EAGLE COUNTY — Two local women are helping lead efforts to rein in wild horse roundups on public land.
The Bureau of Land Management says the roundups are necessary, but the agency is running out of corral and pasture space.
Roxanne Graznow has been a wildlife photographer for more than two decades and worked on six continents. She chronicled the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone in 1995.
Graznow and Theresa Thissen are part of a vocal group that’s trying to convince the agency to stop using helicopters to round up the wild horses, and to let the herds regulate themselves.
“These mustangs are an American icon. They represent the freedom that built America,” Graznow said.
“They deserve protection. They deserve someone to speak for them,” Thissen said.
Three lawsuits contend that the bureau holds the horses under poor conditions until they are either adopted out or slaughtered. Neither of those charges are true, said Bureau of Land Management spokesman Tom Gorey.
“Overall, what we see is a constant barrage of anti-BLM propaganda from bloggers who don’t really have an answer for any of the issues facing us,” Gorey said.
Overpopulation can be addressed with fertility control, which is another conundrum for the Bureau of Land Management and its critics.
“We are applying fertility control, but to do it we have to gather horses,” Gorey said.
Room on the Range?
Right now, about 40,000 horses and burros live on open range across the West. The Bureau of Land Management keeps about 50,000 horses on grasslands and pastures in the Midwest or in holding pens, Gorey said. They’re not overcrowded or mistreated, he said, but the agency is running out of room.
“We’re running out of holding capacity in both corrals and pastures. We’re confronting a crisis that’s about to take place in the very near future,” Gorey said. “With this limitation on holding, the gathers themselves are going to be difficult to carry out because we have no place to put the horses. We’re really up against it.”
Some of the difficulty is overpopulation and some is supply and demand.
“There’s not sufficient demand for adoption of these horses,” Gorey said. “There has been a steady decrease in adoption demand. Some of it’s the economy, the high price of hay and energy. When people are strapped they don’t want to take on the additional expense of a horse.”
Opponents seem to be under the impression that the Bureau of Land Management should let nature cull the horses, Gorey said. They cite a study indicating that once an available habitat is filled, the horses limit their own population as density-dependent controls are triggered.
That’s partially true, but probably brutal, Gorey said. Self-limitation probably means mares would be too weak or sick to breed, or that foals quickly die, he said.
“These animals are not the overpopulating misfits they are too often portrayed as,” said Craig Downer, a wildlife ecologist and author of “The Wild Horse Conspiracy.”
“As returned native species in North America, they are simply in the process of filling their ecological niches,” Downer said.
The Bureau of Land Management says they plan to remove 1,300 wild horses and burros across the West this summer. For the year, the agency will remove 4,800 animals, down from 8,255 last year. That’s 855 in Nevada, 140 in Oregon, 105 in Arizona, 65 in New Mexico, 50 in Colorado and 25 in Idaho.
“The BLM is galloping ahead with rounding up more wild horses, despite the high cost to taxpayers and animals, as well as the findings of an independent scientific review that recommends against continued roundups,” Suzanne Roy, spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign said in a written statement. “The agency still has not gotten the message that the removal of wild horses from our Western public lands is inhumane, unsustainable, unscientific and must come to an end.”
Wild and free
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971 orders the Bureau of Land Management to balance wild horses with public use.
“Wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” the bill says in its opening paragraph.
Gorey said the Bureau of Land Management monitors the condition of both the animals and the range. In some locations, the agency provides supplemental water for the horses.
Thriving ecological balance means, to us, that we keep herds in balance in relationship to the vegetation and the BLM’s mandate for multiple use of public land.
The nearest herd to the Vail Valley is in Sand Wash Basin near Craig, but also in the courtroom crosshairs are Piceance Basin, Little Book Cliffs and Spring Creek in Colorado, and Palomino Valley near Reno, Nev.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vail daily.com.