Aerial survey finds more than 5,000 feral horses on Wind River Reservation

An aerial survey has identified more than 5,000 feral horses on the Wind River Reservation, a legislative committee heard this month.

“There’s a lot of horses,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Pat Hnilicka said. “And this is just a minimum count – this is not an actual, because there’s a number of horses that are missed when you do these surveys. …

“We expect that we counted (maybe) three-quarters or so of the horses.”

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This map shows the feral horse groups observed during four fixed-wing flights in January to February 2022 on the Wind River Indian Reservation. h/t U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

For comparison, Hnilicka said, the Bureau of Land Management oversees 4,700 horses on 4.8 million acres of land in the state.

“On the reservation, we’re looking at about 1 million acres and (a) similar number of horses,” Hnilicka said. “The point is, (the) density of horses on the reservation is much higher – upwards of five times higher in total – than what you see on BLM grounds.”

The numbers highlight the “critical nature of the problem,” Hnilicka said, calling feral horses a “huge issue on the reservation.”

‘Proactive removal’

Tribal entities are not subject to the provisions of the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, Hnilicka said, so they are “not restricted in how they manage their horses” like the BLM and U.S. Forest Service are.

But the Bureau of Indian Affairs does not have a “standard budget for horse removal,” BIA Wind River Agency Superintendent Leslie Shakespeare said, so “all the removal management efforts have fallen upon the Tribes, and the Tribes up until this point didn’t have a proactive removal process.”

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Now, however, Tribal officials said their government agencies have allocated an initial $100,000 to horse removal, and 1,000 of the animals have been removed from the reservation and sold over the past year, with all of the proceeds going back to the removal program.

In addition, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill last year allocating $500,000 from the state general fund for “endeavors to manage wild horses in the state, including on the Wind River Indian Reservation.”

Of that total, $400,000 is slated to go toward “Tribal gathers” of feral horses, according to a memo from Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon’s office.

Shakespeare said the money would help fund a project in the western Owl Creek Mountains, in an area where there are more feral horses (3,500) than cattle (3,000).

The ratio of horses to cattle is making it difficult for the 20 grazing permit holders in the area to “maximize their permit,” Shakespeare said.

“That’s the reason why we picked this project for that specific area,” he said. “Because of the high density of horses and the amount of permittees.”

Feral horses – which are “not descendants of the wild mustangs” – have caused “severe overgrazing in upland range and riparian habitats, altering plant composition, degrading water quality and severely outcompeting native wildlife like bighorn sheep, mule deer, antelope, elk, and moose,” the governor’s memo states.

The animals also “directly compete with preferred grasses and forbs that are typically used by permitted cattle.”

Sage grouse

Legislators at the committee meeting asked about the impacts feral horses throughout the state might also have on sage grouse habitats, wondering whether an overabundance of horses could eventually cause the bird to be listed as an endangered species – a scenario that would have negative implications for the minerals industries in the state.

Sage grouse numbers are down throughout Wyoming this year, and Hnilicka said the state’s horse population “no doubt” contributes to the decline, but he added that it would be difficult to “show cause and effect” due to the myriad other factors involved.

“Sage grouse are cyclical,” he explained. “They follow precipitation cycles.

“But certainly horses are having a major impact out there.”

The committee voted to draft a letter expressing concern that federal wild horse management restrictions on non-Tribal entities might negatively affect sage grouse populations, resulting in economic consequences for Wyoming in the future.

They also joked about the prospect of moving more wild horses onto the reservation, where the same management restrictions wouldn’t apply, making it easier to remove the horses from the state in a timely fashion.

Wyoming Rep. John Winter, R-Thermopolis, who represents part of Fremont County, said he has a “resolution being developed right now on this very situation.”

Honor Farm funding

The remaining $100,000 in funding from this year’s wild horse management bill will go toward the Wyoming Honor Farm’s Wild Horse Program in Riverton, according to Gordon’s memo.

The money will fund “training and corrals that will allow the WHF to continue to safely and successfully manage our wild horse population” according to BLM standards, the memo states.

Last month’s WHF wild horse adoption event in Riverton was “really successful,” attracting 250 “potential adopters” who went home with 55 animals, BLM Wyoming State Director Andrew Archuleta said.

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