CHALLIS, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) On Monday, the Bureau of Land Management Challis Field Office concluded a wild horse gather that began on Nov. 5. The gather was conducted in order to reduce an overpopulation of wild horses in and near the Challis Herd Management Area, which was estimated for the start of the horse gather to be more than 400 animals.
The Bureau of Land Management recently concluded a gather operation that rounded up 295 wild horses from public lands on or near the Challis Herd Management Area. (KMVT/KSVT)
"BLM applies what we call an Appropriate Management Level," said Heather Tiel-Nelson, a public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management. "That is a range from 185 to 253, and we have about 429."
The acting director of the Bureau of Land Management has described the wild horse overpopulation problem as an ""existential threat" to America's public lands, and that it's costing the taxpayer millions of dollars per year.
In Challis, the wild horse overpopulation problem is a microcosm of an issue spanning land across the West, where more than 88,000 wild horses and burros covering over 20 million acres of BLM land.
"The Challis Herd Management Area is made up of about 168 acres and what people don't realize and what’s limiting is the winter here," Tiel-Nelson said. "Body conditions tend to decline and they tend to migrate to private land and to the highways and become a hazard to motorist."
She also says when there's a number of wild horses that exceeds the AML, it can damage the environment on public lands.
"They began to decline they get pretty hammered when there's too many horses here," she said.
While both the claim and practice of wild horse gathers has spurred controversy before. Officials like Nielson, say gathers like the one at Challis hit close to home.
"My mom actually adopted a Challis mustang back in 2009, and he was a horse that my husband trained and he's been with my family for a number of years," she said.
The horses are gathered through a helicopter assisted method; it's a scene that brings viewers from the surrounding community and leaders of nonprofits and advocacy groups to come see.
"We're just with my family," said Heath Marley, a horse owner who brought his family to see the gather. "Kids just wanted to see wild horses gathered."
"In 2010, I founded Wild Love Preserve here in Idaho, and what we do is we have worked to bring all the different stakeholders together in a new light to address all facets of regional wild horse management right here on home turf," said Andrea Maki, the founder of Wild Love Preserve and another attendee of the horse gather in Challis.
The scene alone evokes a wide a range of emotions that many capture through their cameras and see through binoculars. The use of the helicopter is one of the few tools BLM officials say is available to effectively manage the overpopulation problem, when outside groups don't pursue costly litigation to stop them.
"BLM has got to increase the tools in our toolbox to manage this," Nielson says. "When we do try to do that, often times litigation comes into play. The pilots, I like to refer to the pilots as the border collie in the sky where their simply herding the horses towards the trap."
And in their efforts to balance the ecosystem and habit in areas like Challis, accusations of bias or working in favor of the interest of other industries can be leveled at officials.
"There's great controversy across the West with the wild horse issues, and it's about wild horses on multi-use public lands and the different lands," Andrea Maki said. "There's controversy between wild horses, BLM, cattle ranchers, big energy."
A frequent claim is that BLM conducts it's management of wild horse populations to serve the interest of cattle, or to make room on their lands for further cattle grazing, Nielson says is not true.
"That just simply isn't the case," she says. "Cattle or livestock grazing has actually declined on public range lands 34 percent since the '70s"
Despite what officials says is an overpopulation problem that exceeds Idaho borders, for the Gem-State as a whole, the overpopulation problem is different. Andrea Maki says through partnership with various stakeholders, her organization has helped to forge a path ahead with officials in effectively managing the wild horse population through methods such as fertility control.
"We've saved the taxpayers well over $7 million dollars," she says. "This is huge. This is the first roundup of the Challis herd since 2012, because of our collaborative work."
Officials with BLM also concur that Idaho has been able to manage populations effectively through collaborative efforts.
"Idaho overall, wild horse management has been pretty well," said Kevin Lloyd, a wild horse specialist with the Bureau of Land Management Challis Field Office.
Of the 295 horses rounded-up near Challis during the seven-day gather, a majority will be sent to be put for adoption, and others such as the mares will be released back to the Challis HMA.
"So we’re going to ship some of them to several locations," Lloyd said. "If they’re going to be shipped back to the Challis Management Area, we’re going to send them to Challis facility, where they’ll receive fertility treatment and eventually come back on the range. If we’re going to prepare them for adoption, we’re going to send them to the Bruneau range facility.
At the Bruneau Off-Range Facility, Lloyd, says the horses will be freeze marked on their necks, and vaccinated for common diseases before being made available for adoption.
BLM recently began offering close to $1,000 to adopters of the wild horses or burros. In a press release, from earlier this year the Bureau of Land Management announced what it said was a banner year for placing wild horses and burros into private homes. Stating it saw a 54 percent increase, close to 2,500 more animals, being adopt from the previous year.