Volunteers increase water hauled to wild horse herd as BLM considers roundup
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include specific information about the Wild Horse and Burro Program budget and spending on off-range holding of wild horses.
MAYBELL — Drought conditions in the Sand Wash Basin have volunteers hauling an increased amount of water to the wild horses in the area.
The Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages most wild horse herds, has estimated between 650 to 750 horses live in Sand Wash Basin. The BLM has determined the land can support between 163 to 362 horses without detriment to the ecosystem. This overpopulation increases the drought’s impact on vegetation and availability of water for other animals.
Volunteers with the horse advocacy group Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin have been hauling water into the basin since early July. Cindy Wright, a member of the group, said the organization has been hauling 3,400 gallons of water to the herd every other day. Since last week, the group’s water tanks have been drying up faster, leading the group to haul 3,400 gallons of water daily.
“It’s severe drought,” Wright said of conditions in the basin. “We are seeing new growth (of vegetation) in some areas. The horses look good. I think that we saw improvement in horse condition within a week after we started hauling water. The condition of the horses is hugely improved. Not much we can do about vegetation. We need rain, and we need a long fall to get some fall growth coming.”
She said that hauling water has helped disperse the horses into areas where there is healthier vegetation.
The BLM has also started construction to improve one of the wells in the basin. The Lake Draw well is in a narrow draw. A contractor will remove a steep bank, which is intended to allow more animals to access water at the well, including wild horses and grazing sheep.
The well will be out of service for three days, said BLM spokesperson Kate Miyamoto.
While the well is dry, Wild Horse Warriors will place a watering tank about a quarter mile from the well to provide a temporary water source.
Conditions in the basin have led the BLM to consider an emergency gather of horses in the basin.
“We are continuing to monitor the situation in Sand Wash, and we are considering an emergency gather as one option,” wrote BLM spokesperson David Boyd in an email to the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
There are typically two methods of gathering horses: by helicopter and by bait and trap. The Wild Horse Warriors are opposed to a helicopter gather, in which bands of horses would be chased into corrals using aircraft, Wright said. The other method uses a bait, either food or water, to lure horses into a corral trap.
“We know we have too many horses in the basin,” Wright said. “We know we need to have a gather. An emergency gather — if it’s helicopter— every one of us is against that. An emergency gather that is a bait and trap, we’re agreeable to. If we don’t have one now, we have to have one in the spring.”
Wright said the herd has grown by about 100 foals in both 2017 and 2018.
“The basin can’t sustain that kind of growth,” she said. “It doesn’t work, and we all understand that.”
The BLM opened up public comment for a possible summer or fall 2018 gather earlier this year, though the BLM has not announced whether or not the gather will take place.
The difference between a regular gather and an emergency gather is that emergency gathers are conducted outside of the planned gather schedule. Miyamoto wrote in an email that she could not speak to the timing of an emergency gather because it depends on many factors.
During a gather, horses are rounded up into corrals. They are often hauled to holding facilities, either corrals or long-term pastures. If the regular gather moves forward, the horses would be hauled to corrals at the BLM’s holding facility in Cañon City.
Holding wild horses used about 65 percent of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program budget, about $52 million a year, in 2015, according to a U.S. Department of the Interior report. In 2017, this spending grew to $48.6 million, making up 58 percent of the program’s budget.
Wright does not want horses gathered from Sand Wash to end up in BLM holding corrals. She called the practice inhumane. She’d prefer to see stallions gelded, which is the term for castrating a horse, and returned to the range.Wild horses can be adopted, but the BLM cannot find homes for the more than 43,000 horses in holding facilities. Federal budgets for the program have always contained restrictions that say the agency cannot slaughter horses.
Some herds have also seen the use of a form of horse birth control — porcine zona pellucida, commonly referred to as PZP — but the practice has not seen widespread use due to cost, the frequency at which the horses must be darted with the drug and legal hold-ups in some herd areas.
“There are options out there besides those holding pens, and I really think it’s time that our government and the BLM locally and nationally start stepping up to the plate and seriously considering those things,” Wright said.
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