by Kayla Sargent
Many envision an iconic stud horse galloping across the prairie with his mane blowing in the wind when wild horses are mentioned. In reality, the image seen in many wild horse herds in the west is a Nevada desert grazed to the dirt holding horses with chewed off tails and ribs that can be counted. An excess number of wild horses is depleting both the ground and the condition of the animal that remains a piece of the iconic West. But in an effort to be a part of the management solution, the picture is much different at the Spanish Q Ranch near Ennis, Montana. Just above the tourist town of Virginia City lays hills covered in rock, sagebrush, cedar and cool season native grasses that feed a healthy population of horses gathered off BLM lands.
Although it was a hard-fought battle, Greg and Karen Rice’s persistence saved their ranch and roughly 900 horses when they were awarded a “long-term holding facility” contract from the BLM in 2012. Rices were working through a division in the ranch that left them with debt-laden pasture and too few cattle to pay for it. The BLM was facing overflowing corral facilities as the wild horse population continued to grow beyond the lands’ capacity.
The match was a win-win-win for the ranchers, the agency, and the previously malnourished horses. What seems like a simple solution certainly didn’t come without opposition. Six appeals were filed by locals, absentee landowners in the area and sportsmen organizations, stalling the delivery of horses to range for approximately two years.
“I could write a book on that process, I lived it. But it’s not something I would like to relive or expand on. It cost us a small fortune,” Karen said. “I think they thought we would just give up, but it was too important to us to ensure the future of the ranch.”
“Besides, I’m slightly stubborn,” she joked. “But now the horses are here. We enjoy them and they are doing well.”
Greg and Karen Rice, owners of the Spanish Q Ranch near Ennis, Montana, became the first long-term holding facility in the Rocky Mountains after learning of the opportunity at a Montana Stockgrowers meeting in Miles City. Placing facilities in the Rocky Mountains, “just made sense,” Karen said.
The majority of the horses they received came from the Western states and when the contract began, BLM headquarters were located in Reno, Nevada making the Rocky Mountain region an ideal location. It also provided a suitable and somewhat familiar environment for wild horses gathered off BLM range, a specification the agency considers when selecting contractors.
“We prefer a range or pasture environment, ideally with native grasses,” Scott Fluer, BLM Wild Horse and Burro Specialist and Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR) for all of BLM’s Off-Range Pastures, said. “We like a mix of topography with draws and coulees and trees or topographic features to provide shelter from the elements. We also look for pastures that have a little bit of rock in them so the horses’ feet stay naturally correctly shaped.”
While the majority of the horses on the Spanish Q Ranch came from Nevada, Karen was shocked to discover that deliveries were made from 11 different states and 115 different Herd Management Areas (HMA). The first shipment of horses arrived in February 2013 as the 48 inch fences were being finished to meet contract specifications — expense and labor provided by Rices.
“We had to complete the fences on the borders, the BLM was ready to bring them in and we had already sold our cows when we were awarded the contract, so we virtually had no income and we needed the horses to come,” Karen said.
In an effort to get the process underway as quickly as possible, approximately 300 horses arrived at first, by that spring there were roughly 600 head delivered. At maximum, the Spanish Q Ranch held approximately 1,050 head, which naturally leveled out to the 900 held there today.
The horses arrived gelded, vaccinated and ready to be turned out to pasture. From that point, it is up to the landowner to manage the herd. Karen said once they “hit the ground, they’re ready to go, that’s the last medical attention they’ll get.” An APHIS vet does an annual inspection when the horses come down to the winter feed ground.
“The ranchers are required to keep them in good body condition, a body condition between four and six on the Henneke score chart that we use,” Fluer said. “We try and maintain a healthy herd.”
In order to ensure herd health and pasture and water condition, each long-term holding facility is assigned a BLM project inspector. Fluer said they visit their assigned ranches around five times per year. Pat Fosse, Assistant Field Manager for Renewable Resources at the Dillon, Montana Field Office has been the Rice’s project manager since the inception of the contract. Karen added that beyond the BLM inspection, Greg and her son, Collin, are also very critical land managers.
“We’ve had some really dry years and Greg and Collin are very conscious of not wanting to ruin the ranch,” Karen said. “And, of course, the horses utilize the ground much different than a cow does.”
“They’re easier on the riparian areas,” Fosse added. “But they are a little harder on the ridges. There is no distribution issues, they get around.”
This makes Greg and Collin’s job of managing the herd fairly easy in the summer time. In the spring of the year, once the grass has a good head start, the horses are kicked into higher pasture where they graze until fall. Greg flies the pasture about twice a week to ensure the horses are in good shape, are in the right pasture, and the fences are adequate.
“They’re kind of on their own for the summer for five or six months,” Karen said. “Then they’re down below and we’re feeding them the rest of the time.”
When fall comes, the horses are gathered, partly with a helicopter, and brought to lower pasture where they may graze for a few weeks before feeding begins. Rices found that they have to move the horses a bit earlier than the feed dictates because of hunting season.
“We have to bring them out earlier then we actually probably would have to because the hunters hit the area and we don’t want them up here with that,” Karen explained. “We’ve had some trouble, there’s a lot that don’t think they ought to be here even though it’s our private ground. But we’re surrounded by Forest Service. So we just bring them down and utilize some of the lower pastures and then feed them.”
Karen said feed was one concern when they wrote the initial contract. Most operations applying to be a long-term holding facility build in four months of supplemental feeding. But since the Spanish Q lays at over 5,000 feet in elevation, higher country and longer winters than many traditional wild horse ranges, Rices had to account for six months of feed expenses in their contract. They are able to put up a good portion of the hay on their own irrigated meadows in the summer. She was quick to admit that the management of the wild horses came with a steep learning curve.
“It’s been a learning process for both the horses and for us,” Karen said. “I can laugh at our very first proposal. We had the idea that a horse would act like the cows and they would come down in the fall, we could run them through our corrals and count them in the winter.”
Instead, the first winter came and the horses went further up. Today the horses winter near Collin’s home on the Virginia City highway. The first year they wintered near Greg and Karen’s home and Karen called it the “most interesting winter I had ever had.” She watched as approximately 35 loads of 30-35 head of horses were delivered, commingled, and established their new “pecking order.”
Now the horses are well acquainted with one another as most have resided at the Spanish Q Ranch for at least five years. The Rices have not received new horses for the past three years, simply maintaining the 900 head currently there. Karen said they intend to apply to renew the contract when the ten years are up. BLM officials are soliciting new contractors to find homes for unadoptable wild horses gathered off lands burdened with trying to support 80,000 excess horses.