Wild horse advocates have until Tuesday to appeal BLM White River Field Office plan
Decision will allow use of helicopters in removing hundreds of animals from Western Slope
Five years ago, a raw count found 337 wild horses roaming an area of Northwest Colorado known as the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area.
That count has lead the Bureau of Land Management to estimate there’s now more than 1,200 wild horses in the 190,000-acre Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area and surrounding lands.
In February, the bureau’s White River Field Office approved a decision to gather and remove wild horses from BLM lands in Northwest Colorado, saying a more sustainable number based on available rangeland in the area would be closer to 235 horses.
Critics of that estimate say the ranching industry lobbies for lower wild horse numbers in herd management areas because that industry doesn’t want to cede potential cattle range to horses, and once those horses are rounded up, the ranching industry also profits by providing storage facilities for horses gathered in roundups. Critics also say the Bureau of Land Management’s use of helicopters to gather and remove wild horses is cruel to the animals, which see high mortality rates during the operations.
Those critics have until March 23 to file an appeal of the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area decision. Appeals must be filed in writing to Field Manager, White River Field Office, 220 East Market Street, Meeker, Colorado 81641. Electronic submissions (email or otherwise) will not be accepted.
Supporters of the bureau’s wild horse removal efforts in Colorado, however, say wild horses, if left alone, cause the same type of range degradation that conservationists decry in cattle operations.
In an interview with The Fence Post magazine in June, Callie Hendrickson, a former member of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, said feeding the more than 1,000 horses on the range in Northwest Colorado is significantly degrading the rangelands.
Hendrickson said even if cattle were removed from federal lands altogether, the horses would then cause problems for other native ungulates as wild horses would “dominate the last remaining water holes, leaving the wildlife without water.”
In that scenario, the horses themselves would eventually begin to perish in the same way.
“By the time horses die of hunger or thirst, they’ve completely destroyed the range and that is my concern from a conservation district perspective,” Hendrickson said. “Allowing horses to die of starvation is the most inhumane act against the horses. There’s so many things wrong with that picture, the range is destroyed, and nothing can live there anymore.”
In an effort to avoid that outcome at all costs, a high-cost solution has been presented in wild horse roundups and storage, estimated to be $3 billion over the lifetime of the current 50,000 head of confined horses.
But not everyone likes the practice. A Nov. 25 letter from 22 Republicans and Democrats in Congress, including Rep. Joe Neguse of the 2nd Congressional District, urged House leadership to consider a more “humane and sustainable” method of population control for wild horses in Colorado and across the West. The letter said both the holding facilities and the roundups themselves are “often harmful to the health and well-being of these animals.”
A wild horse protection amendment directs the federal Bureau of Land Management to direct more money toward fertility programs for wild horses through a fertility-control vaccine known as PZP, which can be given to female horses on the range through an injection via remote darting.
But Hendrickson said fertility control is unreliable and doesn’t address the populations where wild horses far exceed management levels, like in Northwest Colorado.
The most recent wild horse roundup in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area was conducted in 2011 and did not use fertility control vaccines to treat mares. The 2011 roundup used a helicopter drive trapping technique, where a helicopter chases wild horses into a pre-constructed area and on-the-ground personnel shut a gate behind the animals after they’re chased into the trap. The White River Field Office in 2011 reported a total of 276 horses gathered in that removal effort. One horse was euthanized for a pre-existing condition and 15 wild horses were returned to the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area.
The new Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area plan, approved Feb. 22 by White River Field Office Field Manager Kent E. Walter, calls for fertility control treatments to be applied to mares which would be returned to the area.
“I have determined that an overpopulation of wild horses exists, and that action is necessary to remove the excess wild horses from within the (Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area) and the use of fertility control treatments to reduce the population growth rate of the wild horses that remain within the (herd management area),” Walter wrote in his decision. “These actions are necessary to protect land resources (upland vegetation and riparian plant communities, watershed function, habitat quality for other animal populations, along with threatened and sensitive plant and animal species), and the continued multiple use management of the public lands.”