Mustangs occupy a treasured place in the hearts and history of the west. Indeed, they are beautiful to behold. We have a responsibility to ensure the health and wellbeing of free-roaming horses and native species such as mule deer, antelope, and sage grouse that live on public lands in western Colorado.
And that means keeping horse herd populations at a level the high desert ecosystem can sustain.
Currently, there are 746 horses living in the 250-square-mile Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area in northwestern Colorado. Another 150 to 200 horses live beyond the fence. The herd management area can sustain, at most, 362 horses.
After years of overgrazing by horses and drought, the vegetation is decimated, Chris Maestas at the Bureau of Land Management Northwest Colorado District Office told me. There was so little moisture this summer that water had to be brought in for the horses. This winter, horses and other animals will be at serious risk of starvation.
To ensure this doesn’t happen, the BLM began the process of removing 783 horses this week. Approximately 50 horses will be returned after mares are treated with contraception. In what is called a “gather,” horses are driven into corrals with helicopters. Captured mustangs will be available to the public to adopt. Although these horses have lived freely their whole lives, they are domesticated animals and can be trained like any other horse. Animals that are unadoptable are sent to Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas rangeland to live out their lives.
Critics of the plan believe it is unnecessary. They argue that these BLM gathers favor cattle grazing on public land. According to Maestas, there are no permitted cattle in the Sand Wash Basin area. Sheep traverse the area on their way between summer and winter feeding grounds. Permitted livestock only consumes 4% of the water and vegetation in the HMA while horses consume 95%.
It’s important to note that domesticated horses are no more natural to the area than sheep. Mustangs are not wild in the sense that moose and antelope are wild; they are the progeny of European horses that escaped their owners’ reins. Wild horses, along with camels, dire wolves, ground sloths, and mammoths became extinct in the Americas around 12,000 years ago. Some 6,000 years ago, humans in western Asia first domesticated horses. Modern horses were reintroduced to the Americas when Europeans came ashore in the late 15th Century.
Unlike Pleistocene horses, modern horses have only one predator, the mountain lion; horse populations can double every five years. Prior to the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971, feral horses and burros were not federally protected and could be captured or hunted. After the passage of the law, federal Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management agencies were charged with managing equine populations in balance with native wildlife and other livestock. Forest Service and BLM lands are governed by a multiple-use mandate that requires the agencies manage many activities on these public lands “including but not limited to, recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and the protection of natural scenic, scientific, archaeological, environmental and historical values” according to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
To maintain a healthy ecosystem and the health of wild and domesticated animals, BLM and the Forest Service must actively manage horse herds. They do this by inoculating mares with Porcine Zona Pellucida which prevents pregnancy for a year and capturing horses. Contraception alone will not bring the Sand Wash Basin herd to a sustainable level. Winter is coming. For the sake of horses, native animals, and the ecosystem, the gather must continue until a sustainable number of horses is achieved.
Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.
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