Horse program sees low rate of adoption

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More than 500 wild horses have been captured from the Powder Wash area of Moffat County and now few of those horses have anywhere to go.

Adoption rates are historically low, but leaving the horses on a drought-stricken range isn't an option.

That means that most of the wild horses captured by the Bureau of Land Management are moved to sanctuaries to live out their lives -- at the expense of taxpayers. It costs the BLM nearly $1,200 to hold each horse until it is adopted. Horses that aren't adopted cost the Bureau approximately $8,000 over the horse's lifetime for each horse that's not adopted.

Adoption is a fairly simple process, said Fran Ackley, BLM wild horse and burro specialist. And, it's affordable.

Anyone who wants to adopt a wild horse can fill out an application available on the BLM's Web site at www.blm.gov. People can also request that an application be mailed to them.

Ackley recommends anyone wanting to adopt a wild horse get pre-approved before making a trip

to the holding facility in Canyon City.

At the holding facility, the horses are vaccinated, dewormed and branded to ensure they're not adopted and then sent to a slaughterhouse.

"People who adopt a wild horse are put on a one-year probation," Ackley said. "The horses are still government property. You're restricted on selling or trading the horse."

The BLM does not run background checks on those who apply to adopt a horse.

"We basically take their word on it," Ackley said. "We're primarily interested in their facility -- the shelter, type of fence, etc."

During the first few weeks after a horse is adopted, a BLM official will call to check on the animal.

They will usually make one trip to the site to check on the horse and the facility, though they have the authority to check as often as necessary for the first year.

The Canyon City holding facility is open every other Friday for adoptions. This month, the facility is open March 7 and March 21.

The adoption fee is $125 for a raw horse. People can contract with the Department of Corrections to get a halter-trained horse for an additional $175 for a gelding and $275 for a mare.

People can adopt a horse that's saddle trained by Department of Corrections' inmates.

"They do a really good job," Ackley said. "When you get them, they're ready to ride."

The total cost for a saddle-broke horse, including the adoption fee, is $925 for a mare and $1,025 for a gelding.

And the horses are in good shape.

Of the more than 500 collected in February in Moffat County, none showed signs of being starved or dehydrated.

"We're pleasantly surprised about the condition of the horses," said Valerie Dobrich, another BLM wild horse and burro specialist. "The horses are in good condition."

The drive to gather the horses went well, Dobrich said. The horses, driven by helicopter, came in fairly easily and traveled well on the 10-hour trip to Canyon City.

The horses were captured because they migrated to Colorado from a wild horse management area in Wyoming. They were gathered from the Powder Wash basin, which is not a designated wild horse management area.

The range, already severely affected by drought conditions, could not handle the drain from the horses and Division of Wildlife officials said elk and antelope

were being driven off because the horses were taking all available graze.

Private landowners who lease BLM property in the area have volunteered not graze the land until it recovers from the drought and many had concerns about what wild horses would do to the range.

Despite the options available and the condition of the horses, they aren't being adopted at a high rate.

"This has been a tough year and it's staying that way," Ackley said.

According to Lona Kossnar, clerk for the wild horse program, 358 horses were adopted in Colorado in 2002.

Horses put up for adoption must be in young and in good health. Adoptable horses are all usually under age 6.

Those older than 6 are automatically taken to a sanctuary -- private property leased by the BLM --

so the horses can live the rest of their lives in a free-range manner,

though they'll never be "wild" horses again.

Ackley said all horses of adoptable age are adopted sooner or later.

"Unfortunately, it's usually later," he said.

One Colorado resident said there's an option to paying the costs of holding the horses for the rest of their lives.

Mike Berry, former cowboy and commercial weed applicator in Mesa County thinks the most humane and cost-effective solution would be to euthanize the horses that are not adoptable.

"The Wild Horse and Burro Act says that the horses can be disposed of in a humane way. To me, that means they can be sold to a slaughter house," he said. "The money that could bring could help support the wild horse program. To me, that would be a lot better use for those horses -- to help balance the books a little bit.

"I love horses as much as anyone, but I also realize the reality and responsibility of owning horses

and if you can't take care of them, you need not have them," he

said.

Selling the animals for slaughter isn't something the BLM has or probably ever will consider, BLM public relations specialist Steve

Hall said.

"I can't imagine the circumstances where that would be an option the BLM would pursue," he said. "This is a very emotional issue for some people and with everything the BLM does, eventually we have to answer to the public."

Berry said the BLM hasn't tested the public's response to slaughtering horses. He said he doesn't think the public would be as opposed to the concept if they knew what the program costs -- $30 million a year in the United States.

"If (the BLM was) doing a good job of managing the horses, I wouldn't have near as much of a problem, but when were spending $30 million a year and the problem gets worse, something needs to change," he said.

Instead of slaughter, the BLM is considering ways to bolster adoption rates.

According to Hall, the agency has hired a wild horse and burro marketing specialist, to be based out of Washington, D.C., to find places for more horses and better publicity for the program.

BLM officials based at the holding facility in Canyon City also encourage adoptions by taking horses to other towns.

"Sometimes it helps to bring animals to the people. You get better adoption rates that way," Ackley said.

Getting better adoption rates isn't the answer, Berry said.

"The BLM, by letting these horses get overpopulated, is breaking the law by not taking care of the land," he said. "The land is their primary responsibility. If they don't take care of the ground, then everything suffers -- the wildlife, the ecosystem and even the wild horses. The bottom line is the BLM is doing a terrible job of managing these wild horses."

That's another step BLM officials are working on. According to Hall, the BLM is trying to find ways to limit wild horse reproduction.

The current plan is a birth-control shot that can be administered by dart once a year.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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