Free-roaming horses symbolize centuries of the untamed history of the American West | SteamboatToday.com

Free-roaming horses symbolize centuries of the untamed history of the American West

A pair of free-roaming stallions

— Several centuries after they first began to proliferate across the vast range lands of the American West, the fate of free-roaming bands of horses, some of them thriving in the sagebrush and juniper country less than 100 miles from Steamboat Springs, is bound up in complex land-use policy goals.

Those competing interests run the gamut from domestic livestock grazing to climate change, eroding wildlife habitat, ethical treatment of animals and the federal budget, all tangled up into a single tumbleweed.

Wild horse author and photographer John A. Wagner, of Dinosaur, has been studying Northwest Colorado's wild horses for most of his life. His fear is there will come a day when be no wild horses will be left, except for those in sanctuaries.

"I have been traipsing the Sand Wash Basin for over 60 years, and I have been observing and photographing the wild horses in their own habitat. It is an experience that will last forever in my heart," he said. "If a wild horse is adopted and tamed, then that horse is no longer a wild horse. It is a tamed horse. Only horses that run free on the open range are wild horses."

The hard reality, according to conservationists and federal land managers, is that, left unchecked, wild horse populations, which can grow at a rate of 20 percent per year, have the capacity to eat themselves into starvation while irreversibly damaging the range.

Callie Hendrickson, executive director of both the White River and Douglas Creek conservation districts near the White River to the southwest of Steamboat Springs, said horse populations that increase by 20 percent annually could double within four years.

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Her concern is that unless a more practical and economical method of reducing populations of wild horses is put to work, they will damage hardy natural grasses to the point the native vegetation can't bounce back in competition with invasive species, such as cheat grass.

Considering the poor condition of the range in the West Douglas Herd Area he oversees, Kent Walter, field manager the federal Bureau of Land Management's White River Field Office, shares Hendrickson's concerns.

"The grasses are grazed down to nothing," he said in September. "Up on (8,455-foot) Texas Mountain, there are 12,000 acres where the (grazing) permittee has voluntarily agreed not to use it the past five years."

Yet, wild horse advocates are also collaborating with the BLM to find ways to reduce overpopulated herds humanely. Aleta Wolf, program director for the Sand Wash Advocacy Team, said her volunteers seek to collaborate with BLM personnel at the Little Snake Field Office in Craig to help manage the wild horse population in Sand Wash, about 50 miles west of Steamboat in Moffat County.

They keep records of the population of each band of horse in Sand Wash and even train as volunteers to inoculate the horses with infertility vaccines in doses fired from dart guns.

"The Sand Wash Wild Horse Management Area is fenced in so that the horses can be managed humanely and appropriately," Wolf said. "But doing that takes boots on the ground, and the BLM doesn't have enough people to do all that. We're also working with the sheep ranchers who graze their sheep here (over the winter months). We want to see Sand Wash be successful."

Longtime rural Routt County resident Connie Wagner understands what it is to be conflicted about the future of wild horse herds. She grew up on a cattle ranch in Twentymile Park, but earlier this month, she helped, for the first time, inoculate wild mares in Moffat County's Sand Wash Basin with a vaccine known as PZP, which renders the horses infertile for up to a year.

"It's hard," Wagner said. "But I just fell in love with these horses."

Before the BLM would allow her to use a rifle to fire darts containing PZP into the rumps of wild horses, she had to travel to Montana to become certified in the proper handling of PZP. Efforts to reduce fertility levels in Sand Wash seem to have paid off in 2015.

"We're down 20 percent in (new) foals over 2014," Wolf said. "Last year, we had 101 and this year, 78."

While livestock growers often view the horses as undermining their ranching operation, federal land managers worry the forage on arid public lands has already been damaged beyond the point of no return.

Hendrickson thinks it's important federal land managers be allowed to exercise the original intent of the 1971 Wild Horses and Burros Act. Its original language allows for euthanizing some horses and burros under specific circumstances in order to keep populations within targets healthy for the rangeland and the environment.

She points out the BLM is currently spending $43.2 million annually to maintain 47,232 animals in off-range corrals and pastures, numbers confirmed by the BLM.

"I don't think it's the right thing to do with the taxpayers' money," Hendrickson said. "And to house thousands of wild horses in pastures is not the right thing to do for the horses."

2 herds, 2 very different experiences

While the atmosphere was positive when wild horse advocates visited Sand Wash Basin in late October to inspect conditions with BLM officials, there was restrained tension in the air in late September when some of the same met in Rangely and drove south into the mountain to witness a wild horse gather intended to remove as many as 167 of 365 horses from the West Douglas Herd Area.

The gather, overseen by the BLM's White River Field Office, used a helicopter to herd the horses toward a waiting corral.

