Hanging in the balance
If you have ventured into the Big Summit area of the Ochoco Mountains, you have likely had the opportunity to see wild horses during your visit.
The increase of the herd in recent years has sparked a debate on the management strategies of the horses, and a subsequent herd management plan by the ONF. The proposal to lower the herd to a high of 57 horses and as few as 12 has brought concern and push back from citizens and groups such as the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition.
The Ochoco Wild Horse Herd is protected by the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed by Congress in 1971. In April 2020, the Lookout Mountain Ranger District's proposed management strategies for the Ochoco wild herd that resides in the Big Summit Territory were released as a draft environmental assessment (EA). According to the EA, "the purpose of the proposed action is to develop a new herd management plan to replace the 1975 plan."
The United States Forest Service completed an environmental analysis and management plan in 1975 to address the management of wild horses on the ONF. The plan established the Big Summit Territory boundary and determined an appropriate management level (AML) for the wild horses to be within the range of 55 to 65 horses.
The last census of the wild horse herd was taken in 2019 and is currently estimated to be between 135-140 horses.
"Our main concern is, no matter how you think you can justify this Appropriate Management Level (AML), it's not going to work. We need simple numbers resiliency, and you don't have it with that number. In a nutshell, that is our main complaint," emphasized Gayle Hunt of the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition.
Within the proposed Ochoco Wild Horse Herd Management Plan, one big element includes establishing an AML of 12-57 horses. The plan is based on current habitat conditions and most limiting factors for essential habitat needs, which include forage and space in the BST.
In management of the Ochoco Wild Horse Herd, the ONF recommended three alternatives to consider in the environmental assessment. Alternative 1 consisted of a No Action alternative, which would keep the management to continue under the existing management plan, but with an AML range of 55-65 horses.
Alternative 2 would limit the AML range of the Ochoco Wild Horse Herd to 12-57 horses. Alternative 3 addresses the public issue of wanting a higher number of horses in the territory, with an AML in the range of 150-200 wild horses.
The Forest Service provided an opportunity to comment on their draft Environmental Assessment from April 17 to May 18. During the National Environmental Policy Act review process (NEPA) for the environmental assessment draft, there were 126 responses, with 12 in favor of the decision to cut the herd to 12 to 54, and 114 were in opposition of and leaving the herd as they are at 135. The 114 responses were supported by 11,381 people who had the accompanying signatures.
A draft decision and findings of No Significant Impact was filed in November 2020 by the Lookout Mountain and Paulina Ranger Districts of the Ochoco National Forest. The objection period went through Jan. 4, and the Forest Service will review objections for 45 days before making a final decision on moving forward with the draft.
Wild horse history
The herd of wild horses that resides in the Big Summit Territory (BST) is located within Crook County, about 25 miles east of Prineville. The area consists of approximately 25,434 acres, with most of the area being part of the national forest systems administered by the Ochoco National Forest Service's (ONF) Lookout Mountain and Paulina ranger districts.
The Wild Horse and Burro Program was created in 1971 by the Bureau of Land Management to implement the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed by Congress in 1971. In a broad manner, the law declares wild horses and burros to be "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West." It articulates that the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are responsible to manage and protect wild herds in their respective jurisdictions, through the Secretary of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management or by the Secretary of Agriculture through the Forest Service.
The Ochoco Wild Horse Herd resides on Forest Service land and a small portion of private land. The herd shares space with cattle, sheep, elk and other wildlife which graze on the public land. According to the 1971 Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act passed by Congress, in order to maintain wild horses and burros in good condition and protect the health of public lands, the BLM and Forest Service must manage the population growth of wild horse and burro herds.
According to the Forest Service, without natural population controls, such as predation, herds can increase at a rate of up to 20% annually, doubling in size in just four to five years, if not appropriately managed. In the 1975 plan for the Ochoco Wild Herd, the rate was shown to be closer to 7 to 8%, and according to the Wild Horse Coalition, which has taken census of the herd since 2001, the population has waxed and waned since reaching a high of 130 horses. Part of the 1971 Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act includes implementing population control to protect scarce and fragile resources in the arid West.
"The Ochoco National Forest is not considered part of the arid West, which complicates the horses' interaction with their habitat and the population increase of the BST herd appears to be less than may be occurring elsewhere," said Hunt.
The plan also proposes managing for genetic variability through introduction of new genes from outside sources and slowing of the herd's rate of growth using fertility control methods. Other elements of the plan include developing an emergency action framework for effectively and humanely managing situations such as sick, lame, or old horses or public safety concerns, and developing off-range protocols to capture, handle and adopt horses.
The proposed plan would amend the current ONF Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) to provide overall management objective consistent with the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act from 1971.
The Wild Horse Coalition
A coalition of wild horse advocates in Crook County was formed in 2002. The group's position was not to manage the herd, as that is the responsibility of the Forest Service, but to support things that the agency was not funded and staffed to do, such as the annual volunteer BST census; adoption events; helping people train wild horses that were adopted out; and collaborating with the ONF and a geneticist from Florida International University, who took an interest in the BST herd.
Hunt retired from the Forest Service after a 27-year career with the agency, but established the coalition in 2002, giving the advocates in the community a stronger, more unified voice.
