ROME, Oregon — The Vale District Bureau of Land Management in Oregon manages three wild horse herds in Barren Valley Complex, an area spanning more than one million acres, that is roughly the size of Rhode Island.
The BLM has determined a healthy herd is between 450 and 900 horses, but this June they counted almost 2,500 horses, and when overpopulation is factored in with the drought from this summer the BLM decided to act.
"It all came to a head as things were drying out and water holes were drying out," said Shanie Rockefeller a wild horse specialist who has been working in this region since the 1990s. "We had horsed dying because of a lack of water and somewhat lack of feed."
So the BLM hired a private contractor to round up wild horses using a helicopter and so far they have rounded up 844 horses, shipped 687 to wild horse corrals and 11 have been euthanized or killed during the process.
"It is really heartbreaking less than 24 hours they were free with their families just living their life as wild animals, federally protected wild animals," said Brieanah Schwartz of the American Wild Horse Campaign, who traveled from the Washington D.C. area to witness the round-up.
In 1917 Congress passed the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act protecting horses from being killed or harassed by the public on federal lands, but this act also put the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service in charge of managing the lands where wild horses roam.
“The actual history from 1971 to 1976, they put a moratorium on helicopters and they found they couldn’t keep up with reproduction rates by gathering them from the ground," said Rockefeller. "Everything is done for the welfare of the horses the best we can, but they are wild animals and things do happen with wild animals, but everybody is trained really well to do the best they can.”
The American Wild Horse Campaign believes it is inhumane to drive the wild horses into a trap using a helicopter and they would like to see a different approach to managing these herds, especially in areas around the country where livestock roam.
"Livestock are able to graze on 115 million acres and horses have to share 27 million with livestock," said Schwartz. "Livestock are turned out in the spring eat all that new growth forage and then horses are blamed for it so there is a lot of mismanagement that is happening that the horses take the blame for and then they are rounded up inhumanely with helicopters for it."
The American Wild Horse Campaign pointed towards on-range fertility management because wild horse herds don't really have natural predators and they reproduce at a rate that drives overpopulation.
Rockefeller told us she has been part of a fertility control project with the Sand Springs herd and that has made it so these round-ups happen about once every ten years instead of every four years.
“We keep the landscape healthy and you try to keep the horse herds healthy and you have a little bit of decision-making out here to try and make the horse herds as best you can," said Rockefeller.
After trapping the horses they get separated in a temporary pen, stallions in one pen, mares in another and mares with their babies in another to prevent fighting among the herd.
Once the horses are shipped they are trained by 4H clubs and auctioned off, others are sold and the BLM plans on returning 100 of these horses back to the rangeland in Oregon, but we don't know how many will die in the process or how many would have died out on the range without the BLM's intervention.
"They are rounded up and treated as a commodity and stockpiled in corrals across the country part of our investigations uncover that the adoption incentive program leads to slaughter so the future of these horses is really unknown," said Schwartz.
The Bureau of Land Management also gathered up wild horses in different districts in the Idaho, Oregon and Nevada rangelands this past month.