Hundreds of horses gallop across a mountain ridge just outside of Ennis, the pounding of their hooves and the distant neighing echoes through the Spanish Q ranch.
The Spanish Q Ranch, which is owned by Greg and Karen Rice, is home to 710 government-owned wild horses. On June 1, this herd of wild geldings was released from their winter pasture and explored their new 2,500-acre pasture for the first time.
The 2,500 is part of four different pasture areas on the ranch, which is Montana’s first long-term holding facility for wild horses and burros. The total acreage of the holding facility is right around 13,000 acres.
When the horses were first let into the larger pasture, they didn’t stray too far from their winter pasture, said Pat Fosse, the assistant field manager for the Bureau of Land Management in Dillon. Now, they are roaming around a little bit more.
“The idea is to get them to adopt a free roaming behavior,” said BLM Wild Horse and Burros Program Spokeswoman Heather Emmons.
The wild horses that now roam the Spanish Q Ranch have seen their fair share of controversy. When the horses where first shipped to Ennis, four surrounding landowners filed appeals with the Interior Board of Appeals in November.
The landowners expressed concerns that the wild horses may displace the area’s elk and there may be a shift in predator behavior in the area that may affect other livestock. When the horses first arrived, the BLM offered to sit down with the appellants and discuss the concerns. One of the four landowners took them up on the offer.
Appeals can take up to a couple years to make their way through the system. Until the Board of Appeals makes a decision, the horses stay at the Spanish Q.
“While the horses are out here, some of the concerns may go away if they don’t come to fruition,” said Emmons.
“There are certain specifications the Rices had to follow to mitigate wildlife concerns,” said Fosse. “The types of fences built needed to be built to prevent wildlife entanglement.”
The BLM requires the fences to be at least 48 inches tall and have extra space between wires to prevent wildlife from getting tangled in it. The wires are also smooth wires. The BLM has then set up vegetation monitoring at different points to make sure areas aren’t over grazed.
The Rices have owned the Spanish Q since 1969. As fifth-generation ranchers, the wild horses provided a way to save the ranch.
“We’re good stewards of the land,” said Karen. “Greg has been at this his whole life and our son has too. We’d never abuse this place. You just can’t live on it and abuse it, and we’re not about to start now … I hope to keep this place for our grandchildren. And we felt with a steady income we can do that.”
While the BLM pays $1.36 per horse, per day, the Rices are responsible for the construction of fences and providing feed during the winter.
“This first few years will be a little rough,” said Karen. “I think there has been some misconceptions about that. I wish I could show you my bills.”
While there have been appeals, the Rices say many locals support what they are doing and ultimately the Rices love having the horses around.
“This has all the potential in the world,” said Greg. “This is a good deal. They are happy here.”