Wild horses in Idaho

    Wild horse advocate Craig Downer said horses are amazingly hardy animals and after a generation or two they will revert back to a wild state.

    Saylor Creek horses
    The Saylor Creek horses are descendants of mustangs from the Spanish conquistadors.

    IOJ Jan. 2012

    by Joe Evancho

    SAYLOR CREEK WMA — The wild horse is an icon of the American West. Today in Idaho, there are six different wild horse herd management areas. Hard Mountain, Black Trigger and Sand Basin are in western Owyhee County.

    The Four Mile herd roams north of Emmett, the Saylor Creek herd ranges south of Glenns Ferry and the Challis herd is in Central Idaho. An estimate of Idaho’s current wild horse population is just under 800.

    The term “wild horses” refers to free roaming North American herds of  horses  that are descendants of domestic horses dating back to the time of the Spanish Conquistadors.

    When Europeans introduced the horse to the Americas beginning in the late 15th century, some horses escaped and formed feral herds. The mustang, a hardy horse of the western plains, is directly descended from horses brought in by the Spaniards and is the most famous of western horses.

    The Debate

    There is a debate between land managers and wild horse advocates. It’s whether or not wild horses should be classified as native wildlife.

    Many horse advocates believe wild horses should be designated “native species based on the fact that two closely related prehistoric horse species existed in North America prior to the ice ages.” The Bureau of Land Management on the other hand, maintains that even though evidence shows that primitive horses were here in prehistoric times they died out during the last ice age (10-12,000 years ago) canceling out their status as native wildlife.

    Alayne Blickle is founder and president of Horses for Clean Water, an online resource for environmentally sensitive horse keeping, and she says the issues of wild horses evoke strong feelings on both sides of the debate.

    “Many environmental agency folks consider wild horses much like weeds, basing their views partly on the fact that they consider wild horses as feral horses and not an indigenous species,” she said.

    She added that many horse owners feel that there should be no boundaries or limits for the BLM horses and they should be allowed to roam free.

    So you can see how the subject can be a testy one.

    The Challis Herd

    Challis horses
    The Challis herd are descendants from draft horses used in the mines and ranches of the region.

    Kevin Lloyd is the BLM range management and wild horse specialist in Challis. He said that beginning in the late 1800s the U.S. Army was looking for Cavalry horses throughout the west. Up until WWI the army would give local ranchers good thoroughbred studs and they would be turned loose among the herds of wild horses. The ranchers would then round up the horses every few years and sell them back to the army for Cavalry horses.

    Lloyd said that from about 1910 to 1915 there was a famous thoroughbred stud named Bally Hall that was out there siring many offspring.

    There is also a lot of heavy draft horse in some of that domestic progeny in the form of very strong strains of Percheron, Belgian or Shire.

    Lloyd said that the horses in the Challis herd are a conglomerate of all the different horses that have either been purposely or accidentally let into the Herd Management Area (HMA).

    According to Lloyd, winter feeding is a limiting factor in range herd size. “Our main goal is to have the healthiest herd we can.” he said. Because a herd can double in size every four years the BLM will cull the herd as part of their range management.

    Lloyd said that when they gather horses they try to get at least 85 percent of the herd. “We do a selective removal taking the most adoptable horses between the ages of one and four because these horse are the most likely to be adopted by people who want horses they can work with and train. The remaining horses are turned back out.”

    The appropriate management level is determined through the BLM resource management planning process. Biologists study the resources in the herd area—water and forage— along with the impact elements—livestock grazing, wildlife habitat and wild horses. All go into determining what will be a healthy herd size based on what can sustain the livestock and the horses. “The ultimate goal is healthy livestock and horses on healthy rangeland,” he said.

    The number of horses that can exist in Challis is based on how much winter range they have. They’re not like wildlife that move large distances, although there is some seasonal movement between summer and winter locations,” Lloyd said.

    You can see them sometimes in the summer on winter range, but there are certain places in the winter where the horses can’t go mainly because of the snow depths.

    They do stay within the herd management area and don’t migrate large distances, Lloyd said. The Challis herd population today is about 135.

    Historically, the Challis herd was comprised of hardy stock that originated with the animals that miners and ranchers brought to the area around 1870. These horses are generally larger than most wild horses and live in rugged, steep mountainous regions.

    Lloyd said that the wolves in the area don’t seem to have any effect on the herd.

    “I spend a lot of time in the range during the summer and I see a lot of deer and elk kills but I don’t see any horse kills.” He said. “They definitely could take an injured horse, but I just don’t see it. A few years ago I saw some predation on foals, which are obviously easier to take than a full grown horse. I think it is possible, but I don’t see it,” he said.

