Managing the range: Increase in wild horses leaves ranchers in a fix |

Managing the range: Increase in wild horses leaves ranchers in a fix

Lauren Blair
A pinto stallion — known as Cherokee — drinks from a watering hole in the Sand Wash Basin while a group of wild horses known as the Wildheart band leaves after drinking their fill. The horses are given names by photographers who follow the herd's growth and development.

A pinto stallion — known as Cherokee — drinks from a watering hole in the Sand Wash Basin while a group of wild horses known as the Wildheart band leaves after drinking their fill. The horses are given names by photographers who follow the herd’s growth and development.

The wild horse is a symbol of the American West: romantic, free and pure.

In 1971, the U.S. Congress decided this legacy was worth protecting and preserving, and passed the The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, ensuring that America’s wild horses would live on for many generations to come.

But amid all the raw idealism and inspiration surrounding the horses are modern-day complexities, which make protecting them a layered and difficult task.

“They’re living icons of the American west,” said Chris Joyner, Public Affairs Officer for the Bureau of Land Management in Grand Junction. “They’re important, but they’re not the only resource on the range.”

Moffat County is home to a herd of wild horses known and revered around the world, with tens of thousands of Facebook fans and followers as far away as Europe and New Zealand.

The herd resides in the Sand Wash Basin — a 160,000 acre expanse of public land located 17 miles northwest of Maybell near Highway 318 — and is managed by the BLM.

The horses share the land, known as a Horse Management Area, with livestock during part of the year.

The BLM sets an Appropriate Management Level, or an ideal herd size, for every herd in the U.S. based on what the land can support and what other uses the land must sustain.

Last year, the Sand Wash Basin herd exceeded its AML, which is between 163 and 362 horses. The BLM’s last official count took place in February 2014, before foaling season, revealing the herd to be 408.

The herd has since grown with the birth of 98 foals this year, five of which died, according to Aleta Wolf, Program Director for Sand Wash Advocate Team, a nonprofit organization which documents and identifies each and every member of the Sand Wash herd.

Steve Raftopoulos is one of several ranchers in the area who has grazing rights in the basin. He has worked closely with the BLM over the years to manage the coexistence of his sheep with the horses, however the growth of the herd in the last two years beyond its target range led him to file a letter with the BLM stating that it is out of compliance with their agreement.

“We manage our livestock and we try to manage our range land,” Raftopoulos said. “They need to manage the range by managing the horses.”

A second-generation rancher, Raftopoulos’ mother homesteaded in the area in the 1930s. His grazing rights in the basin extend back to 1979.

Raftopoulos runs approximately 10,000 sheep — one of the largest sheep operations in the area — 9,000 of which are allowed to graze on the land used by the horses for five months out of the year — November through April — according to his Allotment Management Plan with the BLM.

However, for the last two years, Raftopoulos has not used the range at all, except as a passageway between points further south and grazing land in Rock Springs, Wyoming, for which he acquired permits because the Sand Wash Basin range would not be able to sustain both the horses and his sheep.

“Sand Wash is fenced in so the horses can’t go anywhere, so it’s year round range and there’s no rest or rotation,” Raftopoulos said. “If you don’t take care of that land, it’s not going to continue to be productive. If you overgraze it, you lose a lot of those plants. They don’t come back.”

To avoid overgrazing the land that he shares with the horses, Raftopoulos has had to carry permits for twice the amount of sheep he owns to make sure he has the range he needs, and has even had to ship 7,000 of his sheep to and from California for the last two winters, costing him approximately $250,000 in freight expenses each time.

“What most people don’t realize is livestock people have to take care of whatever resources they have, whatever land, in order for their lambs to do well,” Raftopoulos said. “We’re really some of the first environmentalists around, but people don’t realize that.”

According to Raftopoulos, he and the BLM made an agreement circa 2000, that he would voluntarily reduce his livestock numbers on the Sand Wash range as the horse population grew, so long as the BLM would do a “gather” every four years to bring the herd size down within its AML. That would allow Raftopoulos to run more sheep on the land when the herd numbers were lower.

A gather is one of several tools the BLM uses to maintain wild horse herds and involves capturing the horses, which are either adopted by horse sanctuaries, sent to the prison system to be broken, trained and sold, or assigned to long-term holding facilities.

The majority of captured horses wind up in long-term holding facilities, which are typically ranches that care for the horses. The federal government pays for the care of these horses for the remainder of their lives.

“We’re reaching a capacity level for long-term holding that is difficult to sustain,” Joyner said. “The total number in long-term holding is approximately 45,000 nationwide… That’s 45,000 horses that the federal government is paying to care for.”

Only 40,000 horses are still living in the wild, according to Joyner, eclipsing the number now held in long-term holding.

With herds under its management throughout the U.S., some numbering in the thousands of horses, the BLM faces a difficult priorities game. Gathers are expensive, and first priority goes to emergency situations, such as drought areas where horses face death by dehydration or starvation.

With a set budget for nationwide wild horse herd management every year, and an increasing strain on that budget from the number of horses in long-term holding, BLM does not have the means to immediately do a gather for every herd that exceeds its AML.

The last gather that took place of the Sand Wash Herd was in late 2008, when the BLM removed 254 horses from a herd with a 409 headcount in February of that year.

But gathers are controversial, and wild horse advocates such as Wolf say they are stressful and traumatic for the horses, so much so that some horses die in the process.

SWAT is therefore working with the BLM to implement a different approach to control the numbers: a fertility drug known as PZP, that’s been used on the Sand Wash herd for several years. The drug must be administered to mares using darts, and depending on the variety, can prevent pregnancy for 12 up to 22 months.

As a single management tool, however, the drug could take three to five years to effectively bring the herd population under control, according to Wolf’s estimation.

“We want to get it to a point where there aren’t as many horses out there so we can all share that land,” Wolf said. “Those sheep ranching families have been out there a long time and we don’t want to run them off the land… Our vision is to get them to a controllable size without a round-up.”

Raftopoulos has been waiting two months for a response from either the state or national BLM office. If his complaints are not satisfactorily addressed, he said he and neighboring ranchers who also use the Sand Wash Basin are prepared to take further action.

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or