Wild horse advocates protest roundup of eastern Oregon herd

November 26, 2012 01:51 pm

JOHN DAY — Critics have sent more than 6,000 emails and letters objecting to a series of proposed U.S. Bureau of Land Management roundups over the next decade that would dramatically shrink the Murderers Creek wild horse herd just west of this Grant County mountain town.

The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, organizers of the opposition, claims the roundups would pare the herd from 250 mustangs to 50.

“This is just one example of the government reducing a wild horse herd to a dangerously low number of animals, which jeopardizes the long-term genetic health of the herd,” said Suzanne Roy, the campaign’s director.

Murderers Creek, south of Dayville and Mount Vernon, got its colorful name in the 1860s after the massacre of eight frontier-era prospectors, according to the book, “Oregon Geographic Names,” by Lewis A. McArthur.

Rob Sharp, a BLM spokesman in Burns, said the Murderers Creek herd doubles in number every four to five years and isn’t genetically distinctive. At its current size, the herd threatens wildlife habitat and salmon-steelhead streams and needs to be reduced to between 50 and 140 horses, he said.

The herd ranges across BLM and U.S. Forest Service-managed lands, he said. The goal of federal wild horse managers is to allocate that rangeland to elk, deer, domestic cattle and other species, in addition to the mustangs, he said.

“The critics refuse to acknowledge that we have other missions and we are not just in the business of managing wild horses,” said Tom Gorey, a BLM spokesman in Washington, D.C. “They are totally focused on the horses, to the exclusion of other resources and uses.”

Roy, who lives in Hillsborough, N.C.,  describes the Murderers Creek mustangs as “timber horses” that live among the conifers and Ponderosa pines of the Malheur National Forest. “The blood of those wild horses represents the history of the West,” she said.

The Forest Service and BLM “can make adjustments to livestock grazing in the area” to better accommodate the mustangs, Roy said. “It is time to take a stand against the old approach, which is not sustainable.”

Nationally, BLM manages 37,300 free-roaming wild horses and burros on 27 million acres in 10 Western states, including Oregon. That’s nearly 12,000 horses and burros more than the federal agency’s management objective, Gorey said.

A potentially greater problem is the 46,500 mustangs and burros living in 18 Midwestern short- and long-term corrals and holding pastures -- animals rounded up on the Western ranges and never returned to the wild. Both BLM and Roy’s activist coalition of more than 50 wild horse advocacy, public interest and conservation groups agree that’s too many in long-term holding.

Roy said her organization and the Cloud Foundation, a Colorado nonprofit dedicated to protecting and preserving wild horses and burros, advocates solving the problem with fertility control of mares using a drug called PZP.

PZP is part of BLM’s plan to reduce the Murderers Creek herd size, but the initial emphasis will be on removing horses. Gorey said PZP controls fertility for only 22 months, meaning roundups would be required every two years, not a solution in many of the West’s rugged wild horse management areas.

“We don’t see a miracle fertility control drug that can solve our problems,” he said.

Roy said PZP remains 60 percent effective after four years, and that should be taken into consideration. “I know the BLM acts like after two years it doesn’t have any effectiveness, but that isn’t true,” she said.

The issue of roundups and long-term holding may be approaching a climax, with no apparent resolution in sight. BLM has been faced with a falldown in wild horse adoptions combined with a General Accounting Office ruling two years ago that long-term holding, at an annual taxpayer cost of roughly $475 per animal, is “unsustainable.”

Roy said she worries BLM’s end game might be to consign its excess wild horses to slaughter.

The federal agency has permission to do that, but Gorey said the option isn’t in the cards: “Congress doesn’t want us to exercise that authority,” he said.

Meanwhile, BLM’s long-term holding corrals and pastures are nearing capacity.

“We are not going to gather more than those pastures and corrals can accommodate,” Gorey said. “We are reaching a critical mass in terms of holding.”