BUTTE — The Bureau of Land Management is proceeding with a plan to move 700 wild horses to the Spanish Q Ranch northwest of Ennis, with the first truckloads of horses due to arrive as early as next week — despite the fact that pending appeals have yet to be ruled on by the Interior Board of Land Appeals.
Adjacent landowners of the Spanish Q Ranch filed the appeals in December to stop the transfer of the wild horses. However, because the IBLA, an administrative court for the Department of the Interior, did not rule within 45 days on the appeals’ request to stop the transfer, the BLM said it has the right to go ahead with the planned move, which has been in the works since 2009.
Carolyn Chad, acting deputy division chief for the BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program, cited cost savings as one of the main reasons the program is beginning the transfer of the geldings from short-term holding facilities to the long-term facility near Ennis.
About 300 horses will arrive in eight truckloads between Feb. 27 and March 1, Chad said. By March 18, Chad expects all 700 geldings to be at the ranch.
The horses are being moved from short-term facilities in Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Oklahoma, where the cost per day, per head averages $5.50, while at the Spanish Q the cost per day, per head will be only $1.36.
Since the IBLA has yet to rule on the appeals, the horses might be forced to be moved again in the future. However, Chad said that because of the savings, the health of the horses and her confidence in the viability of the Spanish Q as a long-term facility, it is worth moving the horses now.
“We could be asked to move the horses in the future,” Chad said. “There are no guarantees, but we are confident that the Spanish Q will be successful.”
Bozeman attorney James Goetz, who represents Valley Garden Ranch, one of the neighboring landowners appealing the horse transfer, is surprised that the BLM is proceeding despite the pending appeals.
“I think there’s a lot of chutzpah to spend taxpayers’ money by putting (the horses) on that property and then having to take the risk of having to move them,” Goetz said in an interview with The Montana Standard. “I imagine the expense of hauling a lot of horses to Montana is pretty major. It doesn’t seem like a prudent decision.”
Goetz said his client had issues with the fencing at the Spanish Q, as well as the environmental impact of the horses, and whether the ranch itself could adequately sustain that many horses.
The Spanish Q Ranch, owned by Greg and Karen Rice, is about 15,000 acres. The ranch includes BLM land that is leased by the Rices. The BLM land must be separated from the contracted area where the horses will graze. The contract between the BLM and the ranch is for 10 years.
Chad said an inspection of the Spanish Q facility will occur early next week, before the transfer begins, to ensure that the ranch can meet its contractual obligations regarding the care of the horses. While sensitive to the concerns of those who are appealing the transfer, Chad said her agency’s priorities are protecting the environment and caring for the horses.
“(The appeals') overriding concern is that the horses would not be successfully contained on the Spanish Q facility,” Chad said. “Our goals are not to negatively impact the environment, as well as the long-term health and well-being of the horses.”
Chad said the horses will be initially kept on lower-elevation feeding grounds for two months to acclimate to each other and their new environment before being released to larger pastures. She said about half the horses will be under six years of age.
Part of the issue is a numbers game. The BLM was mandated to manage wild horses and burros by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. The BLM estimates there are over 37,000 wild horses and burros roaming BLM rangeland in 10 western states. The agency estimates that number is 11,000 more than can adequately coexist with other resources on those rangelands.
Periodically the wild horses and burros are rounded up off the open range and housed in short-term and long-term holding facilities. About 49,000 horses exist in these holding facilities.
Goetz, however, said he thinks the BLM is moving too quickly. He’s also concerned about the precedent it might set. Presently, Montana has wild horses only in one BLM management area in the Pryor Mountains south of Billings, so the Spanish Q Ranch would be the first holding facility in Montana.
“I don’t think all the pieces are in place,” he said. “They have appeals from neighbors on all four sides. And the whole action of moving wild mustangs to southwest Montana is unprecedented.”