In the last two and one-half weeks, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has rounded up around 500 wild horses in the southwest part of Wyoming — but that’s just a start.
The BLM has a goal of rounding up over 3,500 horses before the 2021 Rock Springs Wild Horse Gather is complete, according to Brad Purdy, Public Affairs Specialist for the BLM-Montana/Dakotas State Office.
“The ultimate goal for all five of the HMAs (Horse Management Areas) is about 3,500 Horses removed,” he said, adding that the intention is to round up a total of 4,300 horses before the project’s targeted completion date in early 2022.
“When BLM looks at this, we look at it as basically five gathers, with the largest gather in the Great Divide Basin — I believe we are gathering 1,124 there,” he explained. “This gather is in line with the Red Desert gather that we completed in 2020, I believe we gathered 3,420 some-odd horses.”
BLM Wyoming manages 16 wild horse herd management areas on nearly 5 million acres.
The BLM Wyoming Rock Springs and Rawlins field offices are removing wild horses from the Great Divide Basin, Adobe Town, Salt Wells Creek, White Mountain and Little Colorado Herd Management Areas (HMAs) in southwestern Wyoming. The combined appropriate management level for all HMAs in the state is 3,725 animals.
The BLM estimates the wild horse population across the five HMAs to be approximately 5,105.Since 1971, the BLM has removed approximately 37,000 animals from public rangelands in Wyoming as part of its efforts to maintain healthy horses and burros on healthy public rangelands.
“The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971 is the law that oversees these type of operations,” Purdy explained. “The BLM is compelled, when we have more of a population than the appropriate management level states, that law says, we shall go out there and then gather horses.”
Warren Murphy of Cody was actually present and part of the legislative process when the act was created.
“I was working at the time on the staff of Senator Birch Byah of Indiana,” he said, “and he was the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time. I spent a couple of years on his staff, and I was there for all the discussion from the staff firsthand when that issue of wild horses came up, came out of nowhere.
“There were televised things on the news, people in airplanes shooting wild horses in the desert, probably, Nevada, although I found out later where that did happen in Wyoming,” he continued.
Murphy explained that there was such a national uproar over people seeing horses being shot that pressure was put on Congress to do something. “The senator from Wisconsin at the time, Senator Gaylord Nelson, came up with this bill called the Wild Horse and Burro Act to protect wild horses and burros who were wandering throughout the western country,” he said. “And Senator Byah was a co-sponsor, and we debated that bill in one year, that thing went through, Congress passed it overwhelmingly, and was signed by President Nixon in 1971.”
The Rock Springs gather is being conducted to address the overpopulation on the HMAs, prevent deterioration of the rangeland due to overpopulation and remove horses from private lands and areas not designated for their long-term use.
The BLM estimates that around 800 animals that are gathered will be returned to the range. Any mare returned to an HMA will be treated with temporary fertility control.
“Some of the horses are going to be put back out onto the range with things like PZP and intrauterine device treatments,” Purdy said.
Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP, is a fertility-control vaccine given to female horses on the range through an injection via remote darting. The treatment has proven successful in other horse management areas — including the McCullough Peaks herd east of Cody.
Murphy, the former rector at Christ Church in Cody, became part of the non-profit organization FOAL (Friends Of A Legacy) in 2005. The organization works closely with the BLM in managing the McCullough Peaks HMA, including administering PZP to the herd.
“Over the last few years there have been no round ups here, because PZP worked, and we’ve got designated shooters,” he said. “Our PZP programs are working — and not only working, but became a model for the whole country.”
“I think how successful PZP is, kind of hinges on whether or not you can apply it consistently to the horses that you need to, to apply it right,” Purdy countered. “In places like McCullough Peaks, we have lots of partners, lots of people helping us out.”
He added that the McCullough Peaks herd is more accessible to the public, which might play into the success of the program there.
“Here on some of these other HMAs that are a little bit more remote, you don’t get the kind of visitation, and those horses become, you know, more skeptical of these weird looking bipeds that are walking around,” he said. “So it’s more difficult to apply PZP via darting on some of these other herds.”
But Purdy acknowledged that there is controversy surrounding wild horse gathers such as this one.
“There is a general dislike of wild horse gathers, and I understand where folks are coming from,” he said. “And one of the things that I tell them is, you know, we are a federal government agency and we have to follow the law. Some of the changes I think some of the folks who disagree with these things want are going to take a change in the law.”
Part of the controversy, according to Purdy, is that the public feels that observation sites aren’t adequate.
“We have a lot of different factors playing into it, terrain, safety for the public, for the BLM employees, for the contractors, and for the horses,” he said. “We don’t want the observation site and people moving around and taking photos and things to spook a horse and a horse to get injured – that’s the last thing that BLM wants.”
Resource concerns also play into observation sites, Purdy explained.
“I do believe about 50% of the Great Divide Basin herd management area is also priority habitat management areas for sage grouse habitat,” he said. “That’s important to Wyoming, that’s important to BLM. So when we select these observation sites, you know, resource damage is something that we do take into consideration.”
Animals removed from public rangelands are offered to the public for adoption; unadopted animals are cared for on open pastures for the rest of their lives.
“All the horses that are gathered will go into the adoption program, after they are seen by a vet,” Purdy said. “If they get too old, they go to long-term holding – we have several sanctuaries on range pastures, we have some here in Wyoming, they’re scattered in the Midwest. I think there’s some even on the East Coast. And so those horses that don’t get adopted, they go and live out the rest of their lives at those longer term holding facilities, which are basically private pastures where a rancher is paid to feed and look out for these horses for the rest of their lives.”
Opportunities are available for the public to observe gather operations, provided that doing so does not jeopardize the safety of the animals, staff, contractors and observers, or disrupt gather operations.
The BLM will escort the public to gather observation sites located on public lands or authorized private lands.
If you are interested in watching the gather, you must contact Brad Purdy at email@example.com.