ENNIS — A herd of 710 wild horses relocated to Montana is settling into its new quarters as workers erect new fences meant to reassure neighbors that their wandering days are over.
Gates have been opened at the Spanish Q Ranch near Ennis in western Montana, to allow the geldings loose in the southern range, one of four pasture areas that average around 2,500 acres each.
Bureau of Land Management officials monitoring the herd’s new home say that the sterilized male horses were skittish at first about straying too far from the winter pasture where they’d been held since March.
Pat Fosse, a BLM specialist, says that the two-year-olds among the group had never been free, having been born in captivity, so they had to get accustomed to life on the open range.
“They’d hang out in little clusters nearby and run back if they were panicked. They were like homing pigeons to the winter pasture,” Fosse said. “The 2-year-olds have never been free so they don’t quite know how to be horses.”
The Spanish Q has a 10-year contract with the BLM to house the horses at a cost of $1.36 per animal per day, far less than the average $5.50 cost at short-term facilities in Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Oklahoma. The ranch is holding horses captured to control population levels on public land — or born to captured mares — and have not been adopted.
Through appeals, some have sought to block the plan, in part on grounds that fencing won’t be adequate to keep them from roaming.
Among the foes is NBC chief executive Steven Burke, owner of the Valley Garden Ranch, which is bordered on three sides by the Spanish Q. Bozeman attorney James Goetz told the Chronicle Burke was concerned about property damage and public relations problems if the horses ended up starving.
Consequently, new fencing is being constructed.
Karen Rice, who owns the Spanish Q with her husband, Greg, said those who opposed the long-term pasture represent just a vocal few who were out-of-state landowners.
“A ton of local ranchers support us,” she said. “The appeal is not about the horses. Burke tried to lease our land just as we signed the contract with the BLM.”
The BLM estimates there are more than 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, so periodically the agency rounds up animals and houses them in short-term and long-term facilities. About 49,000 horses live in such facilities.