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)  

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25 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Matt,
    I think this explanation detailing the background of the Pryor Moutain range is important to a full understanding of the situation. This is all about carrying capacity, and you are right. Through hunting and roadkills and habitat destruction, people have reduced numbers of natural predators and fragmented wildlife populations. The moment we started to “manage” one species, we were mismanaging another species. And yes, as unfortunate and short-sighted as it is, this is the reality of today’s world.
    It is like some of our national parks; they are in mountainous areas, where vegetation is limited. Thus grizzly bears and wolves tend to move into the foothill areas, outside the park, and come into conflict with ranchers. These animals cannout survive on rocky slopes, especially in winter when food is in short supply.
    I do have a question, based on your information and maps. Just to clarify, you mention that the range is fenced, or uses natural barriers.
    What I am not clear on is the situation in the Forest Reserve. The horse range boundary shows that it includes the southeast corner of the Forest Reserve, and from your map, I gather it is partially fenced. Does Lost Water Canyon provide a natural barrier?
    If so, how is it that the Pryor Horses got outside their range, and onto Foresty land, where they were considered trespassers, and thusly rounded up.
    Is there an area there needs to be fenced, and isn’t?

    • Hey Wendy, Up there in the very north tip of the PMWHR, you see that little stretch of fence running along the northwestern corner of that tip? That’s the buck and pole boundary fence that is in disrepair. That’s the primary way in which horses can leave the range.

      • Hi Matt,
        Thanks for your response. Common sense would suggest the fence should be repaired. Which department would be responsible for doing this? The BLM or the Forestry Service? In other words, whose fence is it, as in who built it?
        If my fence is in disrepair, allowing my livestock out, I am accountable for repairing it.
        Look forward to your evalulation of range conditions. You’re providing a valuable service, based on facts. Much appreciated!

      • Hello,
        From what I understand, the Forest Service is in charge of rebuilding that fence. The fence there, though quite small in length, is weighted heavily with issues that could easily fill a long blog post of their own.

  2. I understand all too well the need for management. I have limited acreage and would overpopulate my land if I had my way. Harsh reality forces me to limit my herd size. My horses are protected from natural predators. The wild horses shouldn’t be, and while I too, know there are times when the numbers will need to be thinned, I do think we should allow natural predation to work where it can. I don’t kow how many lions live in the Nevada deserts, or what other natural predators there are there. I am all for intelligent management that respects the wild in our wild horses. I heard Ginger Katherines say she didn’t like bait trapping, but that seems the most stress free, kindest way to thin the herds when actual damage is being done to the ranges. And I think damage to the range should be proven, by some one who understands teh range and conditions better than many of the BLM personell I have met. I don’t think range conditions should be evaluated by a BLM employee who states that horses hve no place in the western ecosystem. and that the wild horse act was a product of emotion not science. that person is biased against the continued existance of wild horses. I think the goal should always be the continued existence of the wild horses. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was last summer when I actually got to see with my own eyes the Pryor mt wild horses. I didn’t get to see many of them, Just Sam and his little band but my heart was happy. I would like that opportunity to always be available for any American!

    • Thanks for your comment! I think that the goal should be for the long-term survival of wild horses too. Something I’d like to come out of this and future posts is that there are a lot of challenges in achieving this goal due to the age we live in, but I also hope that I show that these challenges can be overcome. I’m getting together some information on mountain lion management, and I also do hope to be able to touch on the ways in which the conditions of the range are evaluated.

  3. Matt,

    Thanks for sharing your information about the size of the management area etc.Also thanks so much for the information you sent me about Hombre!

    I am still kinda confused as to how 140 horses can overgraze a 38k acre park? Can someone explain that to me? I really don’t understand?

    Thanks, Rebecca

    • Hello,
      I’m happy to know you got your info on Hombre! I am thinking that the next post in this series should deal with rangeland conditions and evaluations of these conditions. To give a short answer, though, I believe it comes down to horse distribution and grazing patterns more than it does raw acreage.

