Ranchers who lease Bureau of Land Management land near wild horse management areas have said herd overpopulation is destroying the ecosystem, leading to starvation -- not only among horses, but in other wild animals, such as deer and elk.
The solution was to round up a portion of those horses and make them available for private adoption.
It's not a solution all agree with, and two Hayden Middle School eighth-grade students are among the dissenters.
"Wild mustangs ran free in Wyoming and migrated south into Colorado where they were caught and sold. This is not right. The mustang's freedom has been stolen from them. They say it is a free country, but not for the mustangs."
Those words, written by eighth-grader Shirley Vazquez, were mailed to the BLM shortly after 500 head of wild horses were gathered from the Powderwash Basin in northern Moffat County.
The gather, BLM spokesman Steve Hall said, elicited differing opinions from several sectors -- the harshest coming from the Eastern Slope.
"They were interesting letters that displayed, to some extent, a lack of understanding," said Dave Blackstun, BLM assistant field manager for natural resources.
The concept of taking a wild animal from free range and putting it into a pen is not a popular one with some people who don't consider the big picture of environmental impacts, he said.
"These horses were not meant to be in captivity," wrote Becky Rosendale, another Hayden Middle School eighth-grade student. "These actions defy the laws of nature. It's morally wrong to keep these horses. Capturing mustangs is the exact equivalent to kidnapping. Taking something against its will. This is kind of like slavery and it should be illegal."
In response to the letters, Valerie Dobrich, wild horse and burro specialist with the BLM, on Monday talked to Hayden Middle School students about the BLM's role in land management and habitat and wildlife protection.
"Everyone has an opinion about horses on public lands," she told a class of sixth-graders. "Some believe all wild horses should remain on public lands because they were here long before we were and should be left alone. Others say no -- wild horses are only saddle horses who escaped and should be shot or rounded up."
The BLM's policy for the 42,000 wild horses it manages, Dobrich said, falls in the middle of both those opinions.
"(Horses) are a symbol of the U.S. -- a symbol of our past," she said, "but we have to protect that range and keep the numbers manageable."
She told students that ongoing drought conditions and growing herd numbers are taking their toll on the land those horses roam. They lack both food and water -- two of the three things vital to their survival.
Starvation, of not only horses, but also other large animals that rely on that range to survive, was imminent and a gather is more humane than letting them die on the range, Hall said.
Winter is a critical time for the horses, when their main food source dies and loses its nutrition.
"That's when we have to make sure the horses aren't crowding themselves or other animals," Dobrich said. "That's why we have to manage herds -- to make sure there's enough for everyone."
She showed students pictures of wild horses and let the students compare a healthy habitat to one similar to the current habitat in Powder Wash Basin.
"This is a habitat the animals cannot survive in," she said of the dry, barren landscape she showed.
She also showed a picture of a young horse sucking on mud for moisture and said sheep, elk, antelope and horses were all reduced to that to get some form of water this summer.
Herds increase 18 to 24 percent each year and as their numbers reach a critical point, a gather is planned.
Wild horses are gathered, vaccinated, examined by a veterinarian and put up for adoption. Applicants must meet certain criteria to adopt a wild horse and are subject to inspections from BLM officials for up to a year after their adoption. Another protection is the brand placed on a wild horse's neck by the BLM, which identifies them as a government horse and prevents them from being sold to slaughterhouses.
Students at the presentation were taught to identify that brand.
Dobrich explained the gather process to students and stressed that horses are treated as gently and as humanly as possible. They are led into the trap -- corral -- by a "Judas" horse. That horse has been through the process many times and leads wild horses into the corral.
"We don't have any reason to rough and tumble and play cowboy with these horses," Dobrich said. "They're only made to go as fast as we need them to go to get them in the trap."
Opponents to the gather of wild horses say horses are native to this continent, so they should be left alone.
"They were here before any white human settlers," Vazquez wrote. "First, the wolves started to fade away and many other animals in their paths. Will the mustangs follow in their footprints, too?"
Dobrich said that argument could go either way from a historical perspective.
Horses were documented on this continent as far back as 57 million years ago, but mysteriously died off about 10,000 years ago. No one knows why, Dobrich said. They returned in the mid-1400s with the invasion of Spanish conquistadors.
In 1959, legislation put a stop to the roundup and sale -- usually to slaughterhouses -- of wild horses and, in 1971, it became the BLM's job to manage and protect the herds.
"It's my job to make sure horses and other animals have their three basic needs met -- food, water and shelter," Dobrich said.
Contrary to popular opinion, she said, the wild horses are versatile and many have become packhorses, children's horses and roping or barrel-racing horses.
The main question from students was about the adoption process -- prices, requirements and what happens to the horses that aren't adopted.
Several picked up brochures about the adoption process to take to their parents.
"I thought it went very, very well," Dobrich said.
Vazquez and Rosendale said they didn't have any questions for Dobrich following the presentation, which their letters prompted.
"I beg you to consider what is best for the horses," Vazquez wrote in closing her letter.
Dobrich said her presentation was intended to show the horses' best interest were always at the forefront of BLM planning.
Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at email@example.com.