The Bureau of Land Management will gather 500 wild horses in northern Moffat County but that's only a temporary solution to the problem of drought-starved animals overgrazing Colorado range.
A lack of food and water has driven the horses out of Wyoming and into the Powder Wash Basin in Moffat County.
Allowing them to stay is sure to mean death, BLM officials say.
"The reason we're gathering horses now is there's no feed and no water," BLM wild horse and burro specialist Valerie Dobrich said at a public meeting Monday to discuss the gather. "If we wait, we're going to see mortality."
Dobrich said the ground cover in the area is about 3 inches tall and if it snows, that will be buried, removing a food source from the reach of the horses.
"The combination of drought and winter conditions has made it necessary to go forward with this gather," said John Husband, manager of the BLM's Little Snake Field office. "We became aware of the developing problem last fall when migrating wild horses began arriving in areas already severely impacted by the drought. We'd like to have them removed before we see even more resource damage or winter conditions begin to take a toll on the wild horses."
The public meeting was held to discuss the use of helicopters and motorized vehicles in the area, but none of the 15 people in attendance voiced concern about that issue. Discussion centered around the impact the horses are having on the land and other animals.
Wild horses aren't the only animals at risk. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has urged the BLM to do the gather because the horses are taking over an area that is critical elk and antelope grazing.
Public land lessees in the area have adopted a voluntary no-graze policy for livestock because of drought conditions and have either sold their herds or have leased pastures in other states to make up for the loss of that grazing land.
They're not happy about the influx of wild horses.
"Permittees who use this area should not have to deal with wild horses," said David Blackstun, BLM assistant field manager for natural resources.
The Powder Wash area is not a designated wild horse herd management area.
But gathering the horses that have migrated from the Adobe Town wild horse herd in Wyoming is only a temporary solution to a growing problem.
The Adobe Town management plan calls for approximately 770 wild horses to graze the area. Conservative estimates put the herd at more than 2,200.
BLM officials know that gathering horses from the Powder Wash area will only make room for more to migrate but say they don't have a choice.
Wyoming has been seeking permission to gather horses in Adobe Town for five years but can't get the funding.
Private landowners who are losing their grazing area to wild horses have taken the issue to court through a lawsuit.
Even if they could go ahead with a gather in Adobe Town, there's no place for the horses to go.
"These horses, whether gathered or not, have no place to go," said public land lessee Steve Cattoor. "No on wants to adopt a horse now, especially in a drought year."
Of the last 240 horses gathered from Moffat County, 40 were adopted and the cost of keeping horses until adoption, and after, is soaring.
The Powder Wash gather is estimated to cost $330,000 to $400,000 -- from the time the gather begins until the horses are adopted or transferred to a sanctuary. That time is stretching to seven months because of low adoption rates.
Dobrich said the cost to gather the horses is about one-third of the total.
"The cost of holding the horses is eating up the BLM wild horse and burro funds because the adoption rate is so low," she said.
Contingency money in the BLM's wild horse and burro fund is paying for the gather. This was not a scheduled gather.
The capture and transfer of each horse is estimated to cost $350. Holding a horse through adoption costs $1,100 to $1,200.
Those not adopted are transferred to private sanctuaries where they can free-range graze for the rest of their lives.
Because the horses are so close to foal -- some already have given birth -- Dobrich admits it's a bad time for a gather, but said it can't be helped. This may be the only chance the BLM has to save these horses and other animals that depend on the same resources.
The gather is scheduled to begin Wednesday. It will continue until all the horses that have migrated from Wyoming are captured.
"If the weather's good and everything goes the way you'd like it to, then it'll take five days," Dobrich said.
She said most of the horses look like they're in good shape right now.
Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.