Driver safety around Sand Wash Basin horses, Moffat County’s Colorado Highway 318 subject of multi-agency meeting
December 27, 2018
CRAIG — The frozen remains of a young wild horse were discovered within hours of Wild Horse Warriors making a case to officials for a fence to keep the horses of Sand Wash Basin off Colorado Highway 318, about 45 miles northwest of Craig.
The meeting was convened in December by Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck to "clarify the responsibility" of a number of agencies in managing wild horses and keeping motorists in the area safe.
Attending were representatives from the Colorado Department of Transportation, which holds the right-of-way for the highway, the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for managing the wild horses, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, responsible for managing 951 other species of Colorado wildlife.
The young horse dead on the side of the road in December was the latest to die, but crashes seem to be increasing in frequency, as horse numbers (more than 750) far exceed the 163 to 360 horses allowed by BLM's management plans. Drought conditions this year also pushed the herd into other areas earlier, and in greater numbers, than prior years.
WHW members are concerned that, without a remedy, it's only a matter of time before a person dies as a result of a collision between horse and vehicle.
That was very nearly the case in August, when another horse, a mature stallion, was struck by a Toyota Tacoma carrying members of the Harding family and their friend as the group traveled to the nearby Green River for the start of a river trip.
The collision totaled the vehicle, but did not injure the passengers; it did seriously injure the horse, but did not immediately kill the animal. In a letter the Harding family wrote to Moffat County commissioners in early September, they described "our six hours stranded on the road with a badly wounded and dying horse moaning throughout the night."
Collisions between wildlife and vehicles do not have to be reported to law enforcement, so there is no way to determine the number of crashes that have happened or their severity.
"We are willing to do something; I'm just not sure what," said CDOT Regional Director Mike Goolsby.
He made a commitment to meet with BLM staff to "run to ground" options, including short-term solutions, such as warning signs, lower speed limits, and increased enforcement.
BLM representatives also suggested an emergency gather to remove horses venturing near the highway.
As for longer-term options, such as a fence, Goolsby cautioned the process would be both expensive and time-consuming.
CDOT spokesperson Tracy Trulove said relatively simple deer fence along highways in the region can cost as much as $165,000 per mile.
It's also not certain a fence is the best solution.
"The fence is your solution," Moffat County Director of Natural Resources Jeff Comstock told WHW. "But that's not the solution for everyone. The commissioners have to see a public solution, not just the solution for one special interest group."
It will take time and money to perform studies and engineering to ensure fencing meets CDOT standards and allows for proper migration of big game wildlife, as well as the needs of other public lands user groups.
Truelove said the eventual success could well depend on partnerships and a willingness for those partners to invest funds.
"We have raised $30,000," said WHW founder Cindy Wright.
And, the group is willing to raise more in an appeal to the more than 2 million people who follow the wild horses of Sand Wash Basin through social media.
CDOT and BLM agreed to meet to take the next step in determining solutions for Colo. 318.
In the meantime, Beck said, WHW and others may need to use resources to "help fix the bigger problem (the overpopulation of wild horses in the basin)."
Wright said WHW understood the bigger picture, adding: “Our mission is healthy range for healthy wild horses."
In their letter, the Hardings wrote that, instead of focusing on the debate about horses in the west, the focus should be on public safety.
"The loss of our truck, the demise of the river trip, the time and expense of the aftermath, the trauma we endured could have been prevented,” they said.
They "implored" commissioners to protect motorist safety.
Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.