Photos: Travis Loose & Garrett Guinn
Video: Fahmo Mohammed & Garrett Guinn
Dwindling resources and a decline in adoption are causing problems for Oregon’s wild horse management program.
Thirty horses, wild and skittish, trot anxiously around the small corral. Dust is thick in the air as they stomp and move nervously from one side of their fenced pen to the other. Watching intently while mounted atop her gelding, Wendy Rickman observes as the animals move in stunning unison; she waits for the perfect moment to divide the horses into more manageable units to filter through the chutes and into the barn, where they’ll be processed and documented as property of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Rickman, one of the first female wild horse wranglers in the nation, has worked in Eastern Oregon at the Burns BLM wild horse corrals for 24 years. Only the last two were officially spent as operation’s manager, however. Before recognizing the passion that would become her career, she attended beauty school and received a cosmetology certificate. As a result – though her hair is disheveled and her clothes are dusty – her makeup is flawless.
The facility she manages today is essentially a staging area where wild horses are brought after they’re captured. At the corrals, they’re vaccinated, de-wormed, have their blood tested and await adoption. Historically, the program has placed wild horses into private care for leisure, show or work, but fewer numbers of adoptions over the past seven years has given rise to larger, more complicated problems within wild horse program overall.
As the largest, non-migratory wild animals on BLM rangeland, wild horses are among the biggest users of natural resources. But the BLM is also responsible for managing elk, deer, antelope, sage grouse and wild sheep. However, unlike many other wild animal species in Oregon, wild horses are trapped, fenced into 19 different Herd Management Areas (HMA) by barbed wire. The horses are wild, but the rangeland is more like an open-range zoo, minus the full-time keepers; and it isn’t feasible to control the living conditions of the horses on so much land.
“Oregon’s been great because we’ve had a management program for years,” Rickman says. “We’re one of the only states nationwide that actually has been very strong in managing our horses. It’s frustrating to me to see that all of our hard work for so many years is starting to get messed with because we’re not allowed to gather. So in turn, it ruins the range – it’s just a cause and effect…There’s no perfect answer for everything. The BLM is just doing its best.”
The BLM’s wild horses are managed, but challenges abound. As herd sizes increase, the horses are captured and divided as part of what the BLM calls “gathers.” Some horses will be returned to the wild after receiving their inoculations, while Rickman and her wranglers will prep others for adoption at the corrals.
Since 2007, wild horse adoptions have decreased as a result of the slowed U.S. economy. This has led to over-packed holding facilities and over-populated rangeland. Drought conditions in Southeastern Oregon and overuse of resources by other wildlife in the area exacerbate the problems. Without many options for recourse – like horse slaughter or sterilization – the wild horse program begins to appear untenable.
As a result of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, approximately 4,000 wild horses live on 2.7 million acres of federal rangeland in Oregon. The BLM works with the state’s fish and wildlife agency and the Forest Service to maintain sustainability for all species of animals and vegetation. With nearly 2,000 more horses currently on the range than the land can support, employees for the BLM’s wild horse program have been busy.
Several years ago, this wasn’t the case. But now, fewer people are adopting wild horses, which require different training than horses from domestic breeders. Also, Eastern Oregon has experienced severe droughts for the past four years. By April 2015, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had declared drought emergencies in seven Oregon counties. Yet her declaration came as no surprise to anyone in the Burns district.
“The drought is a reality here,” says Rob Sharp, supervisor for the BLM’s wild horse and burro program. “Specifically – when you’re talking about managing wild horses and burros – if you don’t have the necessary habitat for them (i.e., water), it’s not, ‘Oh, it’s a bad year for them,’ it could potentially be catastrophic, and you could lose entire herds because of it. It’s an absolute reality.”
The BLM performed an emergency gather in fall 2014 out of fear that the horses would die. Public opinion about how the BLM handles horse gather operations vexes Rickman.
“[BLM critics] want the horses to stay out there and be wild and free,” Rickman says, “but they’ve never seen the gore of watching a horse die of thirst or starvation. People don’t see that, and it’s an awful thing to see – absolutely awful. Then, when we go to gather those horses, we get a firestorm from people who are mad that we’re gathering horses – as if we were supposed to just let them stay out there and die. It’s frustrating.”
In an emergency gather, they’ll go in and remove every animal imperiled; otherwise, there’s a high likelihood they won’t survive. After the gather and transport back to the facility, they sort through the animals based on their color and attitude. Horses with the strongest genetics are returned to the range for future adoptions. For those horses, huge water trucks deliver thousands of gallons of water to fill the dried up, man-made watering holes.
“Where we were hauling water to last year was down to one water hole with 50 horses and 50 antelope all there,” Sharp says. “A lot of people have the misconception that [the wild horse program] – since we’re wild horse specialists – focuses only on managing the population of the horses. Yeah, that’s a big part of it. But probably the most important part of our jobs is managing for the healthy habitat of the rangeland. If we can do that, then maintaining healthy horses is fairly easy. They take care of themselves on the range for the most part.”
Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife handles population counts and tracking fluctuations in numbers of multiple species; and the primary directive of the BLM is to manage land and ensure that the habitat is sustainable enough to accommodate all of the various animals living on it.
“We’re the Bureau of Land Management, not the bureau of horse management,” Rickman says plainly. “The land is there to be utilized by everything, not just horses.”
As the horses bang and clang through chutes leading into the barn, Rickman watches the uneasy animals. They express their angst by stamping the ground, or occasionally trying to leap the 10-foot metal fence that bars them in. As Rickman makes eye contact with a mare, she notes that she’s preparing them for upcoming adoption events, which are comparable to auctions in format. These events take place all over the U.S., and are meant to actively spur interest in wild horse adoptions.
The corrals in Burns were designed as a short-term holding facility for the wild horses. In the early 2000s, they were expected to hold a maximum of 200 animals year-round. As the adoption market waned, the lack of space on long-term pastures necessitated facilities like the one in Burns to sit at or very near capacity – 600 to 700 animals. Currently, the Burns facility houses approximately 550 wild horses, though they’ve held 1,200 at one time.
“It’s a sign of the times,” Rickman says. “If people can’t afford to feed themselves, they can’t afford to feed a horse.”
With so few adopters, the short and long-term holding facilities are filling to functional capacity. The wild range horses that cannot be gathered are left to multiply almost entirely unabated – horses have no natural predators on the rangeland and they’re also the only animals that aren’t hunted.
One solution is to eat them, but the practice of eating horsemeat, though popular in some other countries, has never taken hold in American culture.
“When you think about every animal we have in the United States, every single one is managed,” Rickman says. “We hunt every single animal out on the range…but people look at the wild horse differently than any other animal.” Simply put, horses in the U.S. are put on a higher pedestal than most other animals – they’re seen as companions like dogs and cats, not as food.
Consequently, as the horses reproduce, the resources diminish. This forces the BLM to seek implementation of birth control, which can cause another branch of problems. Experiments with horse contraceptives have had mixed results. The gathered mares are treated with porcine zona pellucida (PZP), the efficacy of which has been imprecise at best, and then released back onto the range.
“With PZP, it’s kind of a sad deal,” Rickman says. “Out on the range, with everything being wild, we’re based on a 50/50 ratio [of male to female horses] to keep it pretty natural – they don’t want us to have a breeding program, they want a management program. PZP doesn’t stop the mares from going into heat, it just stops them from getting pregnant.”
So, as multiple mares go into heat monthly without possibility of conception, the stud horses are at a higher risk for injuries because they’ll continue to fight for the mares – unaware that roughly 50 percent of them aren’t even able to reproduce.
“There aren’t a lot of studies of what happens within the herd socially with this change in the cycle of the female,” says Lisa Grant, a wild horse and burro specialist for the BLM. Should the birth control fail prematurely, Grant says, the female could cycle at the wrong time of the year and end up birthing a foal in the winter – which could easily result in the foal’s death.
Arguments for gelding and spaying all of the horses also arise, but this could potentially result in a massive horse die-off – if it were an economically viable option to begin with.
Despite continued efforts to stifle horse population growth and/or provide them with vital necessities such as water and food, the animals do what animals do: they eat all the grass and foliage they can find, drink all the watering holes dry and they reproduce at an almost uncontrollable rate. This forces BLM employees to do all they can just to keep Oregon’s rangeland verdant and, by association, keep the wild horses alive.
“It’s just hard work,” Rickman says. “You’ve got to be dedicated, and you’ve got to be able to mentally deal with some of the stuff that happens. These are wild animals…When there are good conditions and there’s lots of rain and lots of grass, then it’s not an issue. But how it’s been lately, it’s a huge issue…I think people need to see the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Since eating horse isn’t up for debate, unless there is some immediate change to the Southeastern Oregon fresh water situation, or unless the adoption program sees a significant increase in new adopters, the myriad issues surrounding the BLM’s wild horse program will only continue to mount.
Back at the corrals, Rickman continues to draw up paperwork on all the animals she processes through her facility. As they pass through, they’re given colored ropes to distinguish sex, and yellow tags with a four-digit ID number that acts as a temporary name. At one time, Rickman had all the horse IDs memorized. Now, it’s enough just to complete the task list for each day in preparation for the upcoming adoption events.
“You’ve got to be strong-willed and strong-minded to be able to handle a lot of this stuff,” Rickman says. “It’s very physical work at times.”
Rickman’s grit and determination may not singlehandedly save the day for the wild horses, but it’ll help to keep the program running as smoothly as it can for the foreseeable future. Keeping the whole operation organized isn’t easy, she admits. But her concern for the welfare of the horses and her desire to care for them in the best way possible motivates her to push herself toward the most positive outcome, even if that potential outcome isn’t readily visible today.
“For the past few months, I’ve been doing two or three people’s jobs,” Rickman says. “It is non-stop. I get phone calls at home, I work weekends, I work holidays – my job never ends.”