Beginning this week the Bureau of Land Management started a week long removal of a number of wild horses in the Ely District.

Around 100 excess wild horses were expected to be rounded up by a private contractor using helicopters, and removed from public and private land adjacent to U.S. 93 and State Route 322 in and outside the Caliente Herd Area Complex and Eagle Herd Management area near Pioche.

The plan also called for removing up to 50 wild horses from between Pioche and Eagle Valley that have moved outside of the Eagle Valley Management Area. The appropriate number is set at 100-250 horses, but uncontrolled breeding has increased the numbers to about 1,370.

In addition, up to 50 wild horses are to be moved from Oak Springs Summit west of Caliente that have moved outside the Caliente Complex area. The area is not supposed to have any horses on it, but current estimates have the number at about 800.

A veterinarian was on hand during the gathering operation. The BLM said the horses will be transported to the Axtell Contract Off-Range Corrals at Axtell, Utah, between Gunnison and Salina, where they will be offered for adoption to qualified individuals. Unadopted horses will be placed in the long-term pastures where they will be humanely cared for and treated, and retain their “wild” status and protection under the federal 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act. The BLM does not sell or send any horses to slaughter.

Removing many of the horses from lands adjacent to the highways is a relief to county sheriff Kerry Lee, who agrees with many local ranchers and cattlemen in the county that not enough is being done to solve the excess horse problem, which has been going on for decades..

“It’s not all the fault of the local or state BLM offices,” he said. “They have to fight against the environmental groups who don’t want anything done with the horses, stating ‘just let them run free and nature will take its course.’ But that’s absolutely ridiculous, because the drought and lack of feed effects all animals, and the horses are starving to death, which certainly is not humane treatment. The horses are tramping the springs to almost nothing which makes the drought even worse.”

At the same time, he thought, BLM seems to be very fearful of being sued by environmentalists if actions are taken.

Commissioner Varlin Higbee says he is not aware of any ranchers and cattlemen in either Lincoln County or elsewhere that are not being adversely affected by the overpopulation of wild horses. “Gathering some up this week only touches the tip of the iceberg. There are too many horses and they are destroying the natural resources out there that the BLM’s job is to protect and manage.”

Lee feels the problem in large part is a case of poor management, or no management at all. “It’s a killer to the ranchers who have been taking good care of the range for almost 150 years.”

In the past, local ranchers were allowed to manage the horse populations themselves. The bad ones were selectively culled, keeping the good studs, and neutering others. Higbee said laws and federal acts dating as far back as 1846, and multiple ones added since, “do solidify the ranchers right to graze, have access to water, and right of ways across it.”

But in Higbee’s opinion, environmentalists over the past 60 years, he explained, have influenced the BLM “to follow policy, not law, which has now come to the point where they themselves can’t do this or do that, and have to go through many delays due to federal bureaucracy to get anything done, which is in effect ignoring what the law says is to be done.”

And now the BLM now finds itself with an overpopulation 10 times the number of what should be there, and no place to put them.

The 2004 Burns Amendment to the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act does allow for selling unadopted or unsold horses or burros “without limitations.” However environmentalists and horse enthusiasts won’t allow that for a number of reasons, Lee said, “even claiming they are pets. They’re not pets.”

He said he thinks the BLM is spending millions and millions of dollars to feed wild horses that have been placed in off-range corrals and paying for veterinary care.

Higbee says the BLM Ely district offices in Ely and Caliente also feel frustrated because they see these same policies hindering their being able manage the resources which is their job to do. “They see it being diminished and destroyed, along with the water holes and grazing lands by all the excess horses they are not allowed to touch. Most of the local agency people are really discouraged.”

Caliente BLM director Chris Carlton was not available for comment.