Follow the herd
Technology has edged its way into agriculture, and studies at University of Wyoming are not exempt. A team of doctors and a graduate student collared several wild horses with GPS tracking devices in February and March of this year with the goal of further understanding their habits, chosen travel routes, and interaction with their environment.
UW professors Dr. Jeff Beck and Dr. Derek Scasta and UW PhD student Jake Henning coordinated a capture with Wyoming Department of Agriculture, BLM and UW at the Rock Springs holding facility to collar 10 mares, all aged five years or older, with the goal to deploy 30 more tracking devices. They were then released near their gathering site.
“Our research objective is to use the latest GPS tracking technology to determine, first, how Wyoming horses move into, through, and out of HMAs, second, how Wyoming horses move across the complex matrix of surface ownership which includes a state boundary with Colorado, and third, understand how these horses select sites on these harsh rangelands across seasons and the subsequent soils and vegetation responses,” Scasta said.
The mares who are currently equipped with collars are alive and doing well, and are visited monthly for welfare checks. A few collars have been remotely dropped off mares due to a lack of proper data uploading.
“While we are still compiling the spatial results, we are starting to get an understanding that horses can spend a fair amount of time on non-federal land, a fair amount of time outside of HMA boundaries, and that they do between Wyoming and Colorado,” Scasta said. “We also have a lot of soils and vegetation information that we will be analyzing that was collected relative to utilization distributions (UDs) of the collared mares. We will compare low, moderate, and high UD areas.”
Mares aged five or older were chosen for several reasons. “Stallions are more aggressive and may break the collar,” Henning said. “As for young ones, we don’t want them to outgrow the collar. We put them on mares that are adults and are not growing any more.” Several of the collared mares have been discovered to have healthy foals since being collared.
An overwhelming number of wild horses is an ever-present concern. Currently there are approximately 70,000 horses on the range, compared to the appropriate management level (AML) of 26,715. There are more than 40,000 horses in off-range short-term and long-term holding facilities or pastures.
“Wild horses inhabit much of the western US and are protected under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act,” Scasta said. “These horses are descendants of reintroduced horses by explorers starting in the 1400s and are not native to the U.S. Actually, horses did occur in North America but went extinct about 10,000 years ago. At the time of implementation of the 1971 Act, there were an estimated 25,000 horses and burros and much concern about their welfare and population.”
Nevada is host to more wild horses and burros than any other state; Wyoming and Colorado trade places of second- and third-most wild horses depending upon the year. In Wyoming, these horses inhabit Herd Management Areas (HMA) that often include private, state, and federal lands, Scasta said.
“Wild horses are here to stay in regards to the 1971 Act but we have a responsibility to manage their populations in a sustainable way that optimizes the health of the land, the health of livestock and wildlife, maintaining multiple use, and most importantly — maintaining healthy horses,” Scasta said. “GPS collars have been used on many, many wildlife species of which many are threatened or endangered. This includes endangered wild horses in Mongolia, endangered zebras in Africa, and species of concern such as sage-grouse in Wyoming.”
Beck and Scasta are the brains behind the project and “had been wanting to pursue research in this area because it is very important both socially, ecologically, and agriculturally,” Scasta said. “We submitted our proposal, with input from many stakeholders including Bureau of Land Management specialists in Rawlins, Wyo., and Rock Springs, Wyo., to use the latest GPS technology to develop these more robust space and time understandings of the horses.”
The project is currently within the implementing phase, and the team will continue to gather data from the wild horses and their patterns through the varying seasons. The public does not have access to individual collared horses for the safety of those horses, but they are encouraged to contact the team with questions or watch the releases.