"It did help," Hunt said of the group. "We wanted to do positive things with the agency — that was our goal."
She indicated that the relationship has changed, and the Forest Service and Coalition did not always agree on the management of the Ochoco wild horse herd. The Coalition desires to get back to that positive relationship again by working with the agencies and private entities. Hunt is concerned, as are other members of the coalition, that the proposed AML numbers in the Ochoco Wild Horse Herd management plan are not in the best interests of the horses in the BST.
"To someone who doesn't know better, it sounds like they had no choice but to go to this appropriate management level of 12 to 57 horses," commented Hunt. "Our major contention is, of course, that is absurd and one environmental event, and the horses will be gone for good, we have no doubt. I personally have witnessed mass die-offs, and we didn't even have the full effect of climate change at that time. I think we were moving into it, but now anything can happen."
She added that even if they keep the herd at the high end of the range at 45-50, an outbreak of West Nile virus or a particularly bad winter, or something unanticipated, will decimate the herd.
"There is a whole other standard that is really not even mentioned in a serious, informed context in this whole analysis, and that is that the horses are to exist in a thriving natural ecological balance," continued Hunt. "That means scientifically and objectively correlating horse numbers with their interaction with their environment; not making existential decisions based on bias and assumptions, and it means considering other restoration actions besides drastic removal of horses."
Frank Porfily, also a strong advocate of the wild horses, was incredibly involved with the Ochoco Wild Horse Herd over the last four years. In a public response to the Ochoco Wild Horse Herd Management Plan, Porfily indicated that he and his late wife "spent a lot of Sundays touring through the area where the horses are and watched a lot of people from out of the area viewing the famous wild horses in the Ochocos."
Porfily also recommends keeping the numbers of the Ochoco Wild Horse Herd at the current 135 horses, according to the last census.
Other members of the Wild Horse Coalition, including Melinda Kestler and Jerry West, are also not in favor of having the herd reduced to the proposed AML. The Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition has organized the count for the census of the herd since 2001.
"If the USFS follows through with taking the herd down to 12 to 57, then effectively they will have caused the extinction of the wild horse in the Ochocos," commented West in a letter to the Forest Service.
Porfily has suggested that the thinning of the herd is incentivized by sheep ranchers and others who financially benefit from the process of severely cutting the herd.
A draft of the Environmental Assessment and proposed management plan was provided to Tim Deboodt in April. Deboodt is the coordinator for the Crook County Natural Resource Committee.
According to public minutes from the July 1, 2020, Crook County Natural Resource Committee, "(Deboodt) reported that with the cancellation of the April committee meeting, that the Forest Service would be releasing for public comment, the draft EA on the Wild Horse Management Plan. In those emails to the committee, a link was provided to the committee so they could get and read the information."
"Tim, as an employee of the county (not private citizen) wrote a draft letter for the (county) Court's consideration regarding the Draft EA. The letter was first provided to the Court at a public meeting the morning of May 12 (draft letter). Tim stated to the Court specifically that the letter did not come from the committee, it came from his reading and analysis of the material posted on the FS website."
The court delayed taking action on the 12th, and moved the decision to May 14, when another public meeting was held.
"At that meeting, Tim again mentioned that the draft letter was not written by the committee, but by him in the performance of his duties as a county employee, hired to provide technical information to the court on natural resource issues."
According to the minutes at the same Natural Resource Committee meeting, there was a mixed response on the recommendation to support alternative 2, which would put the Ochoco Wild Horse Herd at a low end of 12 and high end of 57.
Chair Steve McGuire stated, "Public input was to be provided in regard to the draft letter, dated May 12, 2020, and written by Tim Deboodt, Coordinator, Crook County Natural Resources Policy."
He went on to say, "He had read the draft letter when it was emailed. He sent a response back to Tim stating that Alternative 2 of the Draft EA was the best alternative and he supported the letter."
Two of the seven members present indicated that they were in favor of the letter as it was, and one member did not have an issue with the alternative, but also felt that the committee had failed to take up the issue of the wild horse management when addressed in the past.
According to the minutes, several members voiced that they felt that the letter should not have been done outside of the committee, and that Deboodt had bypassed the committee in his letter to the County Court.
During public comments, Gayle Casselman, an interested citizen, stated, "she felt the position submitted by the Court was poorly researched, not based on broad science and had a pre-establishing leaning. There was no public involvement, and it was the wrong decision. She stated she felt the alternatives were poorly developed and that the letter should be officially retracted."
Several members stated in the Crook County Natural Resource public meeting that they were not in favor of the alternative to cut the herd to 12-57 wild horses. A subsequent decision by the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition resulted in a lawsuit between the coalition and the Crook County Court, requesting the court to rescind the letter.
The lawsuit resulted in favor of the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition, and the letter was withdrawn. As a result of the conditions of the decision, the Court was unable to comment on the outcome. The draft decision notice and finding of no significant impact of the Ochoco Wild Horse Herd Management Plan and Forest Plan Amendment went forward for review on Nov. 17, 2020, and objections closed on Jan. 4.
The fate of the Ochoco Wild Horse Herd is in the balance, as objections are reviewed for the 45 days after the Jan. 4 closing date.
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