    Lloyd also said there is variation between the location of the Owyhee herd and the Challis herd. Some of these variations include topography, other species in the area and climate—factors that make each herd different.

    “The horses in the Owyhee are different than Challis horses. The Challis herd grazing area is located among a lot of mountains and lots of snow,” Lloyd said. The land where the Owyhee herd roams is less mountainous.

    The primary difference between winter survival for the southern Idaho herd and the Challis herd is that Saylor Creek horses have pipelines or troughs that BLM maintains to ensure that the Saylor Creek horses have water in the winter.

    “If you look across the 11 states where wild horses are found there is quite a bit of difference in health and vitality of the wild horse populations and their grazing areas,” Lloyd said. “We want our horses and our rangeland to stay healthy so the horses don’t get into a situation where there is not enough water or forage for them.”

    The Saylor Creek Roundup

    The BLM uses a variety of tactics to gather horses during a roundup.
    The BLM uses a variety of tactics to gather horses during a roundup.

    On the edge of the Mountain Home Air Force Base Saylor Creek bombing range is a desolate and nearly empty rangeland. Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Heather Teil-Nelson said the Long Butte fire of 2010 ravaged nearly all of the Saylor Creek wild horse’s home range.

    “As a result the area where those horses liked to hang out was 99 percent gone. There were a few pockets of vegetation left, but not nearly enough to sustain the number of horses out there. So 10 days after the fire we conducted an emergency horse round up where we brought in about 195 horses to the Boise Wild Horse Corral,” she said.

    “The corral really isn’t large enough to manage close to 200 horses, so we shipped some horses to Carson City, Nevada where they could be fed and cared for over the winter,” she said

    BLM science disputed          

    Not everyone agrees with BLM’s practices and procedures. Wild horse advocate Anne Novak is executive director of the California-based wild horse advocacy group, Protect Mustangs. Their goals, according to their web site are: to “educate the public about the mustang crisis, (and) protect and research America’s wild horses on the range.”

    Novak said she feels the AML needs to be modified to accurately represent Thriving Natural Ecological Balance (TNEB) which she said is a major part of the WHBA and should include wild horses which she maintains are in fact a native species.

    She said that in some places on the range the AML varies. “On some public land the management levels are 50 to 1, cattle to horses, and other places it can be as high as 200 to one.

    The BLM is saying that the horses can only have this much space.”

    Novak doesn’t know why the ratio changes but she said that the BLM is not respecting the original act which is all about the TNEB factor. At some point someone established these AMLs which Novak said are ridiculously low for the horses.


    Call of the Wild

    Craig Downer is a wild horse advocate living in Carson City, Nevada. He is the author of Wild Horses: Living Symbols of Freedom.

    He said horses are amazingly hardy animals and after a generation or two they will revert back to wild horses. According to Downer this reverting manifests itself when stimulated by environmental conditions, such as the weather.

    Tough winters are suitable for the hardy draft horses that used to be used in the mines and on the ranches near Challis
    Tough winters are suitable for the hardy draft horses that are descendants of horses used in the mines and on the ranches near Challis.

    He explained that “Horses develop a winter coat of guard hairs that shield them against the wind and they develop more downy-type hairs underneath.” Horses will seek trees as wind breaks and they will bunch together much like musk ox in the Artic.

    “Their instincts are incredible and some horses are really remarkable in their ability to withstand cold temperatures,” he said.

    Downer feels that the WHBA has been abused. “It seems like the political establishment has worked against the herds to eliminate them and thwart the true intent of the WH&B Act which was established to ensure that herds were healthy and viable and treated well,” he said.

    Lloyd said that everyone is entitled to their opinion. “To say we at the BLM are intentionally hurting these animals just isn’t true. All of us are horse people. We love horses,” he said.

    The controversy will continue as both sides feel they are doing what is best for this western icon. BLM Director Bob Abbey has indicated he will make sure additional training will be available for BLM workers and contractors involved in future wild horse work.

    Protecting Mustang’s Novak said wild horses are wired to survive. “If you place a thoroughbred out in the wild I’m not sure they would survive, but because of natural selection process, only the strongest stallions are going to breed. He has to be the strongest one to fight off all the bachelors that are going to try to steal mares,” Novak said.

    So the strongest and smartest are going to breed keeping the best genes in the pool and wild horse roaming free on the plains of the West.

    With wild horses in several states and given the ongoing conflict between ranchers, BLM, horse advocates and the wild horses, it remains to be seen how to best balance the needs of everyone against maintaining this majestic icon of America’s rangelands.

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    Sidebar: BLM estimates that there are 33,000 wild horses roaming on public range land and about 5,000 burros and the agency is feeding about 41,000 wild horses in either in long term holding pastures or short term corrals.