Forest Service moves forward dangerous plan for Oregon wild horse herd

By Mary Koncel

(Jan 29, 2021) A recently released management plan by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) could spell the end for wild horses on Big Summit Wild Horse Territory (Territory) in the Ochoco National Forest.

  • The current population of the Big Summit herd is estimated to be about 135 horses who live on 25,434 acres of federally-designated habitat that is heavily wooded. The herd is the only one solely managed by the USFS in Oregon and Washington.
  • Last May, in response to the USFS’s Environment Assessment for a new wild horse management plan, the public, including 5,550 AWHC followers as well as other groups, spoke out loud and clear for an alternative that would humanely and sustainably manage the herd with PZP fertility control.
  • As is typical of the USFS, it rejected this input and instead opted for the most egregious alternative — one that prioritizes removals, an absurdly low Appropriate Management Level (AML), and population control that could include sterilization.

While the old management plan for the horses is 40 years old, in its Decision Notice issued late last year, the USFS took a huge step backward with a new plan that ignores science, lacks reliable data, and offers few details. It includes the following:

  • Reducing the AML from 57–60 to 12–57 horses, a number so low that the USFS acknowledges it could threaten the long-term viability and genetic health of the herd
  • Implementing removals via bait-trapping/helicopter before the use of safe and cost-effective PZP. Gelding and returning an unspecified number of stallions to the Territory is also on the table; and
  • Disposing of captured horses via adoptions/sales without providing any information on where they would be transferred to or how the USFS would ensure their safety after their removal.

Particularly disturbing is the USFS’s justification for such a low AML. According to the agency, reducing the herd to 12–57 horses is necessary to ensure that winter forage is available. Yet, it did not provide any data indicating that the Territory can’t support a larger population, and, most important, did not consider how just one harsh winter could decimate a herd of 57 horses — let alone 12!

And regarding the gelding of stallions. The USFS chose to disregard the science that recommends against the use of this highly controversial and potentially harmful procedure. Besides not addressing questions about the ability of geldings to fend for themselves in the wild, the agency has included no information on this program, such as how many stallions would be sterilized and how it would monitor the geldings once they are released.

Ironically, although the USFS is looking to drastically reduce the number of wild horses, it refuses to consider lowering the number of 2,200 privately owned sheep who graze at least four months out of the year in the Ochoco. Once again, the agency has conveniently forgotten that it’s mandated by federal law to protect wild horses and that private livestock grazing on public land is a privilege and not a right.

Before the USFS finalizes the Big Summit management plan, it’s conducting an objection process during which AWHC is participating. We’ll will keep you posted.