Private land, public wild horses: BLM seeks private ranches to maintain wild horses | TSLN.com

Private land, public wild horses: BLM seeks private ranches to maintain wild horses

The federal government pays private landowners to keep wild horses that have overpopulated on federal land. Getty images

On June 20, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it was seeking bids from private land owners for new public off-range pastures located in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma or Wyoming that would provide a free-roaming environment for wild horses.

"An off-range pasture is where the horses are allowed to freely graze and move about like they would in the wild, only not on public lands," said Scott Fleur, BLM wild horse specialist. "What we were advertising for is public off-range facilities where an off-range pasture could be open to the public. It's kind of a new innovative approach that would let people come in and visit and see wild horses and learn about the program."

The BLM began paying landowners to run and care for the federally protected animals off-range and privately in the mid 1980s when there were no longer enough federally owned resources to run the animals whose herd population would grow 20 percent each year, doubling every four to five years. The BLM became the official caretakers of the wild horses after the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which came in response to the widespread roundup and slaughter of wild horses. The act prevents the killing of wild horses, granting exceptions for those that must be euthanized due to lameness, sickness or old age.

When wild horses on public lands are gathered, Fleur says that typically the horses five years of age and younger go into the national adoption program and horses that are older and deemed "unadoptable" and "excess" are then put into the off-range pasture program. Today, over 82,000 horses are in the care of the BLM and 32,000 horses are held in the 35 private off-range pastures ranging from 1,000 acres up to 35,000 acres.

“An off-range pasture is where the horses are allowed to freely graze and move about like they would in the wild, only not on public lands. What we were advertising for is public off-range facilities where an off-range pasture could be open to the public. It’s kind of a new innovative approach that would let people come in and visit and see wild horses and learn about the program.” Scott Fleur, BLM wild horse specialist

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"It's basically a retirement home for wild horses," Fleur said, guessing that the BLM sees a 1 percent turn-over rate for horses that die while in off-range pastures, either from natural causes or require euthanizing due to health reasons. "When that happens, we deliver additional horses to keep contracts at capacity."

According to the BLM, the free-roaming population of wild horses exceeds the appropriate management level despite their efforts using current population growth-suppression measures such as sterilizing mares and gelding stallions. Each off-range pasture will receive either all mares or all geldings to prevent any chance of possible reproduction.

Applicants for the off-range pasture program must submit a business plan that states their requested dollar amount per head per day, which Fleur said averages around two dollars, as well as the percentage of profit that the applicant is seeking. From there the pasture is inspected before any recommendations are made.

"They have to have sufficient land and water and forage to carry the contracted amount of animals," Fleur said. "They have to have a good perimeter fence, broken topography that provides natural shelter like in the wind and have a wild or free roaming and grazing environment."

After a contract is awarded, BLM wild horse specialists and APHIS veterinarians inspect the facilities to check on horse condition and horse health multiple times per year. Land owners are asked to check on the horses weekly, but unless quality of life is being impacted, the BLM leaves horses alone to heal naturally like they do in the wild. Some ranchers rotate the horses like cattle to prevent over grazing the pastures, which the BLM leaves up to the rancher as long as the horses are maintaining body condition scores from four to six.

"For ranchers, it provides a diversified ranch income for a lot of folks," Fleur said. "It's kind of like ranch recreation, some hold hunts, some have wild horses." F