Almost 6,500 feral horses were removed from the Wind River Reservation this year as part of a cooperative effort involving the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes, the State of Wyoming, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and associated wildlife management agencies.
“This has just been a very large success,” Northern Arapaho Business Council spokesman Travis McNiven told the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee last week. “Thank you (for providing) the seed money to get this ball rolling.”
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon distributed $400,000 to the Tribes in support of this year’s feral horse roundups, according to a committee report.
That money funded the removal of about 1,400 feral horses from the reservation in early 2023, Gordon’s natural resources policy advisor Nolan Rap said.
Matching funds from other sources facilitated further Tribal gathers, he continued, resulting in the removal of about 600 more horses this year.
The Tribes were also able to secure funding from “nonstate sources” for other “significant removals this summer,” Rap said.
That nonstate funding came from the BIA, and it facilitated the removal of almost 4,500 more horses from the reservation, Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game director Arthur Lawson told the committee.
Lawson said officials noticed benefits to wildlife almost immediately after the horses were removed this year.
“The results were pretty much overnight,” he said. “A day later, after removing the horses, there would be 200-300 head of elk instead. (It was) amazing.”
Mule deer are returning too, he said, as well as sage grouse, which are now “everywhere.”
“The results are phenomenal,” Lawson said. “Wildlife is making its way back.”
The previous “overabundance” of feral horses on the reservation had had a “very severe” effect on the food supply for other animals, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Pat Hnilicka explained, presenting photographs of rangeland areas where there was “virtually nothing left” to graze “as far as the eye can see” heading into last winter.
Now that the majority of feral horses on the reservation have been removed, Hnilicka said more forage will be available, and wildlife “will be able to overwinter on the reservation again in large numbers.”
‘It was at a crisis point’
Hnilicka also shared a graph with the committee showing how quickly the feral horse population on the reservation could have grown if left unchecked.
“The point of this graph is to show that it was at a crisis point,” Hnilicka said. “There were enough horses out there that if something wasn’t done, like, right now, they would get to a population level where it was irreversible – it would be really difficult to bring them back to any manageable numbers.”
With 6,500 removed from the reservation this year, Hnilicka said the population is now on a more sustainable trajectory – but there are still “several thousand” left to be rounded up.
Estimates show there are currently 3,000 feral horses on the reservation, McNiven said, and the goal is to reduce the population to about 500.
Lawson said his agency will work with the BIA this winter to survey the feral horse population on the reservation in order to determine how many of the animals actually remain.
They’ll use the survey results to plan future gathers for 2024 and 2025, he said.
Where are they sent?
Wyoming Rep. John Winter, R-Thermopolis, asked for more information about where the feral horses are sent after they’re rounded up.
“It’s my understanding that the Canadian facilities have been closed,” he said. “Are you sending them to Mexico or what?”
Lawson said the horses go to various locations, including Mexico, and states like Texas and Nebraska.
“A lot of them have gone to sanctuaries,” he added, and “some of the good horses … we’ve kept” and sold to local residents.
He noted that every horse is examined by a brand inspector and a veterinarian before being shipped out of state.