Plans move ahead: Wild horses threaten agriculture, ranchers

Wild horses eat hay meant for Cripple Cowboy Cow Outfit cattle. Ranchers say the horses complicate their efforts to care for the land and earn a livelihood, especially in a drought year. White River field office manager Kent Walter said that the agency has conducted horse gathers in recent years and that landowners need to submit written notification of trespassing horses to the BLM.

Wild horses eat hay meant for Cripple Cowboy Cow Outfit cattle. Ranchers say the horses complicate their efforts to care for the land and earn a livelihood, especially in a drought year. White River field office manager Kent Walter said that the agency has conducted horse gathers in recent years and that landowners need to submit written notification of trespassing horses to the BLM.
Wild horses eat hay meant for Cripple Cowboy Cow Outfit cattle. Ranchers say the horses complicate their efforts to care for the land and earn a livelihood, especially in a drought year. White River field office manager Kent Walter said that the agency has conducted horse gathers in recent years and that landowners need to submit written notification of trespassing horses to the BLM.
RBC I Ranchers are drawing up allotment management plans with range management specialists after the Bureau of Land Management’s withdrawal last month of a proposed decision to reduce herd grazing on its land by at least 50 percent starting in June.
“I think the dialogue’s been good,” BLM White River field office manager Kent Walter said of the meetings so far. “Many ranchers took (herd) reductions last year. For some of them, they’re still a little unsure. That’s why we’re working through some different scenarios and kind of waiting. We don’t really know yet what the moisture’s going to bring.”
A January letter from Walter notified permittees of the withdrawal after stockgrowers protested the proposed across-the-board cut. The document stressed, however, the “need for adjustments in livestock operations…in 2013 to allow grazed rangelands to recover.”
Those adjustments could include culling the number of cows in a herd, gathering herds onto private land earlier than usual, and feeding hay when cows would normally be grazing. Other mitigation efforts involve developing and maintaining water resources and rotating herds more quickly through areas of concern.
They’re all measures Cripple Cowboy Cow Outfit ranchers Logan and Jen Hill, and the ranch’s owners Jon and Fran Hill, are familiar with. Although the Cripple Cowboy has been slowly building its stock back to normal levels, drought conditions between 2001 and 2005 forced them to reduce their herd and look at other ways to sustain the land.
Now, facing another potentially trying year ahead, Logan Hill hopes the BLM recognizes what ranchers have already been doing to help.
“The important thing is that every rancher out here has already done a fair amount of voluntary mitigation, gathered in cows when they didn’t have to and kept them onto private,” Logan Hill said. “All our ranchers have it on our minds to be good stewards of the land. We can’t keep our livelihoods intact without taking care of the environment.”
Walter acknowledged ranchers’ efforts and said that the purpose of the allotment-by-allotment meetings is not to mandate grazing cuts. His letter urged ranchers to meet with range management specialists early to make adjustments before the grazing season and to have detailed plans ready for possible growth and precipitation scenarios.
“We’re asking the ranchers to make those decisions, but they need to be prepared for the condition of the range and the precipitation we’ve received,” Walter said. “Even if we get good moisture in winter and spring, they need to plan on there being less residual growth than normal….We certainly don’t know what the weather’s going to be in like in May and June, but all conditions indicate (the drought) could persist.”
Scott Robertson of Twin Buttes Ranch, who has been planning for the coming year with a management specialist since last fall, said that their preparation considers the impact of both livestock and wildlife on drought-affected lands. That includes wild horses whose future is often tangled up in litigation between the BLM and wild horse advocacy groups.
“For this spring’s plan with the BLM, we’ve got to…see how we can defer some livestock use in areas that were hit pretty hard by horses because some water was left in some of our reservoirs last year,” Robertson said. “There were some places we trail our livestock through in the spring that were abused because of the drought. We knew those areas would need a lot of help. The wild horses stayed through the remainder of spring and summer, so some of those areas deteriorated quite a bit more after the livestock was gone.”
The Hills say that wild horses, which have been eating hay alongside the Cripple Cowboy’s cattle, are an added stress in a drought year.
“The horses are always on our land eating grass, but this is the first year they’ve gotten hay,” Logan Hill said. “We were going to do voluntary mitigation and were planning to feed cows through some of the winter. The horses happened to be on that pasture, and we can’t get rid of them.”
In response to ranchers saying they have repeatedly called the BLM about the horses, Walter said that the White River office needs written notification of horse trespass issues.
“The thing about wild horses is we’ve done gather plans,” Walter said. “In 2010, we gathered outside the herd management area, and in 2011, we gathered inside it. Last year, we performed an emergency gather. If landowners have actual trespass horses on private land, they need to document that in writing and provide it to us.”
Robertson said that he understands the complexity of the issue but that the land is ultimately the victim in the area’s horse overpopulation.
“Even though I’m kind of in an adverse position with wild horses because this herd area has been designated to be zeroed out, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to preserve our heritage,” Robertson said. “But more on a logistical basis, the BLM’s got way more horses on the range than what are allocated. The range resources are what take the hit.”
Despite recent differences between the two groups, both the BLM and local ranchers agree that working side by side, with the agency’s traditional “Three C’s” intact—cooperation, communication, and collaboration—is the best way to move forward.
“The only way to work through this is together,” Walter said. “The landowners, the livestock operations know that country better than anybody. That’s why we’re asking them for their help to come up with solutions for the best way to work through this, depending on what we ultimately experience with weather. We need their help to be successful.”