History in Focus: Sand Wash horses a living icon

James Neton/For Craig Press
History in Focus

The wild horses of Sand Wash Basin are famous around the world. Each spring, aficionados watch closely for newborn foals and the right to bequeath them a name. Picasso, the most famous of the herd’s wild mustangs, is available on Amazon as a Breyer Toy replica for only $39.13, and there are 186,000 followers on Facebook pages dedicated to the herd.

These horses and their modern star power is a story that closely mirrors the taming of the Wild West and Moffat County. And today, like the deer, antelope, and elk of Sand Wash Basin, the horses are part of a closely managed ecosystem dependent on humans for wise decision making.

As cattlemen and bandits moved into the Brown’s Park area in the 1870s, a dim view of the wild horses was prevalent. In the raucous years of the open range, they were rounded up, branded, and broken to become saddle horses. Stray working horses ran off and joined the wild herds, the range was stressed, and efforts to trap the wild mustangs were ineffective. A May 26, 1904, article in the Routt County Courier blatantly hoped, “that the range may be rid of these pests, which not only act to destroy a great amount of feed, but also act as a menace to raisers of horses who depend on the range.”

The rollicking era of the open range ended in 1934 with the Taylor Grazing Act, and the era of land management arrived. Soon, lines were drawn on maps, and the wild, open expanses of the West were divided into discrete grazing districts. Within each of these districts, smaller areas, called allotments, were created and managed for cattle, sheep, and domestic horses. Today, the Little Snake Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management administers 323 allotments across much of Moffat and Routt counties. Over the decades, as stability came to the range, ranchers with grazing allotments developed dependable water sources in the Sand Wash Basin, which helped the wild horses flourish.

In 1971, the Wild Horse and Burro Act brought better treatment to the horses and directed the BLM to manage them in areas in which they existed at that time. In the Sand Wash Basin, this area comprised 157,730 acres holding about 65 wild horses. In 1982, the BLM officially created the Sand Wash Herd Management Area, or HMA, and designated it to hold a total of 160 horses. In 1995, the number was expanded to 217 and increased to a maximum of 363 in 2001. Current estimates put the herd at more than 700 horses, which stresses rangeland and encroaches upon allocated grazing permits. In some cases, permit use has been reduced up to 90 percent in the Sand Wash Basin.

In the past, as the herd’s numbers grew beyond the maximum population, the BLM conducted a variety of different “gathers” to maintain a healthy herd. Wild horse advocate groups have also partnered with the BLM to administer, through darting, a birth control hormone called PZP to as many mares as possible. All these methods hold hope and controversy for the groups involved with these very personified, yet untamed creatures.

Don’t forget, Mother Nature is also a major player in this story. As forage and water disappeared during this summer’s drought, members of the overpopulated herd moved south to the edges of the HMA near Colorado Highway 318. On Sept. 1, the Craig Press reported a wild horse named Tecate was killed by a passing vehicle. He was mourned by advocate groups, and simply having a name indicates the challenges of managing the Sand Wash herd.

As the Wild West recedes further into history, the Sand Wash horses have evolved into a living icon of the West. Our horses are beautiful, accessible, famous, and loved throughout the world via social media. Yet, difficult decisions are on the horizon if the horses are to remain a vibrant image of Moffat County and its perception of where “the old west stayed young.”

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