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Wild horse research continues with WDA-sponsored projects

Written by Saige Albert

Cheyenne – Three years ago, the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) was appropriated $250,000 to do wild horse research, and two major projects have been taken on with that money, as well as several smaller projects.

“It’s been said that Bureau of Land Management (BLM) undercounts horses by up to 30 percent when we look at the census data,” said Chris Wichmann, WDA Natural Resources and Policy Division manager. “We started looking at wildlife impacts because the state is very interested in how wild horses impact crucial winter ranges, wildlife habitat and especially sage grouse habitats.”

Wichmann provided a report to the Board of Agriculture during their April 11 meeting in Cheyenne.

Research directions

Originally, WDA sought to define what constitutes rhe “thriving, natural ecological balance” stated in the Wild Horse and Burro Act.

The University of Wyoming (UW) was provided with $10,000 in sseed money to look at the question.

“We wanted to define that, but some people didn’t want to go that direction because cows weren’t part of a ‘natural’ system,” Wichmann explains. “There wasn’t political will to do that.”

Horse surveys

“We gave about $40,000 to the U.S. Geological Survey to do high-definition infrared horse counts,” Wichmann said.

The infrared technology allows surveyors to fly higher, which reduces disruption to wild horse herds.

“They get a heat signature, which can be compared to live video and the animals can be identified,” Wichmann said. “They use GPS and count the horses.”

The study was conducted on the McCullough Peak herd in northwest Wyoming where the number of horses is known.

“There’s a strong volunteer group that counts those horses, and we know that there are 154 horses up there,” he continued. “This survey counted 153 horses. The technology is good, and we like it because there’s no observer error.”

The research is promising, added Wichmann, who noted that BLM is also considering use of the technology.

“USGS and BLM are going to look at using this method simultaneously with their normal survey methods to compare them,” he said. “We have shown that it’s a good method with good results.”

WDA Director Doug Miyamoto commented, “We always get reports of how far over appropriate management level (AML) our populations are, but we haven’t had a high degree of confidence in the census data.”

“When we had the chance for funding to look at a method we may have more confidence in, we had to look into it more,” he continued. “We need to be confident in our population numbers, and it’s really good news that we’ve been able to make progress in this area.”

More surveys

“We also gave about $80,000 to Western Ecosystem Technologies West to do a survey. They look at using a different method of census to compare to BLM’s numbers,” Wichmann continued.

Western Ecosystem Technologies West is one of the nation’s leaders is wildlife surveys.

Counts done by the company involved several herd management areas (HMAs) that are perpetually over-objective.

“We asked them to fly the Green Mountain Complex and the North Lander Complex,” he added. “They did a direct count and added a confidence interval.”

The research showed that the North Lander Complex had 1,050 horses, well above its AML of 536 horses.

“We’re double our objective there. They haven’t gathered horses in five years now, but a gather is proposed for this fall,” Wichmann said.

The Green Mountain Complex has an AML set at 1,200 horses, but the direct count showed 2,600 horses. On the Green Mountain Allotment individually, the survey showed 1,200 horses in an allotment with a 300-horse AML.

Distribution

Without fences, Wichmann explained that wild horse movement in unhindered, so they have also mapped usage patterns.

“When they saw the horses, they used a model and GPS data, and they can apply that to summer and winter ranges to look at where horses are at,” he said, adding that they will next identify riparian areas, domestic water and other features to determine features that are being used.

Interestingly, Wichmann noted that, during summer months, horses tended to congregate in bigger groups of 25 to 100 horses, while in the wintertime, they ranged in groups of three to 25 horses.

“They’re overlaying maps to look more at usage of the land,” Wichmann said. “We’ll keep an eye on this research.”

Overall messages

“The biggest message in all this research is that we’re almost four times over AML for wild horses in the state,” Wichmann said.

At the same time, wild horse gathers are also contentious and often litigated.

This year, Wichmann commented that gathers are planned for the checkerboard area in southwest Wyoming and the North Lander area. During those gathers, horse populations will be brought to the low AML.

“When it comes to our strategy for feral horses, what we’ve been pressing for is the ability to use the resources and tools available and authorized to manage populations in the Wild Horse and Burro Act,” Miyamoto said, noting that actions like spaying and gelding wild horses are allowed in the act. “We also know that the federal government is spending a big chunk of their budget to try to feed wild horses off the range.”

“Step one to manage wild horses is to come up with a better mechanism to count the total number of horses,” Miyamoto commented. “Then, we have to look at how we can influence policy to do what we need to for management of wild horses.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..