Nearly five months after a half-dozen wild horses were found shot along a road in the Ochoco National Forest, who killed the controversial animals and why remains unknown.
No one has stepped forward with a tip solid enough to lead to the arrest and conviction of the shooter or shooters, despite a reward of nearly $10,000.
“We are still desperate for information,” Patrol Capt. Dan Smith of the U.S. Forest Service said Wednesday. Smith is the top law enforcement officer for the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests.
The horses were all members of a group of wild horses known as the Big Summit Wild Horse Herd. Three were found shot — two dead and one severely wounded — on Oct. 12 along Forest Road 22 near the junction with Forest Road 500, east of Prineville. The injured horse was euthanized. On Oct. 18, three more horses shot dead were found nearby by a Forest Service law enforcement officer investigating the first case. Smith has said the six horses probably were all shot at the same time.
Protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, it is illegal to harm, harass or kill wild horses.
Wild horses elicit strong emotions from people on opposing sides of the debate in the West about federal management of the animal. Whether anger about the animals was a factor in the shootings, though, remains a mystery.
“I would say that I think it was a deliberate act,” said Gayle Hunt, president of the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition in Prineville. “It was not random.”
The wild horse shooting wasn’t the first in recent years in the Ochoco. In March 2011, six wild horses, four adults and two younger animals, were found shot dead. That case also remains unsolved. The shooting scenes from 2011 and last fall are about 10 or 15 miles from each other.
Hunt said she thinks the 2011 shooting was not a random act either, with both shootings possibly done by people who hate the horses. People opposed to wild horses on public lands include some elk hunters and ranchers, she said.
The Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition, Redmond-based Mustangs to the Rescue, the Humane Society of the United States and individual contributors are offering a combined reward of $9,200 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooter or shooters of the horses.
While critical of the presence of wild horses on public land, Bill Wilber, wildlife chairman for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, doesn’t condone the shooting of the animals.
“That’s unfortunate and that is not right,” Wilber, a cattleman from Burns, said Wednesday. “And that is not the way to solve the problem.”
Preferring to call the animals “feral horses,” rather than wild horses, he said they do more damage to the range than elk or cattle.
“They eat more forage, they destroy more habitat … than the cows, the wildlife, all of them put together,” Wilber said. “So the feral horses debate is a big deal.”
Hunt and other wild horse advocates argue that all horses originated in North America, so they should be out on the range.
Whether the debate played a part in the Ochoco shootings is unclear, said Smith, the Forest Service law enforcement officer.
“I wouldn’t say there is any more or less controversy in Central Oregon than there is anywhere else,” he said.
The Big Summit Wild Horse Herd originated from horses either let loose or that escaped from nearby ranches in the 1920s, said Tory Kurtz, rangeland management specialist with the Ochoco National Forest. They now roam about 42 square miles of the forest, between Ochoco Ranger Station and Big Summit Prairie. The 20-square mile prairie is a private ranch surrounded by national forest. The horses wander in bands through ponderosa pines, open meadow and mountain mahogany. Each summer, there is a survey of the herd, Kurtz said, and last June it had 110 horses.
Kurtz said there are no immediate plans for a roundup and adoption of horses from the Big Summit herd, but there have been before.
Hunt, the wild horse advocate from Prineville, has a former member of the herd as her primary saddle horse. Fargo, a 17-year-old gelding, has the relentless nature typical to the herd, she said.
“Ochoco horses tend to be stubborn or, we like to say, ‘opinionated,’” she said. “But once you break through, they’ll never quit.”
A former Forest Service worker, Hunt had her first encounter with horses from the Big Summit herd when she was at the Ochoco Ranger Station in 1990s. Although wild, she said the horses don’t run from strangers. Instead, they may even approach people.
Last fall, she visited the site of the shootings. Although it was hard to determine the gender of the decomposing animals, they appeared to be mares and their young, Hunt said. She called the scene a massacre.
“They were nothing but targets,” she said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7812, firstname.lastname@example.org