The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are seeking comments for a wild horse management plan for an area that has seen multiple plans and projects and a lawsuit alleging the agencies blamed cattle for riparian damage that could be blamed on wild horses and elk.
The Murderers Creek Wild Horse Territory and Herd Management Area Plan calls for maintaining herd population at 50-140 horses “to achieve a thriving natural ecological balance of resources and ensure the health and genetic variability of the herd.”
“Wild horses are impacting federal lands as well as private and state lands within and outside the territory,” the scoping document states. “Increased impacts have become an issue in recent years, with degradation to resources and safety concerns. Conflicts have occurred between wild horses and private land commercial horse breeding and livestock operations.”
The Murderers Creek management area was established in 1972 following passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971, which requires the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maintain a “thriving natural ecological balance” and multiple-use relationship on public lands.
The management area encompasses 108,488 acres of federal land north of the Izee Highway, south of Aldrich Mountain, east of the South Fork of the John Day River and west of Flagtail Mountain.
The management area includes 92 miles of streams designated critical habitat for Middle Columbia River steelhead, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The area also includes the Phillip W. Schneider Wildlife Area managed by the state, summer and winter range for elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep, as well as 10 BLM grazing allotments and five Forest Service grazing allotments.
The NEPA process for the proposed plan will consist of two environmental analyses, the scoping document states. Phase 1 will establish an appropriate management level, while decisions on how to achieve that goal will be established in Phase 2.
Comments on the scoping document for the proposed management area plan can be sent to Blue Mountain District Ranger Bob Foxworth at the Malheur National Forest Supervisor’s Office building in John Day. The deadline is Aug. 17.
The Murderers Creek herd originated with horses that escaped Native American herds and horses that escaped or were set loose by soldiers and settlers. Five stallions from two BLM herds were introduced to the area in 1997 to add genetic variation, but it’s believed they were not accepted by wild horses already in the area.
The wild horses have few natural predators. Officials have estimated herd population growth in the past at 20% per year, but the scoping document puts the figure at 10-15% per year. The goal has been to reduce the population through “gathers,” where horses were rounded up and offered for adoption, held about every four years.
Population estimates in the past include about 180 wild horses in 2004, about 430 with a better count in 2005, about 520 in 2008, about 150-200 in 2009 and about 200 in 2012. The scoping document reports about 228 horses in 2014, about 264 in 2016 and about 339 in 2018.
The Forest Service and BLM created a wild horse plan for the Murderers Creek area in 1984 with a limit of 140 horses. A 2007 plan set the population target at 50-140 horses and allowed for periodic gathers. A 2017 Forest Service and BLM analysis called for a management level of 50-140 horses with periodic introduction of young mares for genetic reasons.
“The analysis determined that the joint management area is large enough and vegetation and topography diverse enough to provide sufficient cover and space for the wild horses,” the scoping document states.
The agencies hired contractors in the past to gather wild horses, using wranglers to move horses out of the steep timbered country to more open areas lower down where helicopters could drive the horses to corrals. Pilot horses were used to lead the wild horses to the corrals, and hay was used as bait. Gathers in the Murderers Creek area began with more aggressive tactics in the 1970s. Horses were taken to the Burns BLM facility and offered for adoption.
About 111 horses were gathered in February and March 2004, but the goal was 130-150. About 135 horses were gathered in December 2007 and January 2008, but only two horses were gathered in August 2010 when the goal was 100. Officials said the Murderers Creek horses were learning how to avoid being captured. About 60 horses were gathered in winter 2011, which was considered a success. A BLM proposal in 2012 called for removing about 263 horses over a 4-5 year period.
A two-year study funded by a $55,500 Title III grant provided the most accurate population count. The Murderers Creek Wildhorse Education Outreach project was created by Grant County Judge Dennis Reynolds and Cindy McArthur, the range program manager for the Blue Mountain Ranger District.
Contractors on horseback rode the entire 108,000-acre management area, traveling from pasture to pasture. About 430 wild horses were counted in summer 2005. Wild horses are territorial and do not jump fences, so damage to the land mostly occurred in places where the horses concentrated, the study found.
“Cattle are often blamed for damage done by horses,” McArthur said at the time. “A horse can wear down the land quite a bit. They’re real big competition for the cattle, elk and deer.”
A proposal to euthanize wild horses to reduce the population was made by the BLM in July 2008. The agency was facing a budget shortfall of more than $3 million at the time. Low adoption rates had created a backlog, and about 60% of the $37 million wild horse budget went to long-term holding.
Less than 2,000 of the 5,000 horses the Burns BLM office hoped to see adopted found new homes. Opponents to euthanizing said the proposal was motivated by budgetary reasons. In the meantime, the BLM said it would postpone gathers.
A proposal to use a birth control chemical called PZP was discussed in 2010. The method was not considered effective because it needed to be implemented at certain times of the year and horses needed to be rounded up to administer the chemical. Mares could be darted from the air, but that decreased the chemical’s effectiveness.
With so many private and public concerns about wild horse impacts to natural resources in the Murderers Creek area, a local rancher was surprised to encounter a Forest Service employee on Dec. 14, 2018, hauling several wild horses from the Ochoco National Forest to be released in the Murderers Creek area. Malheur National Forest representatives said they would look into the matter.
Fed up with their cattle being blamed for stream bank damage they claimed was caused by elk and wild horses, Dayville ranchers Loren and Piper Stout sued the Forest Service in 2009 claiming the agency violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to adequately manage the wild horse herd.
The Stouts were among a group of ranchers forced to stay off their Forest Service grazing allotment in the 2008 season after the Oregon Natural Desert Association and other environmental groups won a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court.
During the time their 300 cows couldn’t use the grazing allotment, the Stouts went to work documenting impacts to riparian habitat where no cows were grazing. They took photographs of horses standing in the creek at culverts or on stream banks and grass grazed right to the ground. The Stouts also claimed the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife allowed elk numbers to triple in the area.
In October 2010, the Stouts filed a new complaint alleging the Forest Service and BLM’s failure to control the wild horse population resulted in violations to stream condition standards set by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect John Day River steelhead.
U.S. District Court Judge Ancer Haggerty ruled in March 2011 that the Forest Service failed to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and ordered the agency to do so. By that time, the Stouts had reduced their cow herd to 23 pair.
Haggerty also issued a ruling on seven Forest Service grazing allotments. Noting that a new biological opinion examining possible impacts on endangered species and critical habitat would not be completed in time for the current grazing season, Haggerty ruled that the Forest Service could allow grazing on areas where mitigation measures such as fencing had already been taken in 2010 to keep cows out of sensitive areas.
In an April 2012 ruling, Haggerty rejected Stout’s claim that the Forest Service violated laws governing management of wild horses and forests in the Murderers Creek area. Haggerty ruled that the agency acted within its discretion by setting the appropriate management level at 100 horses and that the Forest Service did not act unlawfully by allowing the wild horse population to increase past that level, given the agency’s budgetary constraints and the cost of horse gathers.
Stout told the Eagle he was forced to sell his cows as a result of the federal allotment closures and the cost of the lawsuit. He still runs cows in the Murderers Creek area, but it’s for the rancher who took over his allotment. He also notes that he won the legal battle by forcing the government to remove about 400 horses.