WASHINGTON — The U.S. Forest Service is continuing to remove wild horses from the Murderers Creek section of the Malheur National Forest but is holding off on aggressive action until a new environmental impact statement is finished.
Last year, as part of a settlement to a lawsuit brought by Grant County ranchers, the agency agreed to gradually reduce the number of wild horses in the area until it is within the range it says the area can healthily support, known as the Allowable Management Level, or AML.
The AML for the 62,000-acre range was set at 50 to 140 horses in the 2007 wild horse herd management plan for the Malheur National Forest.
The agency is working on a new planning document, Tom Hilken, the Forest Service’s range program manager for the Pacific Northwest region, said last week.
“We really want to get this new plan in place that’s going to be looking at the latest science and management tools that may allow us to be a little more aggressive to get down to our AML,” said Hilken.
“We’re continuing to cull the herd over time.”
In recent months, the agency has removed a handful of horses, focusing mainly on the five or six animals that have wandered off of federal land onto private property, he said.
“They’ve gotten outside the designated territory and are on private property. That’s where our priority is now,” he said.
The herd currently stands around 200 or 220 horses, he said. Reducing their numbers poses a challenge for land-management officials because the herd grows by about 20 percent every year.
“We do not cull during the foaling period,” Hilken said.
Most of the wild horses and burros on public lands in 10 Western states roam lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
More than half of the Murderers Creek herd, which is overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, are “timber horses” that live in mountainous areas, using Ponderosa pine and mixed conifer thickets as shelter.
According to BLM estimates, 33,780 wild horses and 6,825 burros live on public lands overseen by the agency across 10 Western states. This is almost 14,000 more than the total the agency believes the rangelands can support.
In Oregon, the BLM estimates there are 3,120 wild horses and 60 burros as of March, more than the 2,715 maximum envisioned as the state’s AML. Another 50,000 wild horses are kept in federal holding pens.
According to a 2001 genetic analysis of the Murderers Creek horses, the herd is genetically distinct from the other herds found roaming Western rangelands. Many of the horses appear to be descendants of horses lost or set free by farmers and ranchers and genetically resemble American light racing and saddle breeds.
Another 15 to 20 horses from the herd will be removed by federal officials by the end of the year, Hilken said. The environmental impact statement will likely not be ready for two years, he said.
The ranchers had sued the agency over its management of the animals, contending the horses and not the cattle that they grazed on public lands were responsible for environmental threats to endangered steelhead habitat.
If the agency never met its AML, there was no way to determine which, if any, animals posed a threat to endangered species, they argued.