Some private landowners contracted by the Bureau of Land Management to care for tens of thousands of federally protected wild horses and burros say they are no longer getting paid due to the partial government shutdown.
But they say they — and the horses under their watch — will be fine, as long as the budgetary stalemate behind the government shutdown does not drag on for months.
BLM is required by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 to care for the more than 46,000 wild horses and burros that have been rounded up and removed from millions of acres of federal rangelands, mostly across the West.
Nearly a quarter of those animals, or roughly 11,000 horses and burros, are cared for in 27 BLM holding corrals and pens, according to agency information. But the vast majority — about 35,000 captured wild horses and burros — are housed in off-range corrals on private ranches in Idaho, Nevada and Utah, or in private pastures, predominantly in Kansas and Oklahoma.
While the shutdown has resulted in tens of thousands of Interior Department employees getting furloughed, BLM's government shutdown contingency plan lists bureau employees involved in "the management of wild horse and burro holding facilities" as "excepted" from furlough, though it does not mention what happens to contracted corrals and pastures.
The bureau employees are not furloughed because "care and feeding of horses is a safety and protection of property issue," a BLM spokeswoman said in a brief emailed statement to E&E News.
"Employees continue to care for the horses," it read.
The statement also said that BLM "contracts are currently funded."
But several owners of privately contracted facilities told E&E News this week they've not been paid since the shutdown began last month, though they're not too worried about it yet.
"I've done this long enough to know we need to save money for these kinds of things," said Kerry Despain, the plain-spoken owner of an 800-acre ranch in rural Axtell, Utah, that houses about 1,500 wild horses BLM has rounded up off of federal rangelands.
Many of the wild horses on Despain's ranch were rounded up from BLM's 267,000-acre Sulphur Herd Management Area in western Utah and brought to the ranch, presumably to be offered for sale or adoption.
Despain, who owns the ranch with his wife, Nannette, is under contract with BLM to feed, water and care for the 1,500 or so wild horses.
That's a lot of mouths to feed, and Kerry Despain said the federal checks stopped coming last month.
So he did what any good rancher would do: He prepared for the coming storm.
"We bought all our feed and paid for it till roughly July," he explained. "If I was having to buy [feed] month to month, then I'd be in a world of hurt. I can't even imagine."
He said he survived the government shutdown in January 2018, and a longer one in 2013, the same way.
"We've been through it three or four times now, so we know we need to watch out for that stuff," Despain said. "As far as day-to-day operations stuff, it's pretty normal."
But when asked whether he would be OK if the shutdown goes on indefinitely, as President Trump has vowed if Congress does not fund his border wall, Despain paused to consider the question.
"We don't want this going on for months, because then we won't be," he said.
Others are in a better position to withstand a long shutdown.
J.R. Simplot Co., the large agribusiness firm based in Boise, Idaho, oversees about 1,600 federally protected wild horses in a holding facility on about 100 acres of company-owned land in Bruneau, in southwest Idaho.
"We did not see a payment [from BLM] in December," said Josh Jordan, a spokesman for J.R. Simplot. But he added, "We're a pretty big company, and the wild horse thing is one, pretty small part of our company."
"I think there are probably some other folks, like the guy you spoke with," who would not get by so easily, he said, referring to Despain and what would happen to smaller ranchers if the shutdown continues for weeks or months.
"I don't think that any one of us would expect that in six months the shutdown would still be ongoing," he said.
Other impacts due to shutdown
The federal management of tens of thousands of wild horses is one of the most controversial and contentious issues BLM deals with on a consistent basis.
BLM is struggling to manage more than 82,000 wild horses and burros across roughly 27 million acres of federal herd management areas — about 55,000 more animals than the maximum number of horses and burros that regulators believe the rangeland can handle without causing damage to vegetation, soil and other resources.
BLM spends tens of millions of dollars every year to care for the nearly 46,000 additional animals it has rounded up and placed in private holding pens and corrals. BLM has warned Congress that it could cost taxpayers $1 billion to care for these animals over their lifetimes.
The bureau had ramped up efforts in recent months to increase adoptions and sales of wild horses.
The shutdown has hampered those efforts.
BLM is not reviewing horse adoption applications due to the shutdown, according to the bureau's adoption website.
A horse adoption and sales event scheduled for tomorrow and Saturday in Rock Springs, Wyo., was canceled "due to lapse in appropriations," according to the agency's website. Ditto for a weeklong online adoption event set for Jan. 22-29.
"Will reschedule, once we have returned," the website says.
The same goes for the Forest Service, which manages about 8,000 wild horses and burros, mostly in Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah. Most Forest Service herd areas are jointly managed with BLM.
All this has increased tensions with wild horse and animal rights advocates, who have already objected to the roundups, as well as the treatment of animals in holding pens and corrals.
BLM said in its statement to E&E News that because the management of wild horse and burro holding facilities is exempted from the shutdown, and those employees are not necessarily furloughed, "we are providing necessary and appropriate oversight of those contracts as an excepted activity."
But Jordan said BLM has been conspicuously absent from the corral in Bruneau since the shutdown began.
"From a BLM standpoint, there's a BLM employee we would usually see every day, or most days; we haven't seen her since the shutdown began," he said.
Regardless of how long the shutdown lasts, Jordan said J.R. Simplot will take proper care of the animals under its watch.
Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said she is glad to hear that but not comfortable with the ongoing situation.
"We'd like to think that people would care for the horses out of humanitarian concerns, however the contractors are from the cattle industry, including J.R. Simplot," Roy said in an email.
"If they have to come up with money to pay workers, buy hay, etc. out of their own pockets, we may have a problem," she said.
No 'shutdown on grass growing'
Meanwhile, life is good for the 2,000 or so wild horses on the Robson Ranch in northeast Oklahoma.
The private ranch in Catoosa has agreed for a fee to allow the wild horses captured by BLM to roam about 9,000 acres of pastureland on the ranch. There is no holding corral, and the horses are allowed to roam freely; only during the winter months do they need to supply abundant hay to the horses — all geldings.
"I think the horses are doing just fine, and will continue to do just fine," said Marsha Russell, who manages the ranch for the Robson family, which has owned the ranch for decades.
There are 34 such BLM-contracted pastures in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah, according to bureau data. These pastures are home to 36,364 wild horses under federal protection as of last month, bureau records show.
The contracts for the use of pastureland are fairly small. No feed is needed to be purchased; no active management of the horses is required.
"I consider this to be a retirement home" for the horses, most of which are older animals that BLM has deemed unadoptable, Russell said.
What happens in Washington, D.C., won't affect the horses at Robson Ranch, she said.
"There's no government shutdown on grass growing," she said. "The grass is still there, the water is still there, and the horses are still out there running around and having a good time. Nothing has changed in their situation."
She added: "Is it a good use of taxpayers' dollars to pay for the horses to be here? That's another issue of debate. But the horses are fine."
Money may become an issue when the shutdown ends.
The unpaid contractors say they will expect the federal government to reimburse them for missed payments once the shutdown is resolved and the Interior Department and other affected agencies get back to work.
"That's the way that it's operated in past shutdowns, and we don't expect that to change," said Jordan.
"We're not looking for any harm to come to any of these animals we've been asked to care for," he added. "When the government has sorted through this, then we will seek reimbursement at that time."