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A History of Wild horses on Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.

This history was taken from the Sheldon NWR Renewable Natural Resources Management Plan of 1980; “Sheldon NWR: A Collection of Historical Vignettes” by Ralph Murphy, 1984; “Broken Homes on the Range,” 1993; and personal communications with Harry Wilson, the son of Harry Wilson in the summer of 2003, and John Rattray, horsecatcher, in 2002. by Marla Bennett In the late 1800s, a whirlwind of men, women, and their livestock swept into the dry sagebrush country of southeastern Oregon and northern Nevada. With the native Indians displaced, cowboys and sheepmen drove their herds from horizon to horizon, seriously overgrazing most of the land. Horses were known to inhabit the area of northwest Nevada at the turn of the century. The horses in Sage Hen hills and Gooch table were typical small mustangs. Ranchers frequently caught wild horses, and turned their saddle horses loose on the range. Many saddle horses disappeared into the wild horse herds. Brood mares ran free, and were gathered at weaning time. In the early part of the century, many private lands were fenced, but open BLM rangeland had no fencing. Horses, both wild and domestic from many ranches over a large landscape could mix. At each gather, several brands were represented, as well as unbranded mustangs. On what was to become Sheldon NWR, saddle horses that had originated in the Wilson herd, returned to their home territory from the ZX Ranch in Paisley, Oregon, over 120 miles away. The famous ranchers, Miller and Lux, ran cattle on what would become Sheldon and Hart Mountain refuges and the surrounding area in the early part of the 1900s. These ranchers used well-bred standardbred horses because they are large, can go all day in the rocks, and are calmer than thoroughbred horses. They also raised a few mules. The horses in the Big Spring herd, which have long manes and tails, feathered legs, and are bays, grays, and blacks, may be descended from some of Miller’s horses. Harry Wilson worked as buckaroo boss for Miller and Lux. In the second decade of the 1900s, Miller and Lux went broke. Harry Wilson bought out Miller’s mares and went into business with the federal government as the only ranch in the area raising horses for the army. Wilson provided standardbred mares from Miller’s remuda, and the government furnished him with thoroughbred studs. Wilson’s horses were all colors except pinto. At one time he had 27 palomino saddle horses. Wilson usually had over 1700 head of horses at any one time. His horses ran over more than a million unfenced acres from High Rock and Yellow Hills north to the Oregon border, including all of Sheldon NWR. In summer the horses were gathered, sorted, and gelded. They were driven in huge herds to Cedarville or Alturas, CA, from Alkali Ranch, located on what is now Sheldon NWR, a distance of 60-80 miles over rough ground. At nights, the horses were herded in shifts. The buckaroos found that as soon as the horses left their native territories, they were more tractable and easier to manage. One or 2 buckaroos led the horses about 200-300 yards in front. The other herders rode beside and behind the herd. Much of the horse drive was done at a trot or lope. The first day, they made it to Coyote. The second day to Massacre. The 3rd day they reached 49 Mountain and entered the Surprise Valley. The horses were kept in the fenced fields of local ranchers

overnight. The 4th day, they were driven through Deep Creek to the railroad yards south of Alturas. The last big drive occurred in 1946, when 450 horses were herded by 12 men. The government got the first pick of geldings for remounts, purchasing them green and unhandled. Wilson could sell the rest as he wished. Kern County Country and Land Co. in central California (Glenn County) bought most of the surplus horses. The ZX ranch was the next largest buyer. Local ranches purchased Wilson’s horses as well. Wilson also provided bucking stock to Alturas and Cedarville, CA, rodeos for 10-15 years. He raised horses into the 1940s. At that time the government was mechanizing, and quit purchasing horses. Harry Wilson assumes that after the government ceased needing horses for the war, the animals were slaughtered. In the 1930s, Sheldon was set aside as public land to protect the rapidly-declining pronghorn population from overhunting, and secondarily to supply a source of forage for domestic livestock. Sheldon was managed jointly by the BLM and the FWS for domestic livestock grazing and wildlife. In the late 1930s, pintos were introduced into the gene pool accidentally by the Sheldon Refuge manager, John Sharp, when his horses got loose. During the depression era, money was scarce, and many horses were killed for their hides, which brought $.75 each. In the late 1940s, the BLM wanted to get rid of horses on the range because they were utilizing too many cattle AUMs. Marvin Meyer used an airplane to gather horses from Shoestring Valley, which runs into Cottonwood Canyon, south of the refuge. He also gathered the Alkali, Virgin Valley Ranch areas, and Big Springs on the refuge. He captured 1725 horses. 750 of them were branded and owned by local ranchers. The rest were oreanas. 90% of the oreanas were shipped to an area north of Sacramento to be made into chicken feed. Meyer used Monatha or Paratha horses (Judas horses) to lead the wild ones into the traps. The wings were made of sagebrush and rope, and led into willow stockades of upright mountain mahogany and juniper trunks cabled together. In 1941, Harry Wilson converted his horse operation to cows. In 1945 he bought the Royal Peacock mine for his wife. He continued to raise horses in the Horse Pasture at Alkali Ranch, but switched to the quarter horse type. Wild horses were still plentiful, and the Ray Perry field south of Alkali Lake was the trap. Buckaroos would hold horses at the canyon wall for 2-3 hours until Nellie, the Judas horse, was turned loose. She led the wild horses into the stockade corrals at Alkali Ranch. Hay was cut for horses in the Alkali Ranch meadows. The Virgin Valley Ranch meadows were hayed for cows. The government leased land to several cattle companies throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and their horses added to the genetic mix of wild horses on Sheldon NWR. In 1976, the Game Range Bill (P.L. 92-223) transferred jurisdiction of Sheldon from joint BLM-FWS management to FWS to be managed as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Sole jurisdiction eliminated the ongoing problem of conflicting management purposes. Between 1980 and 1994, the legendary horse catcher, John Rattray, was hired to gather horses on Sheldon. He improved the horse herds by turning back only the best horses. Rattray gathered horses by horseback alone in snow and sub-freezing weather. Once he captured 106 wild horses, the largest number ever gathered by a lone person at one time. For several years, Rattray

captured 400 horses annually. He was a bucking stock contractor, and kept some horses for bucking stock. He sold the rest at auction. When Rattray retired, horses were not gathered on Sheldon until 2001, by which time the population had grown from 200 to over 1,000. In 1999, Sheldon experienced a large wildfire and was consequently funded to gather 240 horses. Money to catch horses was provided by the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation fund for the purpose of keeping horses off the rehabilitating burned area. All horses were adopted out by the contractor who gathered the horses. In 2004, 766 horses were gathered. In 2005, 349 horses were gathered. A birth control experiment using 35 mares were conducted during 2006-2007. The horses on National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks, and Department of Defense lands are not protected by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. Management policies of the herds on these lands are determined by each agency. Sheldon NWR’s previous management plan called for a population of 75-125 horses. In 2008, the horse population on Sheldon was estimated to be 1,200 animals.