By Michael Kohn as published on OregonLive
A barely viable herd of 120 wild horses roaming free in the Ochoco National Forest will be cut in half into unsustainable numbers as part of a management plan which is step one in zeroing out this herd.
The 2021 Ochoco Wild Horse Management Plan will establish a management level of 47 to 57 horses that can reside in the national forest, according to a news release on Friday from the U.S. Forest Service.
The Big Summit herd is the only one in Oregon and Washington to be managed solely by the U.S. Forest Service. Most of the other wild horse herds in the Pacific Northwest are managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
The number of horses permitted in the herd takes into account forage availability in winter and the management of a lack of genetic variability in the horse herd. The decision also includes an emergency action plan that provides protocols for how the Forest Service will intervene on behalf of sick, injured or starving horses.
The herd is located about 25 to 30 miles east of Prineville and grazes on 27,000 acres of land located at 4,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation.
The management plan, which became effective on Friday, updates the original herd management plan drafted 46 years ago.
The horses are believed to have first appeared in the area in the 1920s, when it is believed that ranchers at that time turned loose quality animals from a good breeding stock to ensure a future supply of good horses.
“In general, wild horses and burros are descendants of animals released by or escaped from Spanish explorers, ranchers, miners or Native Americans,” said Kassidy Kern, a spokesperson for the Ochoco National Forest.
While horse lovers are fond of seeing the animals roaming wild in the forest, the Forest Service says the herd is damaging riparian areas by chewing up forage along river banks.
“The horses will be managed through gathers beginning in the fall of 2021,” said Kern. “It will likely take five years or more to gather down to the appropriate management level set out in this plan.”
Kern said about 100 horses will need to be removed over that five-year period. The current herd size is between 120 to 150 horses.
“Gathering a little at a time allows us to gather valuable genetic information to work with wild horse genetics experts to ensure that we have adequate genetic variability in the herd,” said Kern. “Additionally, when we bait the horses into the corrals, we typically only get smaller bands of 5-10 at a time. Gathering this way minimizes stress on the animals.”
According to the decision notice, horses removed from the territory may end up in one of three places. These include the Bureau of Land Management corral facility in Burns or a Forest Service corral. A third option could see the horses transported to leased or contracted private facilities, where they will be prepared for adoption or sale.
After removal of the horses, the numbers will be maintained through contraception and sterilization.
For more information on the project and to view the decision notice, visit the project web page: go.usa.gov/xH375