October 27, 2009 – The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range

Any sentence containing the words “management” and “Pryor Mountain Wild Horses” is typically unpopular. Popular or not, this is something that I feel is very important to understand. Thus begins our journey into understanding the management of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horses. Please remain patient and open-minded as you read this post and subsequent posts.

I always feel it is important to first understand why management must occur. To understand the reasoning behind management, we must first understand where the Pryor Mountain Wild Horses live. I think that it is important to know that the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is fenced. There is a barrier around the wild horse range that is meant to keep the wild horses from leaving. Some of this barrier is actual fence while other parts of it are natural (steep canyons). More importantly, perhaps, is that this is a legal boundary; the law states that wild horses must be within the boundary of the PMWHR. Let’s stop here and understand what the PMWHR looks like today. I say today because it has changed over time. Below are some maps I drew based on BLM documents and reports; these maps show the evolution of the PMWHR. These maps are approximations, but they are pretty close to reality.

When looking at these maps (except for the first location map), what you’ll really want to look at is the bold, dark red line. This is the PMWHR boundary. As far as the color of the land areas goes, green is National Forest, yellow of BLM, purple is National Park Service, orange is tribal land, white is private land, and light blue is state land. Streams, rivers, and the like are blue. The Wyoming-Montana border is the dashed black line. This is all overlaid on a topographical model of the area. To get a feeling for scale, there is a section grid on the map; each of those squares is a mile by a mile in size. North is always “up” on the maps. Feel free to click on these maps to see larger versions of them.

So let’s start with understanding where in the country we are actually looking. The area I will be describing is on the Montana-Wyoming border on East Pryor Mountain (the southeastern area of the Pryor Mountains) just north of Lovell, Wyoming. See that little red polygon under the words “Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range”? That is the PMWHR shown at approximately its actual size compared to the Western states.

Location Map of PMWHR

Now let’s go back in time to the PMWHR in late 1968. This was when the range was first established through an order by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, 1968

This original PMWHR was about 33,600 acres. It covered only BLM land and portions of the National Park Service’s Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. Remember, we’re in 1968 now. There is no such thing as the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, and so the aren’t a whole lot of rules and regulations concerning wild horses compared to those of today.

Let’s fast forward a few years to 1971 now. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act has passed, and now wild horse herds across the West receive protection. As far as the areas that wild horses will be protected in, the 1971 Act has a couple lines that stand out. The last sentence of the first paragraph says this: It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of public lands. To reiterate the relevant point of this sentence, consider this line: they are to be considered in the area where presently found. This has been interpreted to mean that wild horses are to be managed on the areas in which they were found in 1971. I have also heard it interpreted to be as specific as where they were in December of 1971. The 1971 Act goes on a little later with a follow-up to this. In the Definitions area of the act, there is this sentence: “range” means the amount of land necessary to sustain an existing herd or herds of wild free-roaming horses and burros, which does not exceed their known territorial limits, and which is devoted principally but not necessarily exclusively to their welfare in keeping with the multiple-use management concept for the public lands. So the relevant line here is “which does not exceed their known territorial limits.” This seems to be interpreted as saying that new land can’t really be added onto existing wild horse areas unless there were horses found in those areas in 1971. (Just as a side note, the ROAM Act would basically strike out these two aforementioned lines.)

So what did all of this mean for the PMWHR? Well, the Pryor horses weren’t just living on the plot of land that was created for them in 1968; they had spread to adjacent areas as well. Because of this, the PMWHR grew in size with the passage of the 1971 Act. The major areas of expansion took place on the north end of the range. Land was also added along the southern end of the range. This new PMWHR covered over 40,000 acres on Forest Service, BLM, and National Park Service lands. Though the act passed in 1971, it took a few years to get everything done. By 1974, the PMWHR looked like this:

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, 1974

In 1984, the BLM closed some southern portions of the PMWHR to the wild horses. Around the same time, the National Park Service added new land to the PMWHR; and so there wasn’t really a significant net change in acreage. However, in 1990, the National Park Service closed this added land to the wild horses; and so there was a decrease in the size of the PMWHR. This is essentially the same area that is out there today. Today’s PMWHR is about 38,000 acres. It covers land varying in elevation from approximately 3600 feet to 8700 feet. It looks like this:

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, 2009

Up until this point, I’ve shown you some maps with boundary lines drawn on them; and I am telling you that the Pryor horses are supposed to stay within this boundary. So what’s keeping them in there? The following map shows the different parts that make up this boundary. Each different color of line corresponds to a different boundary which is described with the label near it.

PMWHR Boundary Types

Thus, in the PMWHR, and all other wild horse areas, there is a plot of land of a certain size that wild horses live on. Because the land is a certain size, 38,000 acres, then it produces a certain amount of resources. This certain amount of resources can support a certain number of wild horses. If there are too many wild horses on it, then the land may start to experience damage. Because the lands of the PMWHR were historically overgrazed by livestock (like most Western lands); and because this area gets very little precipitation, any damage to the land can take a long time to recover, especially if the Pryor horses are applying some small but constant grazing pressure. If the land is damaged and slowly recovering, it is producing fewer resources than it once had. If this is the case, then there will be insufficient resources to support the wild horse population present on the land. At this point, the population must be provided resources; or some of the wild horses will get sick or die due to poor nutrition. To prevent these situations from happening, it is thus necessary to manage the wild horse population. The same could be said of populations of other wildlife in the West. This is a reality of the West in 2009. As you read through this post and upcoming posts, please do keep in mind that we do live in 2009; and so there are some economic, geographic, political, and cultural realities that we just have to deal with.

I think that the Humane Society of the United States summarizes all of this well in their pamphlet entitled “America’s Wild Horses: Managing for the Future.” In this pamphlet the HSUS explains why management is necessary through this statement: Given the West’s current state, wild horses left totally unmanaged would suffer periodic mass starvation and in some spots further damage the fragile landscape.

With that, start thinking about the ways in which wild horses can be managed. This will be the topic of future posts.

Published in: on October 27, 2009 at 3:04 pm  Comments (25)