’s father, Raven, and his band until the gates were shut a few years ago,”
TCF has worked closely with the Billings BLM office over the past few years,” Kathrens said. “We are confident they have the best interests of the horses at heart.”
TCF volunteered last year to help the BLM apply the fertility control vaccine PZP to mares to curtail population growth with the shared goal of preventing future removals.