By The Herald Times
For many years, the issue of wild horse population management has been an emotional topic in Northwest Colorado. Many highly invested parties have strong feelings regarding proper herd size, management and possible round up of local wild horses, and their varied opinions often put them at odds with each other.
Rio Blanco County is home to two different wild horse herds. The Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area is located from Highway 139 to the mouth of Piceance Creek. The West Douglas herd area runs from Highway 139 west into Texas Creek onto Texas and Oil Springs Mountain.
Each area has a designated appropriate management level that the number of horses the BLM believes each area can hold while sustaining a healthy rangeland and allowing for multiple uses, including cattle and sheep grazing, recreation and oil and gas development. According to a Scoping Review released in January by BLM White River Field Office Manager Kent Walter, the Piceance-East Douglas area currently contains 377 wild horses and has an appropriate management level of 135 to 235 wild horses. The West Douglas area currently has 365 wild horses, however it is not designated as a management area for the horses, and therefore is not intended to sustain any wild horses.
The scoping review, which was open for public comment through early February, received more than 9,000 comments.
The BLM is currently considering gathering up to 167 wild horses from both the Piceance-East Douglas and West Douglas herd areas. A BLM memorandum released in January compared the results of rangeland monitoring data collected in 2002 and 2012. The BLM found a “downward trend in desired plant communitid … because of incompatible stocking levels or duration of growing season use… by wild horses.”
The memorandum concludes that the damage to the range is primarily from wild horses, as livestock grazing in the area had already been voluntarily decreased.
As part of their reasoning for the gather, the White River BLM webpage also cites a 2010 study by E. Gus Cothran of Texas A&M University. Cothran concludes that the genetic variability of the West Douglas herd is low and on the decline, meaning that the herd is becoming increasingly inbred. Cothran also states that the “ancestry appears to be primarily North American breeds, probably representing ranch stock.”
Chris Joyner, BLM public affairs specialist for Northwest Colorado, said there are no concrete plans for the gather as the agency is still conducting an environmental analysis that will go out for a 30-day public comment once completed.
“We do care what the public has to say,” said Joyner, who also reminded the public that the “agency’s responsibility is to the range conditions.” If the gather is able to move forward, the BLM would most likely use a combination of strategies to bring in the horses. They can gather by helicopter, using the helicopters to herd the horses towards a corral set up for them, or use safe trapping which involves setting water and/or feed traps to entice the horses into a corral where they can then be contained.
Joyner said the largest obstacle is the difficulty of the terrain in the area. The BLM says the most important factor in the gather is doing so humanely with no horse injuries.
Local rancher Scott Robertson of the Twin Buttes Ranch agrees that the primary source of damage to the range is the wild horses. Twin Buttes runs cattle in some of the highest wild horse-populated areas in the West Douglas herd with Robertson estimating that there are around 300 horses on their BLM grazing allotments and private land.
Scott and his mother, Cheryl Robertson, expressed dismay at the condition in which the horses have left the range.
“In some area, there’s nothing left but floor and greasewood,” he said.
Twin Buttes began voluntarily decreasing the livestock grazing in 1994 due to decreased forage from the wild horses. In some areas, such as Texas Creek, the ranch has cut back as much as 60 percent of the herd with even more cuts expected this year.
Robertson is concerned about his ability to leave behind a viable ranching operation for his kids to take over if they are forced to continue cutting livestock grazing.
The Robertsons say they want to see the heritage of the horses and the West honored and that the original intent of the management areas allowed for that.
Cheryl Robertson said that when the management areas were first designated the intent was to manage a herd in the Piceance-East Douglas area but to empty out the nine horses that were in the West Douglas area at that time. She claims the decision was made because the West Douglas area does not have the water or range to sustain the horses. However over time, the herd grew and the original intent was lost.
“We aren’t against preserving our Western heritage, but do we have to cover all of the West with wild horses to honor it?” she asked.
However, The Cloud Foundation, a non-profit wild horse advocacy group based in Colorado Springs, does not want to see the horses gathered. They also do not accept the BLMs population numbers and are concerned that the census numbers are inaccurate.
