Local group, BLM work together to care for wild horses, avoid protests

A symbol of the wild West still flourishes in Mesa County.

Bands of wild horses populate 10 Western states, including a 36,113-acre range northeast of Grand Junction. There, amid sagebrush parks, rugged canyons, steep cliffs and hills blanketed by pinyon juniper, the estimated 130 horses that comprise the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse herd thrive.

The vitality of the local herd can be attributed to a number of things, said Jim Dollerschell, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management official responsible for management of the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range.

For one, the herd is small, with an ideal number not to exceed 150 horses for health reasons. By comparison, the wild horse herds in Nevada are as large as several thousand.

Perhaps the primary reason the local herd has thrived is the relationship between the BLM and the Friends of the Mustangs, said Marty Felix, who has tracked the health of the Little Book Cliffs herd for 37 years. Felix is a member of the Friends of the Mustangs, a local nonprofit with the goal of preserving the wild horses’ health and the health of the range the horses rely on for food and water.

Felix and Karen Caton, another Friends of the Mustangs member, want to avoid the controversies over wild horses between protestors and the BLM that have grabbed national headlines in other Western states such as Utah and Nevada.

Felix knows several people active in the protests in Nevada and is thankful that the BLM allows local volunteers to participate in the management of the Little Book Cliffs herd.

“I keep doing what I’m doing and thank God I live here,” said Felix, who has named every horse in the herd.

Wild horse management is at the center of the controversies in Utah and Nevada.

Protestors contend that BLM wild horse roundups using helicopters are inhumane and unnecessary. The BLM counters that wild horse roundups are necessary to control populations and preserve the vegetation the horses need for food. Helicopters are used as a way to gather the fleet-footed horses on wide expanses of land, said Felix, who admitted wild horses can easily outrun people on horseback.

In Grand Junction, Friends of the Mustangs volunteers actually help with roundups that happen every several years. It can be a stressful time for the wild horses and potentially dangerous if they get trampled or injured, Felix said. However, she has never seen a horse die in 11 years of participating in roundups, including the most recent in 2007

Felix and Caton side with the BLM in the viewpoint that management is necessary to control the Little Book Cliffs wild horse population, Dollerschell said.

Because the 36,113 acres the Little Book Cliffs herd roams does not have enough food and water to support more than 150 horses, population control is essential to the health and safety of the horses, Dollerschell said.

The herd currently is estimated at 130 horses as tracked by Felix in August 2009.

Roundups are held when necessary to select horses to remove from the herd and put up for adoption. No wild horse is ever sent to slaughter, Dollerschell said.

In fact, Felix and Caton both have adopted wild horses. Caton adopted her mustang Sparky several years ago for $175 after moving to Whitewater from the Front Range. Caton was able to pet him within two days of adoption and has since slowly built the horse’s trust. She’s getting close to the point of being able to ride him.

“It’s been a ball, and I’ve learned a lot,” Caton said.

Adoption rates from the Little Book Cliffs herd typically are more successful than those in other Western states because people from across the country know the horses often are healthier, Dollerschell said.

Wild horses that aren’t adopted from here or elsewhere in the West are penned up on the Department of the Interior’s dime. With nearly 30,000 horses penned nationally, according to the BLM, the government has been forced to use additional means to manage populations by trying to control how many foals are born.

Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP), used locally since 2002, is a form of birth control that blocks a mare’s egg from being fertilized. It is reversible, and the length of time it is effective varies.

It appears to be safer and less expensive than horse roundups, which is why both Dollerschell and Felix strongly support its use.

Felix volunteers her time to administer PZP to wild mares in the Little Book Cliffs with a dart gun because many of the horses trust her enough to allow her to walk to within 50 yards of them.

The drug must be administered annually, Dollerschell said.

Its use has reduced the Little Book Cliffs herd’s annual growth from as many as 40 foals to 10–20 foals.

Dollerschell said BLM officials who have used PZP are so encouraged by the results that research is under way to produce a PZP that lasts longer than one or two years and may even be in a pellet form to put in food.

“I’m totally on board with it,” Felix said.

Felix has monitored PZP’s reproductive and behavioral effects on the Little Book Cliffs mares since the drug was first used eight years ago. She hasn’t noticed negative herd behavior or the inability of mares to conceive foals years after receiving the drug.

“We aren’t tying to eliminate population growth,” Dollerschell said. “We’re trying to slow it down.”

With the roundups, PZP and the help of the Friends of the Mustangs, Dollerschell is confident the Little Book Cliff’s wild horses will stay wild.

And angry protests are unlikely to come to this area.

“That’s the difference here,” Felix said, “the BLM is trying to do the right thing.”


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