      • Matt,

        I would love to know more about the color genetics on Hombre…since both of his parents were Buckskin. Is there a site devoted to that? I thought one parent had to be black to get a Grulla, but I guess not! I loved Seeing Hombre as a colt! He is a good boy and I think will be an excellent horse.

        It is so neat to know that Hightail is his Grandmother! I saw Sam and Hightail we when we were up there! Got pictures of them!
        Thanks for all that you do. I am interested in your future posts about the range conditions etc.

        Thanks again, Rebecca

  4. Your posts are very enlightening, Matt. I would venture to guess that people who are REALLY interested in ALL the horses will take away a lot of useful information from studying what you are sharing with all of us from your studies of the “whole picture”. THANK YOU.

    I can’t help but wonder how many of the water “guzzlers” could have been installed in the good forage areas (within the designated range) that the horses don’t use because of the lack of water, for the cost of the “gather” that removed so many of the “old bloodline” mustangs. It just angers me that the “specialists” weren’t listening to you in your recommendations on that score, and others. And, I’ll keep asking those questions until they have to consider the answer.

    I’m wondering also, if the horses frequent those areas now in winter when there is snow as a source of water? It would help explain why the healthy ones stay healthy thru the harsh winter.

    If we just HAVE TO interfere with nature on this limited area we allow the horses, and other wildlife, to live on, then why can’t it be in a positive manner like helping provide “watering holes”, rather than by removing the animals? I guess this is probably one of the things you’ll be talking about next.

    I consider it a privilege to be a member of the group of people who disagree with the people who don’t believe the horses have a “place in the western ecosystem”. Their ancestors played a significant role in the settling of this country and we as a country, owe them at least as much respect as is granted to other historically important places and things. Not only that, but these horses especially, are sooo interesting, beautiful and spirited, and living links to the species from the ancient past.

    But I don’t have to tell YOU all this, do I Matt? It’s the BLM, the Forest Service and Park Service I’ll be directing these questions and comments to. And, I’m looking forward to applying the insights you’ll be sharing with us to my understanding of this very complex subject.

    I am also very interested in the answer to the inquiries about “whose fence is it?” that needs repair. Also, is that the portion of fence near Commissary Ridge that has at least one gate that members of the public (or someone) tends to leave open in spite of signs posted to remind them to keep it closed?

    Have you seen Lone Wolf lately? I hope he fattened up a bit.

    Signing off now…


  5. Matt –
    Keep trying – there are some out here who genuinely appreciate what you’re trying to do against impossible odds. Please always tell the truth no matter who might not like it.

    Thanks for your work and your love of these horses!
    Lynn B.
    New Mexico

  6. How did FLPMA affect the horse range issues in the Pryors? Do cattle run on the horse range? How different would the situation be if cattle were removed from the horse range (a stated option in the law). (If cattle actually ARE on the range).

    Under what authority did the BLM remove the lower sw corner of the range as you indicated, above? It looks like a very significant amount.

    Will the fence be fixed in the near future to the forest service? Why or why not?

    Thanks for answering any or all of these “beginner’s” questions!

    Thanks for the management series, again!

    • There is no domestic livestock grazing on the PMWHR. The only time you’ll see any cows on the range is if local ranchers are trailing them through Bighorn Canyon or if strays get on the PMWHR somehow. As I’ve mentioned before, though, there was livestock grazing in the area before the PMWHR was established. The northern area added to the PMWHR with passage of the 1971 Act was the Mystic cattle allotment. Here are some interesting photos I found showing cattle in this area in 1974: http://www.lib.montana.edu/collect/spcoll/findaid/2451/series10.html. Go there and then scroll down to photographs 15761 through 15922. Sometime I’d like to take some photos of these same areas today just for an interesting comparison.

      The southwestern area of the PMWHR that is closed to horse use is called the Administrative Pastures. As I understand it, the area was used as a holding area for wild horses and wrangler horses during gathers. The wild horses would be pushed into there and then would soon after be taken to Britton Springs. It’s about 4000 acres, and it is an area we’re requesting be made available to the horses again with the RMP revision process.

      I would guess that the FS boundary fence will eventually be rebuilt. It’s something that was definitely discussed in the HMAP. I will not be surprised to see construction of the fence occur next summer.