The low-flying, clattering helicopter managed to push a small band of bay-colored horses off the high mesas, out of the steep ravines of the surrounding Texas Mountain and toward the corral. They came loping down a dirt road, finally rounding the toe of a low escarpment, coming into sight for only a few seconds.

Spectators were required to stay behind a camouflaged fence, which surrounded a small perch on a steep slope removed from the corral any time the helicopter or the wild horses it was pushing were within sight.

As small bands of horses swept into the corral, foals were separated from their mares, and the resulting high-pitched whinnies touched a nerve among a small group of wild horse advocates gathered to witness and record the event.

"That's the babies screaming for their mothers," some were heard to say, while wiping tears from their eyes.

And when captive mustangs were loaded into semitrucks hauling livestock carriers for the long trip to a larger corral in Canon City, members of the gathering muttered soft epithets.

Kent Walter, White River Field Office field manager, said the crews working on the gather are sensitive to the mares and foals.

"Foals that aren't old enough to be weaned are allowed to remain with their mothers," Walter said. "If they are (old enough), they are separated from their mothers but kept in a corral that's immediately next to that of their mothers to help keep them calm."

When they are first herded into the corral, the foals are evaluated to determine if they are old enough to be weaned. Those that are too young are kept in a separate enclosure with their mothers. Those that are old enough are separated but kept in an immediately adjacent corral so that they can be physically close to their mothers.

However, when they are loaded into the livestock trucks for the long drive to holding pens in Canon City, foals are segregated from the larger horses to prevent them from being crushed.

A handful of cooperative BLM personnel who stood nearby showed no reaction to the dismay of some of the members of the public. But it was plain from the presence of an armed BLM officer wearing a bulletproof vest at the human compound, and two more sticking close to the corral, several hundred yards away, that they were there to keep the peace.

Problem not going away

In 2015, the BLM acknowledges it has fallen behind its established Appropriate Management Levels.

As of March 1, the total estimated population of wild equids (horses and burros) in the United States was 47,329 horses and 10,821 burros, for a combined total of 58,150 animals. That represents an 18 percent increase from 2014 and puts the population at more than double the total AML for all of the herd management areas in the West, 26,715 animals. Wild horses in Colorado this year numbered 1,415.

Under current policy, removing more horses from the range would only inflate the costs of essentially warehousing formerly wild horses in pastures as far away from their birthplaces as the mid-Atlantic states.

The original 1971 Wild Horse Act requires the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to consign "old, sick or lame animals to be destroyed in the most humane way possible." The same is true of wild horses and burros "for which there is no demand for adoption." But Congress has blocked the slaughter of excess wild horses with routine funding bills.

The BLM's Web page on wild horses contains this declaration: "It has been and remains the policy of the BLM … not to sell or send any wild horses or burros to slaughterhouses or to 'kill buyers.'"

So, there is no permanent remedy in sight for the fate of wild horses.

Future of Sand Wash Basin wild mustangs

Spanish horses change plains Indian culture forever

Free-roaming horses have been part of the Western landscape since Spanish explorers arrived in Mexico searching for gold in the “lost city” of Cibola.

The Spanish conquistador Coronado first brought an estimated 1,500 modern European horses to the New World in 1554, but it is the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680, in what is now modern New Mexico, that is credited with ultimately disseminating wild horses among North American Plains Indians.

Author J. Edward De Steiguer describes in his scholarly book, “Wild Horses of the West, History and Politics of America’s Mustangs,” how the Puebloans, upon violently evicting the abusive Spaniards from their homeland, inherited thousands of horses and burros. The Pueblo dwellers were small-scale farmers who did not have a need for large numbers of horses but knew the value of trade.

De Steiguer writes that the southern Ute Indians of what is now Colorado were some of the first to inherit Spanish horses. On a map of early horse-trading routes, his book depicts one path directly from Santa Fe, New Mexico, through Western Colorado to the Great Salt Lake, which operated in about 1650.

The European Americans who subdued the Plains Indians also took an active interest in wild horses. Most U.S. Cavalry troops were mounted on horses brought west from the Eastern states. If anything, soldiers butchered and ate horse flesh to sustain them during long marches.

However, it’s widely known in the West that ranchers and cowboys would sometimes choose a stallion from their own herd they thought could elevate the breeding of a band of wild mares and introduce their horse into the herd, later lassoing their progeny to add to their own corral.

Colorado Northwestern Community College biology and math instructor Kathy Simpson, who is a member of the Sand Wash Advocacy Team and grew up in the region, said a similar practice took place during the Great Depression.

People in Northwest Colorado, who were desperate for hard cash would sometimes rope a wild horse, break it, train it and sell it, she said.