OWYHEE COUNTY, Idaho — Mustangs roam free out in the high desert of Owyhee County. But when horse populations run too wild, the Bureau of Land Management conducts wild horse gatherings to help maintain healthy herd numbers in their management areas.
Wild horses have served as a symbol of the American West, galloping under the southwest Idaho sun for generations.
The BLM in Idaho is taking the reigns, managing populations for future generations. They are using a helicopter to herd 220 horses in the Black Mountain, Hardtrigger, and Sands Basin herd management areas in Owyhee County.
"We're planning to remove 142 [horses] and then we'll return 40 studs and 38 mares," BLM Public Affairs Specialist Heather Tiel-Nelson said. "The purpose is to get each of the herd management areas down to what we call the low end of the appropriate management level. That is a number we know this range can sustain and balance with the other uses out here - like wildlife habitat, livestock grazing and things like that."
The 38 mares that will be returned to the range will be given a fertility control vaccine called GonaCon.
"Ultimately, the BLM's whole objective is to have healthy wild horses on healthy rangelands," Tiel-Nelson said.
Rangelands that visitors like Janet Gilbreath came to visit during the wild horse roundup to see the environment her horse, Jodie, came from.
"I just want to know what her life was like before becoming adopted," Gilbreath said.
About a dozen visitors were at the Black Mountain herd management area to document and watch the roundup, including Ryan Thomas, a horse trainer from Parma.
"I've actually trained horses that have come through these gatherers before," Thomas said. "Many of the mustangs are very, very smart animals. They're hardy coming off this landscape."
The horses' intelligence was shown as the herd ran out of the trap multiple times, not falling for the 'Judas horse' trained to lead them into the corral.
"I've been to a lot of wild horse gatherers since about 2010, and normally they go in very smoothly," Tiel-Nelson said. "I think this group has a pretty smart lead horse and they got right to the mouth of that trap and decided that they didn't want to stay."
Two others who were at Wednesday's roundup were Bobbie and Paul Moller, who are part of Wild Horse Education - a group that believes there are more humane ways to manage herds.
"I would rather see them left on the range," Bobbie Moller said. "That American icon out there on the range, and go out and dart them if you want to - and not with GonaCon - there are other things you can use that are better. But go out and periodically dart to limit population growth, as long as you know for sure that what you're doing is not going to create sterility. We want to have viable long term herds out here, but I want them in the wild, and they can be managed in the wild.
A foal was trampled to death during Wednesday's gathering.
"I know BLM, I know they care about the horses, but this doesn't show that to me," Moller said. "If you really care about the horses, why would you do it when there's little babies out there?"
The BLM said their helicopter method has been proven to be the most effective and safest way to gather a large number of animals over difficult terrain.
"Less than half a percent of the time there is a gather-related injury or fatality," Tiel-Nelson said. "You know, that being said, accidents can happen, these are wild animals. But we do everything within our power to make sure that we are handling them in the safest and most humane manner possible."
All the mustangs being removed will be taken to the Boise wild horse off-range coral, and be part of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program. The BLM is hosting an adoption event at the Boise corral in November.
Wild horses that don't get adopted are cared for by the BLM at off-range pastures and corrals.
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