A helicopter herds a group of feral horses into corrals near Nespelem’s Buffalo Lake, Thursday, as part of a contract to remove between 1,000 and 1,5000 feral horses from reservation range lands.

Second meeting upcoming, April 25 at 6 p.m. in Omak

OMAK – Colville Tribal Natural Resource director Cody Desautel said the recent contract for an aerial capture of feral horses from reservations lands “failed miserably”: Over the course of the contract, contractor Sun J Ranch removed only 41 horses from reservation lands – far less than the “1,000 to 1,500” called for in the contract.

Sun J Ranch was paid $50,000, a large part of which was for mobilization, said Desautel.

Meanwhile, under an increased bounty of $383 per horse, which was approved by the Colville Business Council on Jan. 31, tribal members captured 60 horses in February, according to Colville Tribal Range.

The Colville Tribal Natural Resources and Colville Tribal Range departments organized a meeting, April 28 in Omak, with tribal members to discuss moving forward in the management of feral horses on the Colville Indian Reservation.

“The success of the operation wasn’t good,” said Desautel. “We expected them to do significantly better than they did. If you factor in those mobilization costs over say even 700 horses, that’s a much lower number per horse. They just didn’t catch many horses. We didn’t imagine they’d only catch 41. We had no idea it would be that unsuccessful. Had we known that, we’d have never bid it.”

Part of the decision was based on historical trends.

Over eight days in 2015, the same contractor removed 423 horses from rangelands near Nespelem.

Similarly, tribal members received bounties for 71 horses over the 2016-2017 season and 81 horses in the 2017-2018 season.

“The old timers, they managed the horse herds,” said tribal elder Ernie Williams. “The money you’re talking about needs to stay home. Common sense should have told you that you have a range manager for cattle, you should hire somebody, or a team, to manage these horses … I think it’s a kick in the teeth to our people for you to hire somebody from the outside.”

Colville Business Council chair Rodney Cawston, along with CBC members Norma Sanchez and Karen Condon attended the meeting.

CBC had approved the contract, Jan. 24, while approving in another resolution an increase to the bounty for horses caught from rangelands by tribal members to $383 and declaring the feral horse population an emergency.

Condon was the only tribal council member to vote against the contract.

 “The tribal members can do this job and we’ve been there and we’ve done this,” said tribal member Bass Williams. “I was very disappointed when they brought this helicopter in. I didn’t want to say nothing about it, but our tribal people are number one in their horses business. Everybody here, they can ride. They know what horses are about, and I was offended when they called in a helicopter.”

Previous to CBC approving the increased bounty, tribal members had caught 7 horses, according to Colville Tribal Range.

“This is a story of long ago: The settlers, the white man, the non-tribals can always do better,” said tribal member Aaron Carden. “But yet, I watched the numbers. You’re going to give them thousands of dollars for horses, but you’re going to give your tribal members very little money to do anything. I chased wild horses years ago, and when I could sell them for bucking horses and make a little dollars, the gas bill wasn’t so bad. But the gas bill went up and the price of horses went down, so I stopped. We had quotas, three per haul. Now it should be wide open.”

Trouble with the numbers

“We haven’t been successful, we aren’t hitting our population target,” said Desautel. “That’s our intent of meeting with you guys. We want some feedback in how we can better handle the populations. We’re not accomplishing what we need to get done.”

During discussion of the aerial capture contract in CBC Chambers in January, tribal programs estimated there to be between 1,600 and 2,000 horses on reservation lands.

In the meeting, March 28, Desautel noted during a recent big game aerial count that ended in February, Colville Tribal Fish and Wildlife employees counted only 509 horses.

The Colville Tribal Wild Horse Management Plan, which was approved in 2012 by CBC, calls for a total feral horse population “between 50-250” across the entire reservation.

 “[In] 2017, there were 408 [counted during the big game aerial survey]. It was a decent winter that year, but we thought we probably missed a lot, some were still scattered up and down the mountain. In 2016, we counted 860. We presumed that trend was probably still climbing fairly fast,” said Desautel, who noted a horse herd reproduces at approximately 25 percent annually.

“So in 2015, they had 860 then they gathered [with the first aerial capture contract], so that dropped your number to 408,” said tribal elder Steve Palmer. “How did you come up with the contract for 1,250?”

In 2015, the aerial capture focused on the Buffalo Lake/Joe Moses area, said Desautel.

“We knew most of our population was in Omak,” said Desautel. “We thought based on our flights there might be 1,000 horses over there. A combination of flight data, modeling and what people had visually seen, looking at 2017, we thought that number (of 408) was probably higher. We thought with reproduction in Joe Moses the population was probably back to where it was before we did the round up… we thought our population was probably 1,600, maybe a little more than that.”

“So the numbers reported in the Tribune and the Chronicle were bogus?” asked tribal member Jonathon Abrahamson.

“That’s what we thought we had,” said Desautel. “That’s not what was really out there. We know in the winter of 15-16 or 16-17, we visually saw horses starving to death, standing in roads … in hindsight, I think we had more die of starvation than we initially thought.”

“For our councilmen who are here tonight, you just heard that it was not an emergency,” said Abrahamson. “It was not an emergency.”

“These are models that try to predict where we are at,” said Desautel. “You can see the trend line, and the trend showed the population is going up. The 509 we counted for this year is what we visually saw. There are more horses out there we didn’t see, we just don’t know how many.”

So, what’s next?

“To be honest with you, I am a little disappointed in hearing this population count,” said Cawston, who noted discussion in Chambers had been based on the reports about environmental damages due to overpopulation, the horses’ starvation during winter and the horses’ competition with game animals.

“My question is why wasn’t [the wild horse plan] working, everything to look at reducing this horse population is pretty much spelled out in the plan,” said Cawston. “If I can recall, I believe there are two people dedicated to rounding up these horse, so if that’s the situation, and this program isn’t working, what do we need to do to improve it?”

Suggestions included a longer season, assistance with travel costs and equipment, building of permanent catch pens and more.

Cawston further noted he had discussed feral horses problems with other tribes in the region about their problems with wild horses: “Why are we not putting more pressure on our Northwest Regional BIA Office,” asked Cawston. “If that’s an issue with multiple tribes, then we shouldn’t probably be having to assume all the responsibility as at tribal government. We should impose that on them as well, to look at this program and its needs too.”

The group will hold a second meeting at the Omak Community Center, April 25 at 6 p.m.

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