BUTTE - In an effort to relieve tension, Bureau and Land Management officials met with a neighboring landowner to the Spanish Q Ranch outside of Ennis, where the transfer of 700 wild horses has recently begun.
The Spanish Q Ranch is the first long-term holding facility for wild horses in Montana, and neighboring landowners have been unhappy about the facility since it was first proposed in 2009.
The horses, all geldings, began arriving on Feb. 27 from BLM’s short-term holding facilities. There are about 500 horses being held in fenced feeding grounds at the 15,456-acre Spanish Q, with the rest of the horses due to arrive by March 22.
In December, neighbors on all four sides of the Spanish Q filed appeals to stop the horse transfer, but the BLM went ahead with the move before those appeals were heard because a required 45-day waiting period had elapsed. Now, it seems the appeals might not be ruled upon by the Interior Board of Land Appeals for at least a year.
The BLM offered to meet with all four of the appellants, but only Stephen Wood, whose ranch borders the Spanish Q on the west, took up the government’s offer.
On the day the first truckload of horses arrived, Wood met with the owners of the Spanish Q, Greg and Karen Rice, as well as BLM’s Pat Fosse, of the Dillon office, and two wild horse and burro specialists, Lili Thomas and Jared Bybee.
Wood’s main concern is the fencing between his property, the Spanish Q, and BLM property that is situated in a checkerboard pattern between the two ranches.
According to the contract between the BLM and the Rices, no wild horses will be kept on BLM land, and the fences to retain the horses must be 48-inches high — which is higher than the average ranch fencing.
Wood said the BLM assured him any fencing issues will be addressed.
“They answered a lot of questions,” Wood said. “If things change, we’ll have to revisit it. (The Rices) have a contract with the BLM and (the BLM) said the situation will be monitored.”
Wood said he uses his land bordering the Spanish Q only as a summer pasture for his cattle, so he won’t know until June, when the wild horses are released to larger pastures on the Spanish Q, how the situation will play out.
Carolyn Chad, acting deputy division chief for BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program, told The Montana Standard on Wednesday that no horses will be released into pastures on the Spanish Q before all fencing around those pastures is installed and inspected to make sure it meets contractual standards.
Chad also said the BLM will monitor wildlife movement and range condition.
Wood did express concern about this potential wildlife movement across his land, especially any interaction with wolves that might be drawn to the wild horses — and his cattle.
“It remains to be seen what will happen,” he said. “It’s a big question mark.”
Wood said another item that was discussed at the meeting was the nature of the wild horses, many of which have been kept in holding facilities for the majority of their lives, and some of which were born in these same facilities.
“There are a lot of unknowns with these horses and a lot of misunderstanding,” Wood said. “They are not wild wild horses. They have been in corrals for most of their lives.”
Still, Wood did say he and his neighbors were caught off guard when the BLM began the transfer before their appeals were ruled upon.
The horses are being moved from short-term holding facilities in Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and Oklahoma where the cost per day, per head averages $5.50, while at the long-term Spanish Q facility the cost per day per head will be only $1.36.
“I was very surprised at how quickly they came,” Wood said. “I understand the government is under pressure, but they started this process in 2009 and they didn’t do a good job informing the public back then. This time was even worse. All of a sudden they were coming, and it took a lot people by surprise. We thought they would rule on the appeals before the horses started arriving.”
In 2009, BLM conducted a public decision-making process that included sending a scoping letter to interested individuals, groups, and agencies. Following that public scoping, the BLM prepared an environmental assessment and the pubic was allowed a 30-day review and comment period.
The BLM is mandated to manage wild horses and burros by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. The BLM estimates over 37,000 wild horses and burros roam BLM rangeland in 10 western states. The agency believes that number is 11,000 more than can adequately coexist with other resources on those rangelands.
Periodically these wild horses and burros are rounded up off the open range, and housed in short-term and long-term holding facilities. About 49,000 exist in these holding facilities, according to the BLM.