The Bureau of Land Management Billings office is planning to gather around 40 mustangs this year to keep the population at the appropriate management level of 90-120 horses. There are approximately 175 adult horses in the 38,000 acre range, said Kristen Lenhardt, bureau public affairs officer from Billings.
The bureau is targeting 1 to 3-year-old horses. Bureau administrators are hoping to trap horses from mares that have delivered plenty of offspring. The goals are to maintain the herd’s strong Spanish characteristics, an even array of colors and a 50-50 male/female split, said Jared Bybee, bureau wild horse and burro specialist in Billings at Britton Springs on Thursday.
There are two high-elevation and two low-elevation bait/water traps planned, Lenhardt said at the Britton Springs bureau administrative site at the base of the Pryors north of Lovell Thursday.
The public will be allowed to view the capture sites from vantage points. Bureau personnel will remain at those sites to protect both the equines and the public. Bureau personnel will use a remote control to close the gates when a horse planned for removal enters the trap, Lenhardt said.
Bybee drives a utility vehicle up a wash to the Cottonwood Spring. It is one of the lower desert traps.
Special vehicle regulations apply here because the wash is in a wilderness study area. Because it is an active stream bed, signs of the bureau’s passage will disappear with spring runoff, Bybee said.
Cottonwood Spring is also the only intact riparian environment in the range, he said.
Today the wash is dry as a bone. It is like a huge sand trap pebbled with stones of every size. Red dust clings to clothing like rusty powder. It is a stark and beautiful tract of sagebrush, occasional clumps of grass and struggling cottonwood trees.
A majority of the horse range receives less than 10 inches of precipitation annually. In lower elevations like the wash, precipitation is 6 or 7 inches per year, so it limits the number of horses the land can support because many of the mustangs winter in the lower climes, Bybee said.
Higher up in Custer National Forest, the grass is thicker. But only a small percentage of the range is in the national forest.
“A huge chunk of it is in this kind of ecosystem,” Bybee said.
A few hundred yards short of the trap, three wild horses grazing the scanty vegetation on a hill give the passing pickup and UTV a disinterested glance.
In the trap, a 2-inch black plastic pipe delivers water to a trough partially embedded in the sandy soil. The pipe winds up the stream bed to a catch where the spring will hopefully gravitate water to the trough.
“But as dry as it’s been, we’re running out of water,” Bybee said while examining the little catch basin.
In 2010, the bureau removed many water-hungry salt cedar and Russian olive trees that had made the draw nearly impassible, Bybee said.
“Guzzlers,” which collect and store precipitation for wildlife drinking, also were installed.
“There are a lot of things we do besides gathers to ensure the health of the horses and range,” Lenhardt said.
In the trap, temporary fence panels that resemble stock gates form the parameter of the enclosure and allow both ingress and egress. The panels have been up for 10 days so the horses have become accustomed to the enclosure, Bybee said.
As though snoring, a bee drones lackadaisically in the gentle ambience of the wash. An occasional metallic clang is the only sound as Bybee and Ryan Bradshaw, a bureau range tech, anchor the steel panels.
The guys toss chunks of horse feed resembling gray Tootsie Rolls around. Two worn mineral blocks plus numerous wide hoof prints attest to the horses’ frequent visits to the trap.
A camera mounted on a tree will also monitor any activity in the trap.
The three horses that observed Bybee and company’s arrival ease off the hill, cross the wash and halt a couple hundred yards below the trap.
They belong to Sitting Bull’s band, and one of the horses is marked for capture, Bybee said.
None of the gathered horses will be sold for slaughter, said a bureau news release.
Horses captured in the traps will be loaded in horse trailers and transported to Britton Springs, Bybee said.
If the gates to Britton Springs are open, the public is welcome to enter. Bleachers are set near the mustang holding pens for the public. Folks can sit in the bleachers and bureau personnel will conduct tours of the holding pens.
“They have a vested interest in this herd, and we want to accommodate that,” Lenhardt said.
Guidelines for the public will be posted on the bureau’s website. To view the guidelines or check out the progress, visit www.blm.gov/mt/st/en/fo/billings_field_office/wildhorses.html. Or call Billings BLM at 406-896-5013. Daily updates will be posted and the public will be notified when the gather begins, Lenhardt said.
The bureau will host one or more adoptions, depending on the length of time required to catch the equines. “All the horses will be put up for adoption at Britton Springs,” she said.
The minimum bid for a wild horse is $125.
Pryor horses have a 100 percent adoption rate, Lenhardt said.
People often focus on the gathers, but the bureau has implemented fertility control since 2001. Now 80 to 85 percent of the mares have received fertility treatment.