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A Horse of a Different Color: Managing Oregon's Unique Mustangs

What you learn from horses helps in dealing with humans. A horse is good for a boy or a man. It helps something inside of him.
      -- E.R. Jackman and R.A. Long, The Oregon Desert

In the classic Pacific Northwest book The Oregon Desert, E.R. Jackman and Reub Long observe the central role of horses on the Oregon range. Historically, horses provided transportation, companionship, and a source of income, and were essential to any operation. In his book, Jackman notes that 300,000 horses were counted in the Oregon census in 1915, but estimates that number was short by 100,000. Ranchers often lost count of their horses as they roamed free and formed their own herds on the open range.

Today, bands of horses still thrive on the public lands in Eastern Oregon. The animals are protected by federal law as naturalized wildlife and are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Eastern Oregon is even home to an endemic horse breed, the Kiger mustang. Enthusiasts celebrate wild horses for their beauty, personality, and history, but they also present a management challenge. The number of wild horses in Oregon increase by 25% each year, and the BLM must both protect the horses as a national symbol and prevent the overgrazing of sensitive desert lands.

History of Wild Horses

The exact time of arrival of horses to Oregon is unclear. Jackman argues that they were brought by settlers in the 1800's, but horses may have arrived earlier as they migrated from other places or were brought in by Native Americans.

Horses were once native to North America. During the Pleistocene, herds of early horse species roamed the Pacific Northwest. These species became extinct about 12,000 years ago. Then, in the 15th and 16th centuries, Spanish settlers introduced mustangs to the continent. Native Americans quickly realized the value of these horses, and helped spread their range northward from Mexico during that time.

In 1977, the discovery of a new type of horse, dubbed the Kiger mustang, fueled speculation that some of Oregon's wild horses may be related to 15th century Spanish breeds. A BLM roundup in Harney County brought in a group of horses with a body type and coloring reminiscent of Spanish mustangs. These horses exhibited the so-called "dun factor": a distinct muted coloring, a dark line down their back, and striping on their legs. Genetic testing confirmed a link between the Oregon Kigers and 15th-century Spanish mustangs.

The BLM then took action to protect and manage the breed, separating the band into two groups and establishing them on two new Herd Management Areas (HMAs) in southeast Oregon. The breed gained the attention of horse enthusiasts, and is now promoted by the Kiger Mustang Association and sought after in BLM horse auctions. In 1999, a Kiger mustang filly sold for $19,000 -- a significantly higher price than is typical for wild horses. The sale made headlines, even appearing in the LA Times.

Management of Wild Horses

The BLM gained the responsibility for wild horse management in 1971 when Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Initiated by a letter writing campaign, the legislation acknowledged the role horses played in the American West and protected them as "an integral part of the natural system" of public lands.

At the time this legislation was passed, the population of free ranging horses was dramatically lower than Jackman's estimate in 1915. Because they are not native to North America, however, wild horses have few natural predators, and with new federal protection, their numbers expanded. Horses began to compete with livestock and other wild animals for food, and in the late 1970's Congress amended the wild horse legislation to protect rangelands from overgrazing by granting the BLM authority to limit herd size.

Over the next 30 years, the BLM developed an elaborate system to manage wild horse populations. The Bureau created additional HMAs corresponding to wild horses' historic range on public land. Herd managers in each HMA carry out grazing and vegetation studies to estimate the number of animals the land can support. Managers then divide forage between wild horses, domestic livestock, and wild animals, and set a target population size called an Appropriate Management Level (AML).

The BLM periodically reduces herd size by capturing portions of each herd. Gary McFadden, a BLM wild horse manager in Burns, Oregon, describes the process: "The capture techniques have been developed and refined over the last 35 years. We use helicopters and it's the most humane and efficient way to do it." The goal is to remove enough horses to prevent the herd from overrunning the AML boundaries for about five years.

Captured animals are brought to the Oregon's Wild Horse Corral Facility in Hines, Oregon. McFadden says that up to 1000 horses move through the facility each year. There, the animals are shipped east to other BLM facilities or adopted. Potential adopters undergo a rigorous application process, which includes proving they have proper facilities to care for the horses. A successful applicant will gain title to their adopted horse after one year.

The Challenge for the Future

BLM managers believe current horse management protocols function well in protecting the animals and preserving the landscape from overgrazing. However, some argue that the system may not be sustainable. In 2008, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) estimated that 74% of the BLM's Wild Horse Program budget went toward the care of captured animals on "long-term pasture." These horses are typically older animals that have repeatedly failed to be adopted. The same study found that wild horse adoption rates have declined by 36% in the past two decades.

Like local animal shelters, the BLM has the authority to humanely euthanize horses who are not adopted. But there is concern in Congress and in the BLM that the destruction of healthy animals would provoke a public outcry, and the BLM has not euthanized an animal since 1982. But with the number of horses ever growing, the GAO argues that Congress and the BLM must soon arrive at a long-term solution for the management of wild horses in North America.

Additional Resources about Wild Horses

Overview of the BLM's Wild Horse program in Oregon and Washington

BLM's National Wild Horse Program

Overview of the Burns District Wild Horse Program with links to information about the districts eight wild horse Herd Management Areas (HMA) and information about Oregon's Wild Horse Corral Facility where horses are prepared for the "Adopt-A-Horse" program

Frequently Asked Questions about adopting a wild horse or burro

Kiger Mesteño Association with information about Kiger Mustang history and a network for enthusiasts and breeders

2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on wild horses

Amen, Steve. 1992. Wild Kiger mustangs. Portland: Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Sources

Reub Long's Oregon Desert. The Oregon Desert. Portland, OR: Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2010.

Oregon News. Oregon's horse population is outpacing the ability to care for them. Portland, OR: Oregon Live LLC. 2009.

Authored by Maria Wright, Faculty Research Assistant, Institute for Natural Resources and Caitlin Bell, Science Writer, Oregon Explorer

 

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