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Wild horses are separated in pens at the BLM's Britton Springs facility

Wild horses are separated in pens at the Bureau of Land Management's Britton Springs facility once they have been trapped on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.

A group of Drummond landowners is considering opening pastures to wild horses from the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM is seeking to create “ecosanctuaries” on private land to provide long-term homes for thousands of horses it can’t sustain on public lands. Drummond’s Rural Sustainability Organization has applied to create such a facility for up to 325 horses.

“We’re still finding out if it’s going to happen,” said Nancy Radke of the group, which has organized community projects in the Drummond area for 14 years. “We’re working with landowners to have different pieces of land available.”

The BLM estimates it has about 33,760 wild horses roaming on its lands in 10 Western states as of 2013. It’s already placed another 33,105 wild horses in holding pastures and 14,595 horses in short-term corrals. Horses from that latter group would go to ecosanctuaries.

Montana has 145 wild horses on BLM’s Pryor Mountain land in the state, compared with 18,764 in Nevada. Wyoming has 3,459 wild horses on 16 federal range areas.

“Our horse management areas are at capacity, and this is way more cost effective than holding them in short-term facilities,” said John Hill of the BLM Missoula field office. “This is to provide for humane treatment for the horses.”

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Last June, the 4,000-acre Deerwood Ranch near Laramie, Wyo., became the BLM’s first wild horse ecosanctuary. On Friday, owner Jana Wilson said the application process took about two years.

“We had raised cows and calves, but the calving season is really tough up here,” Wilson said. “We got to the point where we were just bringing in yearling (cattle) to graze for the summer and selling hay, but that left the ranch open without anything going on for winter, and that didn’t seem right. We thought the horse thing was a worthwhile venture to get into.”

The Deerwood Ranch initially took in about 240 wild geldings in October 2012, and got 65 more last fall. BLM compensates ecosanctuary providers about $1.30 a day per horse – the same amount it pays to hold them in long- or short-term facilities in the Midwest.

“The horses we have had been up for adoption in the holding facilities, but they were deemed unadoptable or unworkable,” Wilson said. “The ones we have are the ‘three-strike’ horses.”

The BLM agreement requires participants to treat the horses as wild animals. They may be herded to rotate pasture usage and given supplemental feed in the winter, but otherwise aren’t supposed to be handled, medically treated, adopted, trained or sold. They must also remain on specially fenced private land and can’t go onto public grazing lease land.

In addition to the harboring fee, the BLM also asks ecosanctuaries to allow public tours of their land. Wilson said last year she had 380 people take tours, ranging from groups of four or five to whole school classes.

“The interest was kind of amazing,” Wilson said. “We’ve already got people booked for this summer.”

Hill said the Drummond proposal should have a preliminary environmental assessment finished by June 23, followed by a 30-day public comment period. Comments on the proposal can be submitted by mail to John Thompson at the Missoula BLM office, 3255 Fort Missoula Road, Missoula, MT 59804; or by email to blm_mt_missoula_fo@blm.gov. A final decision could be ready by Aug. 15.

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.