September 16, 2016
A herd of 1,022 geldings deemed unadoptable by the Bureau of Land Management is no longer welcome at the Triple U ranch in central South Dakota, since its purchase by media mogul Ted Turner. The horses will soon be leaving that deep-break country famous for being the setting of "Dances With Wolves." Turner, who has a passion for wild landscapes and is reputed to own more than a million acres, has other plans for the pasture. That leaves contractor Spur Livestock, who is responsible for taking care of the geldings, looking for a place to run 1,000 head of horses–not an easy order to fill.
A newly minted multi-millionaire named Neal Wanless — a cowboy from Winner, South Dakota, who bought a winning Powerball lottery ticket in 2009 — may provide the solution. He bought a ranch in Butte County, South Dakota, with his winnings and has agreed to take on the herd of horses. Bureau of Land Management officials have tentatively approved Wanless's property near Belle Fourche as suitable. An environmental assessment must be finalized before the move.
If the horses ship, it will be in the fall, after 5-way vaccinations, Coggins testing, deworming and health inspections. They'll leave in groups of 35 and settle in slowly to a small pasture or "trap" where they'll habituate to being fed and watered in their new surroundings. The bays, grays, and sorrels can be identified by freeze brands on their hips and are eight years old or more.
Wild horses are national treasures to some, and better used as slaughter animals to others, but when the sun goes down, they are still just horses, oblivious to the conflicts undertaken on their behalf.
“It’s not fair to the horses, it’s not fair to the land and it’s not fair to the taxpayer who is paying for them”- Sharon Herron
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Ask what is required of contractors and pastures and you'll get cut and dry answers from the BLM about experienced managers and carrying capacity, quality forage and good access to water, natural cover, excellent fence and rocky out-croppings to wear down hooves.
Though the Wanless ranch may solve a problem from one angle, it brings uncertainty, skepticism and outright anger from one neighbor.
Sharon Herron is a fourth generation horse rancher and neighbors the Wanless ranch. "There's nobody else here but me and I don't need something making my hair turn even whiter," says Herron, 75.
As neighbors, she and Wanless have collaborated on a few details and are working things out.
But the band of geldings headed her way is an entirely different matter. This is Herron's worst nightmare. She'd rather cozy up to a herd of buffalo.
Horses have been on Herron land since before the remounts of the '30s and '40s, and she breeds performance prospects under the name Gumbo Quarter Horses, something she's proud of. Herron is skeptical that new double fence being built to separate her herd of two studs and 40 broodmares from the wild ones is going to do the job. She envisions winter conditions in which blizzards make horses wander and prevent managers from being able to feed and water. She sees a dustbowl being made of the adjacent pasture, sullying her land. She imagines the erosion of water gaps and creeks. And she is genuinely concerned about the BLM horses, even if she prefers her herd over them.
"It's not fair to the horses, it's not fair to the land, and it's not fair to the taxpayer who is paying for them," Herron says.
She also takes issue with the process BLM uses to pasture horses off-range. She was notified in a scoping letter that she says arrived only weeks ago, giving her inadequate time to prepare. She met with representatives from BLM and the contractor but has no confidence in either one. She has encouraged her neighbors to complain to represent their own interests and also on her behalf.
"It's being shoved down my throat," she says.
BLM says there are 43,000 acres designated at the Wanless place and that's more than enough to support the herd if it includes the supplemental hay. Four-wire fences there are the standard and are in good condition. Multiple sources of water include piped water, and there's enough manpower and supervision to take care of the animals ages eight and older.
The horses are well-acclimated to extremes of weather, says Scott Fluer, off range pasture specialist. "A lot of these horses come from the intermountain cold desert if you will, places like Wyoming, Nevada, Utah," Fluer says. "They are quite used to harsh weather conditions and we do have experience in the field with off range management. We are well equipped to manage a large number of horses."
Fluer says BLM has eight contracts in which herds of 2,000 are pastured and a total of 35,000 horses under contract in the US.
Off-range pasture is a practice that will likely expand because it's cost effective, says Debbie Collins, public information officer with BLM.
Compensation for pasturing wild stock for BLM changes from year to year, based on inputs, fuel costs, pasture rates, the livestock market and commodities.
Spur Livestock was paid $1.85 per head per day in 2015. They provide the hay and leased ground, as well as labor.
That compares favorably to the cost of a corral setting that is two to two and a half times more expensive and less desirable for the animals, Collins says.
It's also a stable income and a way to change with the times that should not carry a stigma, Debbie says.
"It's not a subsidy," she says. "This is something that is cost-effective for the government and a way for the rancher to diversify. They are providing a service because they have the right land and the expertise. It is not a handout: It is something that is very much negotiated."
Fluer says the program is successful. "As long as the fences are in good condition and kept up to our standards, we tend not to have many problems."
Acclimating a herd to a trap so that they know where they can go in bad weather and expect to find range cake and hay, or can be herded easily if there is fence breach, is part of what BLM instructs contractors to do. "What we want for the horses is an open free-roaming and grazing pasture type environment," he says. "But they know when the goody wagon's coming."
Since the 1980s, BLM has separated geldings from mares to prevent accidental breeding.
Contracts range from 200 head to 5,000 head and vary from five to 10 years.
The longest running contract dates back to 1985.
Spur Livestock is 18 months into a 10-year contract for the herd and declined to comment.
Neal Wanless couldn't be reached for comment.
Potential contractors can contact the BLM at 866-468-7826 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.