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Rio Blanco wild horses: Management and missed Opportunities

The BLM has a number of tools to manage horse numbers, something that is crucial to the health of the range and everything that depends upon its health.
Photo courtesy Kendra Young

The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burros Act declared “wild” horses the “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

A year ago, when talks at the national level began between livestock groups and animal rights groups regarding solutions to the growing population of wild horses on the range, the sides came to an agreement, all supporting the Bureau of Land Management removal of horses down to the herd management level within 12 years, the use of fertility control on the range, increased adoptions, and continuing to feed the remaining wild horses for perpetuity. According to the BLM, wild horse numbers on the range nationwide are 300 percent of sustainable numbers and the numbers double every four years.

Callie Hendrickson, a former member of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board and the current executive director of the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts, said feeding the 1,350 horses on the range in Rio Blanco County, Colorado, when the total ought to run between 135 and 235, is significantly degrading the rangelands.

If left alone, she said, wild horses would cause irreparable range degradation, negative impacts to rangelands through expansion beyond the borders of the Herd Management Areas (HMAs) and would result in single-use management of federal lands. Horses could die of starvation, and wildlife habitat and populations, including listed species, would suffer. She has seen firsthand the devastation in Nevada, where over 50 percent of the national wild horse and burro population reside.

In an article entitled “Mustangs in Crisis” by Ben Masters that appeared in the August 2017 issue of Western Horseman Magazine, Barry Perryman, Ph D., said designating additional land for wild horses would worsen the situation.


“We have dysfunctionality in the box,” he said. “We can make the box bigger by taking more land and forage from wildlife and livestock, but then we would just have more dysfunctionality in an even bigger box. This would buy us time, but eventually natural regulation will take place and horses could die by the thousands.”

Hendrickson said some groups use the horses as a tool to remove cattle from multiple use federal lands.

“I call it the last man standing,” she said. “While horses, wildlife, and livestock share the multiple use public lands, the livestock are the first to be removed because they are permitted. Then the wildlife are left to compete with the horses for feed and water. Then the horses will dominate the last remaining water holes, leaving the wildlife without water.”

Water is the limiting factor in the equation, she said, and it’s been documented that horses will hold wildlife off watering holes.

“By the time horses die of hunger or thirst, they’ve completely destroyed the range and that is my concern from a conservation district perspective,” she said. “Allowing horses to die of starvation is the most inhumane act against the horses. There’s so many things wrong with that picture, the range is destroyed, and nothing can live there anymore.”

To gather and place mustangs in holding facilities to await adoption is to protect rangeland health, reduce stress on wildlife, and ensure that horses have feed and water. However, the price tag is high, an estimated $3 billion over the lifetime of the current 50,000 head of confined horses, with plans to confine an additional 75,000 to 100,000 head.

Fertility control, she said, is unreliable and impractical at best and doesn’t address the populations that far exceed the Appropriate Management Level (AML) currently. Increased adoptions depend on the cost and stress of gathers and the demand for the horses. In 2018, about 3,000 horses were adopted but it’s too little compared to the 100,000 excess horses and the 14,000 head annual increase. In 2017, taxpayers paid $7.9 million to adopt out 3,517 horses and burros, a cost of $2,246 per horse paid by taxpayers. Unrestricted sale, she believes, would increase adoption demand, reduce the cost of holding gathered horses, is in accordance with and in the spirit of the law, those wishing to protect the horses could purchase and care for them, and horses not purchased could be used to provide a source of protein. This potential method is one that comes with emotional and political issues. On and off range euthanasia, is also an emotional issue, but my many accounts is more humane than allowing horses to starve to death.

Makeover

In Rio Blanco County, which is 75 percent federal lands, the health of the range is being negatively affected by the growing numbers. When the act was passed in 1971, the horses were counted, and decisions were made regarding whether or not horses could be managed in their respective locations. Herd Management Areas were created and the four in Colorado are the Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County, Piceance East-Douglas in Rio Blanco County, Little Bookcliffs in Mesa and Garfield Counties, and Spring Creek Basin between Norwood and Dove Creek. The on-range population in Colorado, including this year’s foal crop, is estimated to be 2,500 head, three times the AML. The Piceance East-Douglas HMA and surrounding area is home to the largest number of horses in the state at five times the AML for the area.

As part of the solution to limited holding facilities and the cost associated with care while there, the BLM indicated that if local groups develop adoption opportunities and programs, the BLM would conduct gathers. The Meeker Mustang Makeover was established to fit the bill for such a program. Organized by Deirdre Macnab, the competition places 2- and 3-year-old mustangs gathered from Rio Blanco County with trainers for 100 days. The competition allows trainers and mustangs to showcase their skills before a large crowd before being auctioned. Trainers are eligible for prize money and a portion of the auction proceeds. In its inaugural year, six horses gathered off the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area were featured. Unfortunately, in 2020, no horses from Rio Blanco County were gathered and made available for the event, instead horses were brought in from the Sand Wash Basin and Wyoming, a move that Hendrickson said undermines the spirit and purpose of the event.

“The districts worked with and supported the local BLM staff in their efforts to get permission from the national office to gather local horses for this event,” Hendrickson said. “The districts specifically called on the state and national BLM offices multiple times to communicate and coordinate efforts to ensure horses from Rio Blanco County would be used for this local event. It is unfortunate that such a great opportunity was missed due to the bureaucracy and lack of communications within the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program.”

In 2020, 15 horses will be included in the Meeker event. Macnab said they do have permission to gather 175 from the Piceance-East Douglas herd for next year’s event.

“This has been a community effort with a number of different groups, we’re all volunteers,” Macnab said. “I think we all recognize this is a big step. They’ve committed to several years of gathers to get the herd size down.”

Macnab said the first year was a success and it is her hope that other groups will emulate the program in other communities. The funding has tripled to include scholarship funds for youth to work with yearling horses and increased prize money.

Macnab said it’s one tool in the toolbox to manage the horse numbers and to manage and protect the ecosystems they live in. One of the benefits of the program, she said, is the revenue and visitors it can bring to the county and the awareness it can bring to the issue of wild horses.

The horses in the 2019 Makeover were all purchased by people intending to use them on livestock operations. The winners were teens Deanna and Leah Wood with Flintstone. ❖

— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at rgabel@thefencepost.com or (970) 768-0024.




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