Wild horse debate rears head in Colorado
When Makendra Silverman and a companion recently visited the site of a Bureau of Land Management roundup of wild horses in Wyoming, each was accompanied by a federal public-information officer and an armed ranger.
“We’re two women with cameras. We’re not dangerous,” said Silverman, associate director of the Cloud Foundation, a wild-horse-advocacy group based in Colorado Springs. “I guess they’re afraid of violence. To my knowledge there’s no threats or anything. People want to come and watch; they don’t want to be surrounded by armed guards.”
Actually, BLM spokesman David Boyd said, there have been threats made in connection with the agency’s roundups, as well as incidents where people yell at those involved with the roundups.
“It’s a situation where you want to make sure you have law enforcement around,” he said.
The BLM had a number of law enforcement and public-information staff in place at a roundup of nearly two weeks that concluded Thursday between Rangely and Meeker. As it turned out, few people usually turned out for each day’s efforts to gather horses, and there were no problems with the public, despite some horse deaths associated with this effort.
But the agency faced challenges in the courtroom over the roundup, which it calls a gather, and it regularly has been sued over similar efforts in Colorado and other states. The lawsuits and occasional public confrontations reflect the growing contentiousness facing the agency as it grapples with how best to manage tens of thousands of wild horses in the West.
“The (advocacy) groups have really upped the rhetoric, especially in the past year,” Boyd said.
An iconic animal
With celebrities such as Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow and Madeleine Pickens joining their cause, the groups are tapping into what Silverman called the public’s love of the idea of a West that still has wide-open places populated by wild horses.
“I think once people realize that we still have wild horses, they want to make sure they are still living in the wild, free like any other wild animals, and are going to continue to survive in the future,” Silverman said.
The Cloud Foundation is named for a wild horse the foundation’s Emmy-winning executive director, Ginger Kathrens, has documented in films and books. It and other groups see the BLM as a major threat to the future of wild horses because of its ongoing efforts to reduce their numbers through measures such as roundups. The agency counters that the measures are necessary to prevent overpopulation by the horses and their possible starvation, and to protect rangelands for other uses such as livestock grazing and support of wildlife.
The BLM this month also had planned to try to remove an entire wild horse herd of about 100 animals in the West Douglas area south of Rangely. The agency said the area isn’t suitable habitat for the horses. But it agreed to postpone the removal until next summer, to allow further court proceedings involving a challenge by the Cloud Foundation and other groups. They say the 1971 wild horse and burro legislation requires protection of horses in areas where they historically were found.
Plaintiffs challenged the recently completed roundup on the same grounds because it included plans to remove horses altogether from the North Piceance area, which the BLM says is outside of the 190,000-acre Piceance-East Douglas area that it has designated as an appropriate area for wild horses.
Fruita resident and veterinarian Don Moore and his wife, Toni, are among the lawsuit’s plaintiffs. They didn’t comment for this story, but Don Moore said in court this week that he was “personally connected” to the North Piceance horses, having visited horses there since he was 5.
The casualty count
The plaintiffs’ legal challenge took on more urgency after some horses died during the roundup. The first involved a black mare of about 20 years old, which was rounded up Oct. 11 with its foal in aptly named Mare Canyon southeast of Rangely. It was euthanized three days later because a federal veterinarian said it was suffering from a chronic knee condition that was causing it considerable pain.
However, the horse’s handling drew criticism from the Cloud Foundation after Rangely resident Patti Williams said she saw it being dragged and kicked as handlers tried to get it to move.
“This mare was severely traumatized, first by being separated from her baby, and then by the mistreatment that occurred. I was horrified that this horse was treated in this manner,” Williams said.
Boyd said he wasn’t there at the time, but it’s his understanding the mare was neither kicked nor dragged.
Williams also questioned the need to euthanize the horse, contending it was running fine before it was caught.
Following that death, a 7-month-old colt was put down after its leg was broken as it ran before being roped. Also, a 3-year-old mare died after being roped, and later was found to have a pre-existing heart condition.
“We try to do this as humanely as possible,” Boyd said, “but there’s always the risk of injury or death directly associated with the gather.”
The rate of deaths directly related to such operations is usually less than 1 percent of animals gathered, he said, with the cause of death often involving collision with things such as gates.
The Colorado roundup made use of helicopters, which Boyd said the BLM has found is safer for people and horses than using wranglers on horses.
Silverman is disturbed by not only the deaths associated with such operations, but the cost to taxpayers. She said the agency has told her the roundups cost an average of $2,000 per gathered horse.
The BLM indicated this month’s operation could cost as much as $500,000, which would amount to nearly $7,000 for each of the 73 animals gathered.
The agency had estimated it would round up about 138 animals. That leaves Williams to wonder whether horses are that much of a population problem in the North Piceance area.
“The complaint that (the BLM) had is that they were coming out of the trees,” she said.
Boyd said the operation was made difficult because it was going after small, isolated groups of horses and dealing with rugged terrain with a lot of cover. Such terrain makes it harder to manage the horses, which is one reason the agency says it is inappropriate habitat for them.
Ruling from New York
The issue was debated Wednesday in a New York City courtroom, of all places, because one of the plaintiffs is the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals.
“While this Court is accustomed to dealing with bulls and bears on Wall Street, this case turns its attention westward to wild horses in Colorado,” District Judge William H. Pauley III said in the opening of a 32-page opinion turning down the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction.
That injunction would have required any horses gathered from BLM land in the North Piceance to be returned there. Most of the 73 horses were found on BLM land outside the designated management area.
Pauley wrote that the 1971 wild horse act spelled out only that the horses were “to be considered” where they were historically found, and it didn’t require, as the plaintiffs allege, that the horses be maintained in those places. Rather, the law authorizes the BLM to designate specific ranges for the horses, he wrote.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife has voiced general support for the BLM’s roundups as a means of helping protect rangeland.
Groups such as the Cloud Foundation contend that if the BLM is worried about range damage, it should look at livestock grazing rather than horses. But Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River and Douglas conservation districts, said she has visited livestock-free private land that had been heavily damaged by horse grazing.
“I was pretty amazed by the degradation of the land in general, but specifically in the riparian area. There were no tracks there but horses,” she said.
Silverman, of the Cloud Foundation, questions the BLM’s plans to round up thousands of wild horses in the coming year. She argues that wild horse populations tend to be self-regulating, that they reproduce less as their numbers grow. The BLM contends that with few predators, herd sizes are increasing 20 percent per year, making measures such as roundups unavoidable.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has proposed addressing the issue through measures such as aggressive use of fertility controls and even possible creation of preserves in the Midwest and East. The BLM received about 9,000 comments on the initial proposal, and it expects to release a draft strategy for comment in December.
Silverman said the government’s proposal to spend $42.5 million buying land elsewhere to house captured horses in what she called “Salazoos” is “a stupid waste of taxpayer money.”
“I don’t think anyone supports the government purchasing private land when they can’t seem to manage the public land we have,” she said.
Boyd said the BLM is looking at how it can do a better job of managing wild horse populations. Meanwhile, he said, efforts to block proposed roundups can make matters worse.
“If you let the population get really large, then you have more horses that you have to gather because we know the population grows exponentially,” he said.