Wild Mustangs Find Asylum
NBC CEO and Others Fail to Prevent Their Arrival
BY QUINCY ORHAI
After a long legal battle of over 3 years, pitting New West neighbors against the government (and Karen and Greg Rice of the Spanish Q Ranch) 700 BLM surplus wild horses have found a new home under the big skies of Montana.
The gelded, vaccinated and freeze-marked mustangs will be perpetually boarded at the Spanish Q near Ennis. These wild horses have been gathered from government lands and were held at short term holding facilities around the country by the Bureau of Land Manage-ment's National Wild Horse and Burro Program. Although Montana has long had a BLM operated wild horse refuge in the Pryor Mountains south of Billings, where over a hundred mustangs roam free, the Spanish Q is the first BLM contracted long-term holding facility in Montana, or Grasslands Pasture (as the agency now prefers to call them). Fourteen other National Wild Horse and Burro Grasslands Pastures can be found in eleven other states and over 160 short-term holding facilities.
According to Karen Rice, who with her husband Greg Rice own the Spanish Q Ranch, the majority of the newly arrived horses have been in holding facilities, often for many years. The horses are accustomed to being fed, respect fences, and are are adjusting well to their new home in Madison County.
In a telephone interview, Rice explained, “Our ranch has 15,000 acres including the lease grounds, with 41 miles of fencing, which we are improving to be 48 inches high. We are fencing out around 2,200 acres of BLM lease ground, because the horses can't be pastured on land leased from the BLM.
According to Montana law, adjoining property owners can share responsibility for common fencing.
“Some of our neighbor's fencing, Rice said, “is not up to standard, and is being re-fenced by us to the higher BLM wild horse standard at [the Spanish Q's] expense.”
The horses will roam two giant pastures, with higher elevation pasture used for summer grazing. The BLM will monitor the grass height and water availability of the pastures.
“We expect to actually improve our riparian areas with horse grazing, as horses don't use streams as hard or as frequently as cattle,” Rice said.
Karen and Greg Rice are both native Montanans, Greg being a third generation native from the nearby Rice Ranch. When the larger Rice Ranch Corporation was split up among siblings and parents, Karen and Greg ended up with the land previously used for summer pasture of up to 2,000 cows. Recently, that land was grazed with 1,400 yearlings.
When asked why her neighbors had sued over the pasturing of wild horses on private property, Karen Rice explained that the owner of the neighboring Madison Valley Garden Ranch, Steve Burke, previously offered to buy the Spanish Q Ranch. Rice said, “Burke also offered to lease the pasture after we had contracted with the BLM—we told him no.”
A week later, Rice said, Burke hired attorneys and filed legal documents to prevent the BLM from implementing the Spanish Q wild horses pasture contract.
Burke, a Philadelphia resident, is a member of the Yellowstone Club, and CEO of NBC Universal.
Another appellant in the lawsuit, Rice said, is the neighboring Birch Creek guest ranch, owned by James M. Guyette, President and CEO of Rolls-Royce North America. “His ranch manager, B.J. Van Fleet, was convicted 15 years ago of rustling and stealing from the Rice Ranch and others in Madison County,” Rice said.
In a June 1998 report in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle titled Young Man Pleads Guilty to Cattle Rustling Charges, Van Fleet was described as a then 24-year old “Ennis cowboy” who “entered unexpected confessions…to theft, cattle rustling and burglary charges during a Virginia City court hearing.”
Claiming that the animosity between the Birch Creek Ranch and the Spanish Q began with that illegal branding and other felony thefts years ago, Rice noted that: “B.J. Van Fleet is responsible for the 'facts' stated in the request for stay and appeal that Birch Creek filed with BLM. He worked for Guyette at the time of the theft from us and others, and has continued ever since.”
In a recent interview with the Northern Broadcasting System Flint Report, Steve Burke's Bozeman attorney, Jim Goetz said Mr. Burke is "protecting the very traditional ranching qualities of the Madison Valley. On the other hand, their neighbor is now sucking at the federal nipple."
When asked about the economics of the BLM's contract with the Spanish Q to board the mustangs at $1.36 per head per day, Rice pointed out that the horses they are boarding had previously been costing taxpayers $5.50 per day in short term holding facilities, so the Spanish Q was saving the government over $1,500 per horse per year.
When reached by phone, Steve Burke told the Pioneer that he “didn't want to talk about it”.
Calls and email to the Birch Creek Ranch and B.J. Van Fleet were not answered or returned.
“This is a win-win situation for us, for the horses, and for the public,” Rice said. “This is open space, which is so highly desired. The day we can't do what we want with our property this will no longer be Montana as we know it…We want to keep ranching. It is a way of life and we want to continue it for our grandchildren. We have been here all our lives and we are trying to make a living from the land. This arrangement is so much better for both the horses and for the land. There is nothing sinister about this.”
Critics of the BLM long term holding facility program point out that the government only charges $1.35 per month per cow grazing on BLM and other public lands, and yet horses are being removed from public lands and boarded elsewhere to make way for maintaining or increasing cattle allotments, at a cost to taxpayers of over 30 times (more than 120 times for short term facilities) the revenue actually generated by cattle grazing.
Congress set the price of public lands grazing and the requirement to manage the nation's wild horse herds. The BLM is mandated to manage the land for multiple uses, including cattle, wild horses and wildlife.
The BLM estimates there are over 37,300 wild horses and burros ranging on BLM land in the West—about 11,000 too many for the land to support, by their calculations.
Additionally, more than 50,000 wild horses and burros are pastured and fed in long term grassland pastures and short term holding facilities, with the number growing every year from captured surplus horses from wild roaming and breeding herds. Congress appropriated $74.9 million to the Wild Horse and Burro Program in fiscal year 2012, with holding costs accounting for $43 million or 59 percent of the spending.
Although the BLM has the authority and is actually mandated by Congress to euthanize or sell “without limitation” excess horses, the agency has not done so, choosing instead to perpetually pasture them at public expense. Sixty four percent of Americans are opposed to the slaughter of wild horses, according to a national public opinion poll conducted by Opinion Strategies in 2006. At the continuing cost to the American taxpayer of $40.80 per month per horse, Montana has now joined other western states that are the adoptive homes of government owned, neutered, well fed and cared-for, surplus “wild” horses.