John Hughes from Bartlesville, OK, has been in the cattle business for over 55 years now and is enjoying the run of profitability that he calls the best in history. Along with his stocker operation, which consists of 2,500 to 5,000 head depending on the year, the ranch also dedicates 18,000 acres to housing 2,128 unwanted wild horses and burros contracted through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM manages wild horses and burros as part of its overall multiple-use land management mission under the authority of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
In the fall of 1989, the ranch saw its first wild horses and burros. Hughes has been taking care of them ever since.
“It really works out well for us,” said Hughes, who started the second operation in the country to facilitate unwanted horses, the first being in South Dakota. Today, there are eight such facilities, five in Oklahoma and three in Kansas. “For 10 years, we were the only running horse sanctuary, as people like to call them.”
The largest “sanctuary” is located in Pawhuska, OK.
With 31,000 head of horses currently running wild in the U.S. and long-term facilities such as the Hughes operation close to capacity, BLM is needing more space, according to spokesman Tom Gorey. Gorey said the most recent count of 31,000 exceeds by around 3,000 the number determined by BLM to be the appropriate management level. Gorey said the herd size typically doubles every four years, despite birth control efforts.
There are currently 18,947 head in long-term facilities with the current maximum capacity being 19,700, making the need for more facilities critical. Of the wild horses and burros in the U.S., Gorey estimates 50 percent are in Nevada, making pastures west of the Mississippi River a prime location for two additional long-term facilities able to maintain 1,500 head annually starting Nov. 1, 2006, with an option for an additional four one-year extensions.
“We wanted to reach further that just those two states (Kansas and Oklahoma),” said Gorey.
Producers opting to submit a bid to BLM will be required to house the horses with adequate fencing, quality hay, sufficient forage and reliable water sources, according to Gorey. Producers bid on the needed price per head per day. Generally, producers receive between $1.22-1.30 per animal per day, or around $465 a year per horse, according to Gorey. BLM representatives will also monitor the operation to ensure the animals are being cared for and to observe forage and water conditions.
Depending on the decision in Washington D.C. regarding a permanent ban on horse slaughtering, additional pressure may be placed on these facilities, as well as the wild horse and burro population.
“It is possible that a ban on horse slaughtering could impact our situation. In the past, people have brought horses to our facilities and have turned them lose and with a ban, that could happen more frequently,” said Gorey, adding that BLM has taken no position on House Bill 503, the bill to ban slaughter.
Since 1973, BLM has placed more than 213,000 horses and burros into good private homes through adoption. Under a December 2004 amendment to the 1971 wild horse law, animals over 10 years old, as well as those passed over for adoption at least three times, are eligible for sale. Since that amendment took effect, BLM has sold more than 1,900 horses and burros, according to Gorey.
Hughes warns producers considering making a bid to BLM to conduct plenty of research before making the leap.
“Prospective bidders need to have their ducks in a row,” said Hughes. “I recommend they have a range management specialist come out and conduct a full-fledged, bonafide study and sure enough come up with some figures. They (BLM) want to be confident you have the right resources to support that many horses and burros. You have to have the fencing and management ability. You have to have the background, education and experience because they (BLM) don’t want to get embarrassed.”
Hughes said he allocates eight to 10 acres per horse on “good quality” bluestem grass and feeds hay for 160 days, but said every operation is different.
He said when a horse reaches the point where its quality of life is nonexistent and suffering he has permission to ethically euthanize the animal.
“If we didn’t have permission to put suffering horses down, I would not agree to take care of them,” said Hughes. “I can’t stand to see suffering animals. Humane animal rights groups want us to wait until they are to the point they can no longer stand up. That’s ridiculous. We want the animals to have a good life while they are here. This is their last home; they are not going anywhere else.”
For more information regarding BLM’s wild horse and burro adoption program, see www.wildhorseandburro.blm.gov; for information about the agency’s sale of older wild horses and burros, see www.blm.gov/nhp/spotlight/whb_authority Producers interested in facilitating wild horses and burros should contact their respected state BLM representative. — Mike Deering, WLJ Editor
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