Horse roundup planned for Sheldon refuge |

Horse roundup planned for Sheldon refuge

Appeal staff writer

Some of the 800 or so horses that roam the Sheldon and Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuges may face roundup this fall.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the refuges, is planning to take some horses off the land as part of an overall 15-year comprehensive conservation plan under consideration.

Nevada residents who want to comment on the plan must do so by Monday. Comments can be e-mailed to

“There’s a lot more to it than the horses, but we do consider that the number one issue in our (plan),” said Paul Steblein, who oversees the Sheldon and Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuges.

Steblein said wild horses and burros are not native to the area and are considered feral and do significant damage to the environment, endangering other species.

The effort is controversial mainly because in a 2006 roundup with a helicopter and wranglers, some foals were trampled and others left behind, said Willis Lamm of Least Resistance Training Concepts, a horse advocacy organization.

Lamm said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2006 roundup was not well organized and led to the death of a horse.

“They were trying to gather horses from the air and some mistakes were made that the BLM wouldn’t have made,” he said. “Some foals were left behind and some horses got hurt. Horses are not a priority; it’s a Fish and Wildlife preserve.”

Steblein said the first priority for the refuge is conservation, followed by serving the public through environmental education, providing areas to fish, hunt and view wildlife. The refuge contains trails, campgrounds and works to manage a variety of habitats, including antelope, mule deer, bighorn sheep, prairie falcons and hundreds of other bird species, as well as endangered insect, amphibian and plant species.

The plan will guide the management for the next 15 years, he said.

Steblein said horses and burros are the descendants of domestic stock from ranchers during the late 1800s through the mid-20th century, and some were domestic even later.

“It was never set up for horses,” he said. “We have early documents going to the 1930s that talk about horses as being a problem,” he said. “A 1941 grazing plan talked about the large numbers of horses and at least half were branded horses from (grazing) permittees.”

The horses, as well as cattle and sheep, which could be grazed on the refuge until 1993, did a great deal of damage to springs and creeks, trampling and eating vegetation and turning them into mudholes, according to Steblein. He said antelope and deer do not do the same kind of damage as heavy horses.

He said as the horses graze, they decrease vegetation, including rare plant species.

They also reduce cover for insects, amphibians, birds and small mammals that may be threatened or endangered.

“We’re charged to manage for the diversity of wildlife in the Great Basin,” he said.

“We have documented 1,200 species, and some might be at one spring alone. If one herd is trashing a spring, they can affect the presence of an entire species.”

He said 90 percent of the ivesia plant is found at Sheldon, and of the 200 species of aquatic amphibians found, six were new to science.

The refuge has mixed terrain, three or four chasms, rolling high desert, black cliffs, tables and various sagebrush communities.

“It’s one of the best remaining examples of the sagebrush steppe, but we’re seeing quite a bit of damage from horses and burros,” he said.

He said historically it was European ranchers in the 1800s that kept horses; Native Americans tended to use them for food rather than travel.

The ranchers used them for cavalry horses, draft horses and range horses, and built the herds up with purebred studs, left them loose on the range and rounded them up when more were needed.

Horses rounded up will be sorted by age and gender, checked by a veterinarian and then either sent to an agent in Tennessee, then adopted out or given birth control and returned to the refuge.

“We work with adoption agents and adopters, we make sure they have adequate facilities and knowledge. We seek a commitment from them to make sure they will prevent them from going to slaughter,” he said, though the refuge did not require adopters keep the animal for a specific period of time.