BELLE FOURCHE — Relocation of more than 1,000 wild horses onto a private ranch in Butte County is one step closer to fruition with the release of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) preliminary environmental assessment (EA) of the endeavor.
A finding of no significant impacts was issued based on the EA.
The BLM manages wild horse populations on federal lands as laid out in the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 that directed the management, protection, and study of unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on the country’s public lands.
Under this protection, wild horse populations greatly increased, and although the BLM struggled to implement adequate herd management in many areas, in 1973, it began a successful program for rounding up excess numbers, and adopting out these captured horses and burros to private owners. This remains the primary method of removing excess horses from managed land, although, in recent years, the adoption rate has not kept up with the removal rate.
Horses that are not adopted in a reasonable amount of time are put into long-term management known as “off-range pasture.”
Nationally, the BLM currently manages 46,000 horses and burros in off-range corrals and pastures.
The BLM has proposed the Butte County off-range pasture location to provide long-term maintenance and humane care of excess wild horses off of the public rangelands and provide an alternate location for excess wild horses that are currently pastured at the Standing Butte Ranch off-range pasture near Ft. Pierre.
The local facility will be known as the Elm Butte Off Range Pasture.
The proposed off range pasture will be operated and maintained by Spur Livestock, the current BLM selected contractor that has managed the herd since it was relocated to South Dakota seven years ago.
The livestock management company plans to lease private ranch lands to the east of Eight Mile Creek in southeastern Butte County, owned by Neal Wanless, to pasture the horses on.
The 1,022 geldings and mares will range on just under 41,000 acres of NW Ranch land.
Initially, according to the EA, the horses will be pastured only on the central and eastern portion of the ranch. The capacity on this portion of the ranch is 12,261 Animal Unit Months (AUMs) which would pasture 1,022 horses on a year round basis.
A property’s AUM is calculated by multiplying the number of animal units by the number of months grazing to provide a useful indicator of the amount of forage consumed. An AUM factor of 1 is used for wild horses.
In the future, when horses are grazed on the western portion of the ranch, 2,549 additional acres and 612 AUMs will be available, allowing an additional 51 horses to be pastured at that time.
The total carrying capacity of all private rangeland on NW Ranches is 12,873 AUMs, which would pasture a total of 1,073 horses on an annual basis.
Spur has held the contract between itself and the BLM to manage the animal’s day-to-day care for the duration of that time and will be responsible for providing feed and management of range conditions for the herd. The lease agreement requires Spur Livestock to store sufficient hay to feed the horses for 160 days
Although it is unknown the actual ages of the herd’s horses, Chip Kimball, BLM field manager of the BLM’s Belle Fourche office said the entire population is at least 7 years old and that due to maturity, many are unadoptable.
Sharon Herron owns Herron Ranch, an adjoining ranch on the Meade County eastern boundary of the ranch, who manages a herd of registered quarter horses, initially voiced concerns to Kimball about the incoming herd coming into contact with hers.
To reduce conflicts with domestic horses pastured on the adjacent ranch, the BLM is in the process of constructing double fencing required along the boundary perimeter between the NW Ranch and Herron Ranch boundary in the southeast part of the project area. At a minimum, the EA says the fencing will include a two strand high tensile electric fence that will be installed on the NW Ranch’s property 30-50 feet from the existing boundary fences between the neighboring ranches. The double fence will be used only when horses are present on both sides of the boundary and will be two to seven miles in length, depending on which pastures are being grazed.
Kimball told the Pioneer that no other concerned parties have contacted her office to voice concerns regarding the relocation project.
On Monday, notice regarding the draft EA went out to the county governments and adjoining landowners to inform them of the study’s results.
Kimball said concerned parties have 30 days to appeal the BLM’s finding of no significant impacts if they choose, at which time, the BLM would work to mitigate the concerns.
“Assuming it goes according to plan, relocation of the horses will begin next month,” Kimball said. “Everything is still on track.”