Wild horse advocates are continuing their legal fight to have a fence removed which they say threatens the viability of wild horses in the Pryor Mountains of Montana.
The advocates argue that the fence cuts off a critical range historically used by the horses, and claims its existence threatens the future wellbeing of the horses.
The Cloud Foundation, Front Range Equine Rescue and noted equine photographer Carol Walker have filed an appeal in the District of Columbia Circuit Court over the US District Court’s November 2013 dismissal of a lawsuit against the Custer National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management.
“We brought the Forest Service into the suit when they issued a call for bids to build the new fence in 2010,” explains Ginger Kathrens, founder and executive director of The Cloud Foundation.
“The fence threatens the survival of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Herd by eliminating thousands of acres of vital late summer and fall grazing.”
The two mile-long, six foot high fence across a subalpine meadow blocks wild horses from historic and critical high elevation grazing in the Pryor Mountains of Montana and mars an otherwise pristine landscape, they argue.
The controversy over the fence began long before it was built in October 2010.
The Cloud Foundation contends that the fence, which is on the boundary line between US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land, exists only because the Forest Service refuses to manage horses in an area the herd has used since long before either of the agencies were even created.
Range expansion is crucial since the Pryor herd is small, isolated and vulnerable to genetic decline, the advocacy groups say.
An August 2013 report by leading equine geneticist Gus Cothran, from Texas A&M University, warned of declining variability in the famous herd.
Analyzing the genetics of wild horses removed from the Pryor range last year, Cothran urged the bureau to “increase population size if range conditions allow”.
“The Pryor herd is one of the oldest in the West, and is a unique genetic link to the Spanish Colonial horse,” said Kathrens, who has followed the herd for 20 years, producing three PBS Nature documentaries about Cloud, a pale palomino stallion who lives wild in the Pryors.
“Although the herd appears to be strong with remarkable longevity, there have been several cases of limited vision or blindness, hernias, and cryptorchidism. These physical defects could be a reflection of narrowing genetic variability.
“Obviously with fewer horses on the range, the chances increase that individuals will be more closely related than if the herd were larger.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s herd numbers were in the low 200s. The foundation would like to see the herd managed at numbers even higher than these, but that is difficult based on the current acreage available for their use.
The foundation and its partners will be working to return the Sorenson Extension in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
“This will be great for tourism, giving the public a greater chance to see wild horses in the Dryhead area of the range, including mares that might be in the core breeding population and have foals,” Kathrens added.
Wild horse viewing in the recreation area had increased over the years and was an important economic driver for the nearby community of Lovell, Wyoming.
“The BLM will be adding the Administrative Pastures at the very bottom of the mountain and we applaud them for this,” said Walker, one of the parties to the action.
“The 3000-plus acres contained in the Administrative Pastures are not productive lands but they will allow for the herd to grow a little and they provide the best chance for wild horse bands to get out of deep snow higher on the range.
“This was an area used extensively by Cloud’s father, Raven, and his band until the gates were shut a few years ago.”
Kathrens continued: “The Cloud Foundation has worked closely with the Billings BLM office over the past few years. We are confident they have the best interests of the horses at heart and we are a willing volunteer for any efforts to benefit the horses.”
The foundation volunteered last year to help the bureau apply the fertility control vaccine PZP to mares to curtail population growth, with the shared goal of preventing future removals.
“However, it is critical that the Forest Service take down the fence which keeps the herd from the highest quality pastures – pastures the herd had enjoyed for over 200 years,” Kathrens said.
“Unless they remove the fence, I fear that not only the genetic stability, but the ongoing survival of the Pryor Herd is at great risk which would be a tragic loss for the American public.”
“Every summer and fall until the fence was erected I observed and photographed the majority of the herd grazing in these beautiful, rich pastures,” Walker added.
“Seeing the horses go down the trails their feet had made over many years and now being blocked at the fence, and gazing over it, not understanding why they could not go there anymore is heartbreaking. This fence must come down”.