Ginger Kathrens, executive director of The Cloud Foundation, believes the West Douglas herd contains only around 50 horses. She stated in a phone interview that the Cloud Foundation has members in the area who have driven around looking for horses and have found a much smaller number than the 365 horses the BLM claims.
In fact, she was concerned that the West Douglas herd size was too small, saying that the area needs between 150 and 200 horses to be considered genetically viable, preventing inbreeding.
Kathrens said that if the range won’t support that number of horses with the livestock grazing that currently takes place, then the amount of livestock grazing would need to be further reduced. When asked how she would respond to the ranchers who would lose the grazing, and potentially their businesses, Kathrens responded, “There are very wealthy people that run livestock in that region. I wouldn’t worry too much about them.”
While there are not currently any statistics addressing regional ranch income or ranch wealth, according to the USDA’s 2012 Agriculture Census there are approximately 263 livestock operations in Rio Blanco County. These operations averaged $78,000 in livestock sales in 2012.
Kathrens’ key concern with the gather plan put out by the BLM is her belief that their ultimate goal is to zero out the West Douglas herd, which she claims is not legal.
Kathrens expressed that per the Wild Horse and Burro Act, the West Douglas herd has a historic use in the area, and therefore is protected. She said the herd was developed hundreds of years ago from Ute Indians horse trading with the Spanish, and that the lack of genetic evidence of Spanish mustang heritage described in the study authored by Cothran has “nothing to do with the legality.”
She also envisions what she terms a natural management plan for the horses in the future.
Kathrens said this could be accomplished by a reduction in mountain lion hunting permits given out by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. She believes an increase in the number of mountain lions in the area would then help keep the horse herd sizes contained.
On the opposite side of the issue sits Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts, who believes it is vitally important that the wild horse herds be reduced to their appropriate management levels in order to sustain good range health.
Hendrickson is especially concerned about the impact of the horses due to their lack of migration habits, saying in an email, “Because BLM cannot actively manage the horses by moving them from one location to another, the horses don’t give the forage a rest so it can recover from grazing. Repeated heavy grazing that removes too much leaf material weakens plant root structure making it difficult for plants to recover. As a result, less forage is available for grazing and pastures are vulnerable to weed invasion and erosion.”
Rio Blanco County Commissioner Jon Hill is also hopeful that these horses will in fact be gathered. The county recently sent a letter of support for the gather to the BLM and has, in the past, signed resolutions requesting that the BLM follow their regulations and gather the horses.
Hill said, “The county believes in proper management of the wild horses and plans to continue to support and encourage the BLM to follow the regulations and keep the range healthy for multiple use.” Hill believes that the overpopulated wild horses are negatively impacting the economics of the county. He was concerned that wild horses have caused local ranchers to lose AUMs (animal unit/month), which decreases the number of cattle or sheep they can run.
He said the horses also cause major drilling restrictions on oil and gas, all of which limits productivity and ultimately hurts the county. When asked about the possible tourism benefits from wild horses, Hill responded, “tourists usually come from Grand Junction, pack a lunch, drive around looking at the horses and head back to Grand Junction. Most of the time they don’t even go into town.”
In fact, the only time Hill believes he’s seen an economic benefit from the horses is during gathers, when government contractors come and stay in town.
Another concern Commissioner Hill expressed was the damage the wild horses have done to the elk and deer populations, with both species experiencing decreased numbers over the last few years. Decreased hunting opportunities are also a big hit to the local economy. Hill expressed concern that it has been 40 years since the BLM determined that the West Douglas herd should be zeroed out, yet the number of horses has almost doubled since 1980, despite several gathers during that time period.
The county is not the only local government entity to send letters encouraging the BLM to reduce the herds to their appropriate management levels. Bill deVergie, Meeker’s area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that agency has also requested the gather as herd numbers are impacting big game populations.
The wild horse debate is not unique to Rio Blanco County.
National BLM Rangeland Specialist Richard Mayberry of Washington, D.C., said wild horse populations nationwide have doubled their appropriate management levels for the last three or four years. Some areas are currently at 13 times their appropriate herd level.
The BLM has received $72 million designated for the wild horses, however, despite the funding, Mayberry doesn’t see any major changes in the near future as there is currently no room in government-approved facilities to relocate the horses. The BLM plans to gather approximately 2,000 wild horses in 2015.