      • Hi Matt,

        I was wondering how the process of opening up the Administrative Pasture is going? With the drought last year, the forage is not great for the horses this winter. It would be nice if this could be opened up.

  7. Does the southwestern area of 4,000 acres have any natural boundaries that would keep the horses in should they be given the additional room? How soon do you think they would populate a new area?

    I am glad they are thinking about fixing the FS fencing; that is very good news.

    • That area is all fenced on the southern side. The boundary is basically defined by the county roads (Crooked Creek Road and Road 16) running along there. The current fence line parallels these roads pretty closely. South of these roads is private land. I honestly don’t think it would take the horses a lot of time to repopulate that area if it was totally opened. Sitting Bull’s harem are frequently near that area. Some of the other Dryhead horses, especially Bristol’s harem, drift nearby there, and it is common to see Burnt Timber and Sykes Ridge horses wintering in the area.

  8. […] July 30, 2010 – North Boundary Fence, Part 1 The reconstruction of the north boundary fence has received a lot of attention lately. I’ve had some really good questions from people lately, and so I have decided to put some more detailed information out on this topic. To better understand this topic, I’d first invite you to read an older post I did on the boundaries of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. This can be read by clicking here. […]

  9. […] in the areas originally set aside for them. (For more information on this as applied to the PMWHR, please click here for a previous post.) Second, planning processes have not allowed for the wild horses to enter the areas that the fence […]

  10. The Range is for the Wildlife; including Mustangs and Burros; every Range gets worn down; this is why Wildlife Migrate to find Pasture; a Fence would force them to stay on the same area and graze the area; no fence means they can graze and migrate…which is to their benefit and the Range…

    • This is an important point to realize: Wild horses are fenced in. This is what the law requires. You are right; in a true wild situation, the wild horses would move to a different area if the area they were in had a drop in productivity. However, the law states that the wild horses need to be managed on the areas set aside for them only. A friend of mine often says that the horses are definitely wild, but they are in no way free roaming.

      Here in the Pryors, the area that the horses are leaving to go off of the Range really isn’t in prime condition. I don’t think we can totally blame the horses for these range conditions given the area’s history. However, it is what it is; and we can only see the reality of the forage growing up there. This is not to say that the entire Range is like this. In fact, there are large areas of the Range that are in really good condition and would be great habitat for the horses now that water sources are being developed there.

  11. I have been watching and photographing and painting wild horses for more than 25 years and from my point of view and most recently in 06′ when I was up in the Pryors to show someone the wild horses there was just a few and it was still warm and the high pastures that where normally full where empty. I agree with some that letting horses determine there fate is the natural approach, if there are two many then natural selection will occur and some will perish, I get a kick out the view that man has to intervene to manage there existence, that’s laughable if not scary, I don’t trust the govermnent(BLM) big business and some ranchers, they all have agendas. I think adoption is great as long as the ones who don’t get adopted end up in a slaughter house, bottom line turn the ones loose who don’t get adopted……………..Dennis

    • Thank you for visiting and commenting here. I always appreciate different perspectives. I hope you are able to come back again soon to see the herd.

  12. Matt, is there independent study by a true expert in this area as to the impact of what is being done or not done? I have and so does all americans deserve the best evaluation for what is the right way to insure our wild horses are there for many generations. Again both sides can put forth experts who are biased.

    • Hello,
      Sorry for my delay replying. It really can get confusing with different researchers putting out information that seems contradictory. I guess the best study to teach us about management actions has yet to come – It will take years of data to give a better picture of trends out there. This is an unfortunate side-effect of science. However, I can say that I truly believe that what is going on in the Pryors reflects the application of the best available science; it is based on areas that do have years of data that could be analyzed and learned from. I really do believe that this herd is being very well taken care of, and I hope that other herds can be managed properly and scientifically as well as we move into the future.

  13. How about the wild mustangs that were found on the other side of the
    fence dead from starvation because they were fenced out of an area
    that they used to feed in. Why Dosen’t man just let the horses
    mange them selfs. For that matter all the wild life like the wolfs


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