Even in the dappled light of a November morning in the Ochoco National Forest, the wild horses roaming among the trees are easy to spot. About a dozen adult horses, ranging in color from light brown to almost black, grazed in a clearing while a 3-month-old foal leapt around behind them, not far from the charred remnants of a recent wildfire.

The horses are a portion of the roughly 130 horses living within the Big Summit Wild Horse Territory, a 27,300-acre range near the western edge of the Ochoco National Forest.

The Big Summit territory, the only one of its kind in the Pacific Northwest that’s entirely within a national forest, has been governed by the same management plan since 1975.

Faced with a horse population that’s at least twice as big as the threshold set in the management plan, the Forest Service is looking at updating the document, jokingly described by Forest Service management as “Generation X.”

However, it remains to be seen if the new plan will keep the current population threshold — which gives the Forest Service more ability to manage resource impacts from horses on the landscape — or increase the number of horses allowed in the forest, a move wild horse advocates have wanted for years as a way of increasing genetic diversity.

“We all do care about the horse territory and the horses within the territory,” said Slater Turner, district ranger for the Ochoco National Forest. “We’re trying to provide a little bit of everything.”

Everyone agrees wild horses have lived outside Prineville for decades, although there’s disagreement over whether they predate European-American settlement entirely.

Kate Beardsley, founder of Mustangs to the Rescue, a volunteer-based nonprofit that rescues abandoned horses, said the horses in the area are genetically distinct from other wild horses in the area, and tend to be smaller, stronger and calmer than many mustangs.

Gayle Hunt, founder and president of the nonprofit Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition, said the horses have been there for centuries, and may be related to those brought to Spain before the West was settled.

The Forest Service disagrees, saying the horse population most likely came from escaped and unclaimed horses that ended up in the forest after ranching came to Central Oregon.

Steve Gibson, range and wild horse program manager for the Ochoco National Forest, said old Crook County ranchers have stories about going up to the forest and capturing wild horses to train or sell.

“Catching horses back then wasn’t an easy thing, you definitely earned the money that you garnered off of it,” Gibson said.

That all changed after Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971. The act made it a crime to harass or kill horses on federal land and directed federal agencies, including the Forest Service, to protect the animals.

The Ochoco National Forest finalized a management plan in compliance with the law four years later. The plan established a population of 55 to 65 horses as a management objective.

Until 2011, the Forest Service maintained an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management that allowed Ochoco National Forest staff to trap horses that exceeded that population threshold, and take them to horse auctions or a BLM facility in Burns. Once that agreement evaporated, the Ochoco population began to grow unchecked.

Tory Kurtz, rangeland management specialist for the national forest, said the Forest Service works with the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition to find homes for individual horses, but it hasn’t stopped the population from increasing. The most recent canvass counted at least 132 horses living in the forest, and other surveys have revealed up to 155 animals.

“We kind of got stuck with not having a place to take the horses,” Turner said.

As the horse population has grown, so has its impact on the landscape.

Kurtz said horses have trampled vegetation and caused stream banks to erode, effects that have become more common as the horse population has increased. Gibson said the population growth has forced bands of horses to congregate in new parts of their territory, areas where they may have only visited in the past.

Douthit Springs, near the western edge of the horses’ territory, is one such area. Gibson said the area saw dozens of horses each day for months this year, as bands of horses traveled down from higher elevation areas during the winter and didn’t return due to population pressure. Consequently, the once-healthy riparian area looked more like a mud puddle, surrounded by hoof prints.

“This is something that we don’t like to see,” Turner said, gesturing to Douthit Springs. “But this is what we got today.”

The impacts extend to ranchers using the area as well. Gordon Clark, owner of Hay Creek Ranch in Jefferson County, used to graze around 2,000 ewes within the horse territory, but encountered degraded streams and bare ground.

“It looks like a parking area,” Clark said.

Beardsley countered by saying many animals use the riparian areas, and it’s difficult to pin all of the impact on horses.

“I’m not going to say that horses don’t ever impact everything, but there’s no evidence that they impact resources more than cows and sheep,” she said.

Hunt added the horses can even open up micro-ecosystems by digging up streams, exposing nutrients that may not otherwise have been exposed.

“The horses have done that, but they’re never going to get any credit for it,” Hunt said.

Another challenge is the increasing number of altercations between horses and humans.

Turner said the number of visitors to the national forest has risen annually by 5 percent in recent years, driven by population growth throughout Central Oregon and a growing awareness of the forest as an area to hunt, hike and ride all-terrain vehicles.

“I don’t see it slowing down any time soon,” Turner said.

The uptick increases the number of incidents between humans and horses. Gibson said wild horses have been hit by trucks on icy roads, and several horses were illegally shot several years ago by poachers. Jill Welborn, acting public affairs officer for the national forest, said because the horses are more familiar than other wild animals, people may feel more comfortable around them than they should.

“This isn’t a zoo, but I think sometimes that’s people’s experience of it,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Hunt and Beardsley described seeing the horses in the forest as a unique experience, one that’s at risk from the herd’s dangerous lack of genetic variability. For both women, raising the appropriate management level — the number of horses allowed in the forest — to a level that allows less inbreeding is the most important aspect of any new management plan.

“There are no other horse habitats that have the spectacular beauty of the Ochocos,” Hunt said. “We have to preserve it, and that doesn’t mean this tiny little zoo habitat that isn’t genetically viable.”

Kurtz acknowledged the herd currently has problems with genetic variability, though there’s disagreement about whether that’s due to the size of the population or its composition.

Clark and Beardsley consider 150 breeding animals to be the bare minimum to sustain a healthy population of horses. However, Kurtz said the Forest Service believes it can manage horse populations at a lower level by bringing in outside horses, a tactic forest managers have used in the past by bringing in horses from the Bureau of Land Management’s Steens Herd Management Area.

Still, Beardsley noted the approach has seen mixed results, and comes perilously close to violating a Forest Service rule that prohibits the agency from selecting for certain traits in animals.

“There are some things that have to be left for the horses,” Beardsley said.

After years of pressure from advocates, Kurtz said the Forest Service began looking more seriously at revising the 43-year-old management plan in 2015. For the first time, following public meetings, the agency released a scoping letter last year that contained three potential courses of action: do nothing, raise the permitted number of horses to between 150 and 200 animals, or develop a new target population total based on limiting factors like genetics and winter range.

Clark, of Hay Creek Ranch, remained skeptical the Forest Service would make the sweeping changes necessary to better manage the horse population. His preference would be for the agency to maintain a population of between 55 and 65, while improving genetic testing and better accounting for the cost of finding homes for wild horses.

“I don’t think anything’s going to happen,” he said. “You might as well send your letters to Santa Claus at the North Pole.”

Despite her frustration with working with the Forest Service, Hunt praised the new management of the Ochocos for being open to new ideas. Beardsley said she doesn’t want to see 400 horses, as some critics have suggested, but rather a genetically viable population, along with recognition that the horses deserve priority within their range.

“We’ve got something very unique with these horses, and that’s what we should be focusing on,” Hunt added.

The agency is expect to release an environmental impact statement early next year, which will be followed by another comment period, and a final decision by next fall.

“It’s just a whole conglomerate of things that we have to balance,” Turner said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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