Wild horse gather stirs emotion; horse overpopulation stresses resources, options | CraigDailyPress.com

Wild horse gather stirs emotion; horse overpopulation stresses resources, options

Horse overpopulation stresses resources, options

— On a cool, bright morning, eight bay-colored horses kicked up dust as they came running around the rock escarpment, a helicopter flying low and close behind them, pushing them into the corral.

They were the morning's first successful capture on day three of the Bureau of Land Management White River Field Office wild horse gather.

In the rugged country south of Rangely, an estimated 365 wild horses roam the pinon-junipered hillsides and craggy ravines. Known as the West Douglas Herd Area, the horses were once part of a larger herd split in half by the construction of Colorado Highway 139.

Their counterparts, residing in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area east of Highway 139, are the only wild horses that are officially supposed to be residing in the region.

"We've said for over a decade this area is not appropriate for a viable herd," said BLM Public Affairs Specialist Chris Joyner. "The forage conditions aren't at a healthy rangeland level… They end up on private land, they end up in harsh times, where they don't have enough forage."

In fact, Joyner had received reports of up to 50 West Douglas horses found on private land.

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The horse gather, which started Wednesday, aims to remove 167 horses from the White River Field Office area, which spans primarily Rio Blanco County. There are an estimated 500 too many wild horses living throughout the field office's territory. The West Douglas Herd Area, with its dry climate and inadequate forage, is the focus of this year's gather.

"This is not something we look forward to," Joyner said. "We get a very emotional response to gathers, but they can't grow unabated."

Indeed, the sight of two livestock haulers leaving Friday morning — full of the 77 once-wild horses gathered over the previous two days — brought tears to the eyes of several wild horse advocates there to witness the operation.

"Families are pulled apart, babies are separated from their moms," said Stella Trueblood, field manager for Sand Wash Advocacy Team, a volunteer group dedicated to supporting the Sand Wash Basin wild horse herd in neighboring Moffat County. "That's just cruel because horses are social creatures, they have family bands."

Indeed, when horses are rounded up from the surrounding hillsides, sometimes driven for long distances before reaching the corral, they are separated into three different corrals for studs, mares and foals, though some young foals are allowed to remain with their mothers.

Another tear-jerker for the wild horse advocates, many of whom exhibit profound empathy and passion for these animals, is the sound of foals' high-pitched cries coming from the corrals when separated from their mothers, if only by a fence.

Once enough horses have been gathered — Friday's efforts brought in only 16, rounding out the total to 93 in three days — they are transported to short-term holding facilities in Canon City, Colorado.

Once there, some horses will be adopted, some will be broken and trained by prisoners and then sold, and a majority will eventually find their way to long-term holding facilities. Many horses end up on large swaths of pasture in the Midwest, where ranchers are paid to care for the horses for the remainder of their lives.

But the BLM is running out of places to put the horses, and costs are mounting to unsustainable levels. As of July 2015, nearly 47,000 unadopted wild horses and burros were kept in holding facilities, according to the BLM website. In fiscal year 2014, off-range holding costs added up to more than $43 million, which accounted for 63 percent of the Wild Horse and Burro Program's annual budget.

On the range, less than a quarter as many horses and burros were gathered in 2014 compared to two years prior due to dwindling options for where to keep them, despite an average 20-percent yearly population growth, according to BLM.

"When you're maxed out at the holding facilities, either because there's no more room or no more money, you have to find a solution for that," said Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the Douglas Creek and White River Conservation Districts in Rio Blanco County.

For Hendrickson, figuring out what to do with the horses is paramount for preserving rangeland health not just for the horses but for the other wildlife, as well as livestock, that share the land.

"We've let it get too far out of hand, we can't fix it," Hendrickson said. "The bottom line is, the range doesn't care what the law says and the range doesn't care what politics say, the range is just here. And it either produces or it doesn't."

For the BLM, the health of the land and the health of the horses are both important reasons to do gathers, despite their controversy. While livestock populations are managed by their owners and the availability of grazing land, and wildlife populations are managed through the distribution of hunting licenses or by predators, the wild horse population is neither hunted nor do they have any significant natural predators.

"There are just not effective predators for horses," said BLM Public Affairs Specialist David Boyd. "If we don't manage the herds to keep them healthy, nature has other methods of management such as disease and starvation."

The only true alternative available to the BLM besides removing horses from the landscape is fertility treatments, often delivered through darts administered from up to 40 yards away, an option that Trueblood wholeheartedly supports.

"That's the only reason I am darting is to eliminate the need for gathers like we're seeing today," Trueblood said Friday. "It doesn't need to be done this way."

While fertility treatments have lengthened the time needed between gathers for smaller populations such as the Little Book Cliffs herd outside of Grand Junction and the Spring Creek Basin herd in Southwest Colorado, and has slowed population growth for the Sand Wash Basin herd, some say it isn't enough.

"We've been able to slow the growth rate, but haven't eliminated the need for gathers," Boyd said. "There's not a single answer we've found yet."

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.

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