Chasing Wild Horses

As with many life experiences, I’m sure it will take some time to recognize all the learning that has taken place over the last few months, but there are a few things that I can point to now, knowing that they are significantly changed from when I arrived in Wyoming. For one thing, I have a much fuller understanding of what it means to manage land period, let alone manage it for multiple uses. Land management has always seemed an abstraction discussed in college courses or job descriptions, but now I have a close up picture and have hours spent fulfilling various duties required to manage land. First, it entails knowing what is present on the land – vegetation, soil, livestock, wildlife, abiotic and biotic processes. This, when you’re talking about a field office of 2.5 million acres, requires lots of driving and gathering of data – and still there are places that won’t see a soul for years. Then, after the data gathering, comes decision making and consequential implementation of those decisions. From my observations of this process, decision making has appeared formal at times and yet less formal than I imagined when working for the federal government. Meetings in the field for example are often relaxed without a huge sense of urgency or debate. Many times evaluations are subjective and the outcome rests on a casual conversation about the state of things and possibilities for the future. In our field office the decisions being made affect the content of permits given to ranchers for grazing cattle, the fate of wild horses from year to year, the prescribed treatment plan for dwindling stands of aspen.

Monitoring: Erin measuring stubble height in a riparian area.

Monitoring: Erin measuring stubble height in a riparian area.

Recently, Erin and I had the opportunity to observe a bit of interagency collaboration between Wyoming Game & Fish, the Forest Service, and the BLM. Decisions had already been made about how to manage the areas of land that included both national forest and BLM by the time Erin and I entered the picture, but it was still very interesting to finally see how collaboration between agencies works and who is involved. We had a team of four wildlife biologists (including one from each agency) as well as several ecologists on hand to look at old growth aspens stands that were being encroached upon by more competitive conifers. The Game and Fish department had mapped sections of the aspen stands for us to flag the perimeter of for easy visibility by contractors when they come in next year to cut the conifers.

Another land management issue that Erin and I have been working on is the hot topic of wild horse management. We’ve spent the majority of our time lately chasing down wild horses within the northern “horse management areas” (HMAs) in our field office. Despite many hours spent in the truck, this has been a rewarding endeavor. The horses are enchanting. Many times, when we get close enough and the horses have adjusted to our presence, Erin and I will spend our lunch break just sitting and watching them from a short distance. We’ve begun to pick up on key elements of their behavior and look for trends in when and where they are spending their time.

Wild Horse Monitoring

Some herds are less concerned with human presence than others.

A lone paint stud - one of my favorites

A lone paint stud, healthy and strong

There are close to 50,000 horses currently on BLM land in the western US and a comparable number in holding. The Appropriate Management Level (AML) as stated by the BLM is ~26,000. Controversy on the topic lies in management of public land for multiple uses. While environmentalists advocate for the horses’ rights to life, health and freedom, the ranching community would like their numbers to be kept much lower for preservation of rangeland health for their cattle. Erin and I monitor the horses by visual counts, recording location, behavior, and health and taking photographs. Monitoring should allow BLM staff to make more accurate estimates of horse numbers and track their behavior in certain areas to make decisions about when to round up horses and remove them from the HMAs.

We've learned how to earn the horses trust and what will make them run.

We’ve learned how to earn the horses’ trust and what will make them run.

Our SOS season is winding down quickly. There are still a few collections left to be made, but it is no longer taking the majority of our time. We are waiting for four species of sagebrush seed to be ready to collect, as well as a population of winterfat. All of this, including the processing of all of our SOS data, should take us right up until the end of our season in two months!

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About emmavautour

Emma graduated from Messiah College class of '14, with a BS in environmental science. She has spent the last year traveling and volunteering in various places in the western states. She has a strong interest in native landscapes and ecological landscaping. She's looking forward to spending the season in Lander, WY working with range management staff.

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