Ranchers have turned out horses for decades, beginning with the transition to motorized tractors in the 1920s, said Chris Perry, chairman of the county commissioners.
The feral herds have multiplied and roamed the county's rimrock country, where roundups are difficult.
They're in a crisis this winter because a summer drought killed grass, and the harsh winter has driven them into canyon bottoms near homes, Perry told The Oregonian.
"They just stand around and stare; there is nothing to eat," said Sandy Taggart, of Fossil. She operates the Animal Rescue Foundation, which takes in dogs but has no place for the unwanted horses.
One homeowner, Janet Wilson, said she counted 22 horses starving to death near her home along Alder Creek west of Spray and estimated that there may be 40 to 50 roaming in small herds.
She said she's been putting out hay, but can't afford to feed them all.
The plight of the horses promises to stretch budgets in Wheeler County, home of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. It is Oregon's least populous county, with a 2010 Census of fewer than 1,500 people, and one of its poorest.
Sheriff Chris Humphreys said rounding up and caring for so many animals would be a challenge for his two-person department.
The problem along Alder Creek came to light when the herd's stallions began tearing through landowners' fences, sometimes injuring domestic mares when they tried to breed with them and even chasing after a hiker in the area, Perry said.
The county probably will try to find people who want to adopt the horses, he said. "I think everybody agrees they need to be humanely dealt with."
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