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November 28, 2008 3:52 am

McCullough Peaks horse roundup still a possibility

Written by Tribune Staff

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is in a bit of a financial jam caring for wild horses that number in the tens of thousands on range land and in long-term holding facilities, but a McCullough Peaks roundup still may happen.

With the proposal to euthanize excess horses put on hold, at least for now, the bureau is tasked with finding a solution.

Some criticize the bureau's wild horse management, but one official said the BLM is doing a satisfactory job given its financial situation.

Locally, two small herds of wild horses reside in the Pryor Mountains and the McCullough Peaks. There were proposed roundups (gathers) this fall for both herds. The Pryor gather was canceled this year due to personnel issues.

Although the McCullough Peaks roundup has been postponed, Alan Shepherd, BLM Wyoming wild horse specialist in Cheyenne, said it could still occur if BLM Deputy Director Henri Bisson gives the local office the go-ahead.

According to the BLM's 2008 numbers, approximately 33,000 wild horses and burros are living on bureau-managed land in 10 western states. The bureau said 27,300 is an appropriate management level.

Only a fraction of that number exists in Wyoming — about 3,600 wild horses. In northern Wyoming, there are nearly 200 wild horses in the Pryors and 184 in the McCullough Peaks. The Billings BLM, which oversees the Pryor ponies, said 95 adults is the appropriate management level in the 39,000 acre range. Shepherd said 100 is probably a good number to sustain genetic viability in the Peaks.

Whatever the appropriate management number in Wyoming or another western state, the bureau's horse-management coffers are hurting.

According to an October BLM fact sheet, holding costs exceeded $27 million for wild horses this fiscal year. That is three-fourths of fiscal year 2008's wild horse budget of $37 million. The bureau has nearly 30,000 wild horses and burros in its short-term and long-term care.

Ginger Kathrens of the Cloud Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of wild horses, said since the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which placed wild horses under the protection of the federal government, 19.2 million acres of wild horse land has been removed.

Kathrens said over the last eight years, more than 10,000 horses have been removed from bureau horse management areas across the West each year.

Shepherd said, these days, fewer people are adopting wild horses because they can't afford to board the animals.

According to the Associated Press, the Government Accountability Office — Congress' investigative branch — said, at the current rate, it will cost $58 million next year to care for bureau wild horses. The office said if the bureau is uncomfortable with its current management choices, it can ask Congress to change current laws.

Under the 1971 act, the bureau can legally euthanize horses or sell them for slaughter, but the bureau is reluctant to adopt those drastic measures.

Kathrens said last year there was one wild horse auction in New England. Another is scheduled next year in Vermont.

“The marketing is poor and people back there want them,” Kathrens said. “They love them.”

Shepherd said the bureau is conducting the best marketing campaign it can with the funding it has.

The bureau could employ more aggressive techniques to market wild horses. The BLM could expand its wild horse range, or it could accept Medeleine Pickens' offer, Kathrens said.

Pickens, the wife of a rich Texas oil man, has offered to purchase 1 million acres to place wild horses from BLM holding facilities.

Kathrens said this is a swell idea, but Pickens should demand caveats to ensure that the 1 million acres does not just become extra space to board overflow from the holding facilities or to place horses in order to justify more roundups — and more unwanted horse orphans.

Unless Congress appropriates more funding, the bureau will reduce the number of roundups, Shepherd said.

Shepherd said in the 20 years he has been in bureau wild horse management, the bureau has made great strides in maintaining wild horses and their habitat.

“I think we're doing the best that we can given the resources we have,” Shepherd said.