An overture of “Oh, my gosh” was all that could be heard ahead of a symphony of hooves during a wild horse release Wednesday on the Owyhee range southwest of Homedale.
The Bureau of Land Management’s release of 26 horses into the Sands Basin Herd Management Area marks the first time BLM-managed wild horses have roamed the area in three years following a 2015 wildfire.
The Soda Fire in 2015 burned nearly 280,000 acres in southwest and southeast Oregon.
Sands Basin is the first of three herd management areas affected by the wildfires to have wild horses return, according to Heather Tiel-Nelson, spokeswoman for Idaho’s Wild Horse and Burro team.
The rangeland in the herd management area has recovered enough to allow the horses to return, managers said. However, their return is also representative of the West’s wild horse paradox and the management difficulties therein.
“It was kind of a Catch-22,” said Pine Irwin, a former horse trainer turned dog trainer, in an interview with the Idaho Press. “I happen to know all of the statistics on what the BLM is spending to maintain these horses, and I know that they are not a native species here. … But there’s something about wild horses that belong in the Wild West.”
The wild horse and burro management program began in 1971, after Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The program’s annual budget fluctuates around $78 million, according to Tiel-Nelson.
A non-native animal, wild horses have no natural predator, so its population grows fast. Tiel-Nelson estimates that within four years, a herd can double in size.
“They can eat themselves out of house and home and begin starving,” she said.
To her, it boils down to the federal mandate from Congress.
“They are not a native species, but they are part of our Western heritage, and Congress granted them protection,” Tiel-Nelson said.