AENEAS VALLEY A half-dozen bands of feral horses are roaming the hills, trampling range land and potentially posing a health risk to other livestock.
They’re not wild mustangs, but instead are former domestic animals or their offspring. And they’re causing conflict and consternation among local residents, and frustration for law enforcement officials.
“People seem to think animals can adapt to their environment. They take a domestic horse out there, and they expect that” the horse can fend for itself, said Deputy Dave Yarnell, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office’s designated animal officer.
But newly released horses, accustomed to having human contact and bales of hay put out for them, don’t know what to do on their own.
“They forage around. They don’t know where the shelter is, where the dangers are,” he said.
He estimated there are 70-100 feral horses in the Aeneas Valley area of the Okanogan Highlands, and there have been reports of such animals in other parts of north Okanogan County.
“We have had several reports over the years with wild horses, especially in that area,” Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said. “We have rounded up some over the years. There are a lot more up there.”
Yarnell said feral horses can be a problem for ranchers.
They eat forage on cattle grazing lands, thus making less for the cattle and stressing the land; get into springs developed for the cattle; trample native grasses; spread noxious weed seeds; damage wildlife habitat, and spread disease to other animals.
One emaciated, feral horse showed up on someone’s property recently and collapsed. It was so sick it couldn’t move its head.
“We thought at first it had strangles, which is highly contagious,” Yarnell said.
Strangles is a bacterial upper respiratory disease also known as equine distemper.
Further investigation showed the horse had an impacted molar, which led to further infection. The horse couldn’t eat and pretty much starved. It had to be put down.
“That’s an example of what can happen. They can spread disease or they can suffer if injured,” he said.
Another problem is with stallions, which lead the feral
horse herds. They can impregnate pedigreed horses owned by breeders. Yarnell said one breeder had to abort several mares after a feral stallion visited the domestic herd.
“We’ve had ranchers threaten to shoot them, but that might bring in predatory animals,” he said. “Besides, we don’t want dead horses everywhere.”
On the other extreme, some people in the area feed the horses but don’t really own them. As long as the horses have the ability to move across the range, they’re considered feral.
“It’s illegal for people to allow them to run at large, but there’s no crime to enforce unless the horse is branded,” Yarnell said.
At that point, for branded animals, the state brand inspector can get involved.
Rogers said responsibility for dealing with the feral horses lies with his office, but the costs involved can be prohibitive. The department has had a designated animal deputy, who also has other patrol duties, for less than a year and no additional budget for animal control.
“We do what we can,” he said. “Deputy Yarnell has been working on this issue for several months and is trying to organize something to go and round up the horses. The biggest problem is money, but we are doing what we can.”
Yarnell said a roundup looked promising for a while, when a non-profit rescue operation in Stevens County offered to come in, corral the horses and take them to be trained and adopted.
“We started to put together a plan, then we found out they had some legal problems,” he said.
He checked into having a professional roundup organization come in but was given a ballpark quote of $80,000 to $120,000.
“It’s totally cost-prohibitive for the county to hire someone,” he said.
In the meantime, Yarnell said the county encourages ranchers and interested parties to round up horses on an individual basis.
“If they’re captured, people can keep them or take them to the sale yard,” he said. “The county can’t just house them.”
He said the Sheriff’s Office can help facilitate roundups, and asks that he be kept in the loop if horses are rounded up.
“We need to know they’re no longer at large,” he said.
One ranch in the area did round up some of the horses, but eventually turned them back to the range when others in the area complained. Some people in the area don’t want the horses removed, but that’s not really a solution because of the range and health issues involved, Yarnell said.
Nourishing Hand, a north end shelter with which the county contracts to care for abandoned and seized horses on a short-term, doesn’t have the facilities to deal with the feral horses, Yarnell said.
There’s also been talk of creating a wild horse refuge, but that also poses problems since the horses then would be considered “owned,” he said.
“How do you contain horses that don’t respect fences?” he said. “You need lots of land. Perimeter security would be needed.”
The feral horses generally are well fed and in adequate health.
“They’ve learned to adapt, but they’re mostly skittish,” he said. “Since it’s such a long-term situation, many are wild-born.”
Compounding the problem is the continued dumping of horses. A couple showed up in Tunk Valley just recently.
“People need to realize abandoning them is animal cruelty,” Yarnell said. “If they are caught in the act, there are serious consequences,” including felony prosecution.
Okanogan County isn’t alone in having to deal with feral horses. The Colville Indian Reservation also is home to herds of such animals.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ range office estimates there are around 1,000 feral horses on the reservation.
The tribe recently received a $10,000 BIA grant for a count of the horses during the tribe’s annual helicopter count of game populations.
BIA estimates every feral horse eats around 25 pounds of forage a day, or nearly 4.5 tons per year per horse.