Tribal, state and federal officials hope to conduct a wild horse gather operation on the Wind River Reservation by the end of this year.
The goal is to remove about 1,200 horses using a “helicopter procedure” and a “standard gathering technique,” state staffers told the legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations during a meeting last month in Riverton.
Once the gather is complete, Tribal officials “have the ability to sell those horses or get them back to (their) owners – or they have an administrative process if people have dumped their horses on the reservation illegally,” said Kit Wendtland, special counsel to Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon.
There are currently more than 5,000 wild and feral horses on the reservation, according to an aerial survey conducted in January and February.
That’s more horses than the Bureau of Land Management oversees statewide, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Pat Hnilicka said.
“The density of feral horses on the reservation is upwards (of) five times higher than what you would have on BLM-administered lands in Wyoming,” he said.
The situation isn’t necessarily unique, he added, explaining that “there is a disproportionate number of feral horses on Indian lands across the west.”
“There are more (feral horses) on reservations than there are on BLM or Forest Service administered lands – by a significant amount,” Hnilicka said – prompting Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, to ask, “Why?”
“I’m just wondering why it’s so much more disproportionately higher in Indian Country,” Ellis said.
Hnilicka wasn’t “exactly sure how to answer” the question, but he noted that there are “additional horses that are being dumped on the reservation (by) people who don’t want their horses anymore.”
“That certainly has been occurring,” he said.
Tribal Fish and Game director Art Lawson said his agency finds feral horses on the reservation with brands from Ohio, Iowa and other states “back east.”
“We have people that actually bring some of these horses specifically to our reservation – like as if we don’t have enough,” Northern Arapaho Business Council Co-chair Stephen Fast Horse said. “They want to give us more.”
Tribal officials have been trying to shrink the wild horse population on the reservation for decades, Fast Horse said, but federal funding for the project has “dissolved” in recent years, forcing local agencies to tackle the issue on their own.
Lawson said the local group has removed about 1,300 feral horses from the reservation over the past year and a half by “hiring Tribal members as contractors to round up as many as they can.”
But the helicopter roundup scheduled to take place later this year with support from the state should result in a “bigger grab” over a shorter period of time, Fast Horse said.
“(It’s) going to be very effective,” he said. “(We’ll be) able to really show the difference in some of these herds.”
Over the next four or five years, Hnilicka said the feral horse population on the reservation could be “significantly” reduced “to an appropriate management level that’s more attuned to the resources.”
Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, asked what a “manageable” level of wild and feral horses would be for the reservation.
That exact number is yet to be determined, Hnilicka said – but it is “certainly much less than 5,000.”
The current “overabundance” of wild horses on the reservation has caused “resource degradation,” Hnilicka said, as well as “competition with livestock for forage (and) displacement of wildlife.”
“We’ve seen some very drastic changes in some of these range areas that make it impossible for anyone to use these lands that some of these horses have been on,” Fast Horse said.
When enough feral horses have been removed from the reservation, he said wildlife officials will start to “remediate” the areas that have been impacted in order to “get (them) back to what they should be.”
“We love our outdoors (and) we want to protect it,” he said. “That’s why some of these main issues that we talk about always pertain (to) how we can continue to sustain and use conservation in a better way.”