By Nancy Lofholm, Denver Post
The deaths of six wild horses in Mesa Verde National Park this spring and summer have sparked protests and refocused attention on a problem with "trespass livestock" in this southwest Colorado park.
Two horses died in late May or early June, and another four were discovered July 8 on a remote ridge in the western section of the park. Park authorities don't know the cause of death of the first two, but the more recent deaths were believed to be the result of dehydration.
There are few water sources at the park at this time of year, and park officials are trying to keep the horses away from what water there is by repairing leaky pipes and making water inaccessible to horses. That includes ice-dispensing machines that some of the horses had learned to nudge with their noses to release ice cubes.
This week, a small group of protesters showed up at the park to bring attention to the plight of the horses, which the National Park Service considers invasive livestock. National wild-horse advocacy groups have joined in the chorus of protest.
"They are essentially killing these horses and killing them in the worst way possible," said Deniz Bolbol with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
Neal Perry, a wildlife biologist at the park, said Mesa Verde is simply following policy to preserve and protect the natural resources in the park boundaries. That does not include the more than 100 horses that now roam the park in about 15 bands.
"We would never intentionally do anything to lead to the death of a horse," Perry said. "But we are not going to support horses because they are not part of the natural ecology of the park."
The park's horse problem has increased in recent years because more of the animals have been making their way into the park from adjoining Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands. The tribe used to round up and sell horses, but demand for them has fallen too much.
Park officials have been attempting to keep horses out of the park with more fencing on parts of the 76 miles of boundary where the horses tend to cross into the park. The Park Service plans to install a mile and a half of fencing this season on a western boundary.
Last year, park officials announced that they were going to develop a management plan for the horses, but Perry said that was dropped for lack of funding.
Eventually, he said, the park will have to have some sort of management plan in place because the horses already in the park will continue to multiply — as will the problems they cause.
Besides damaging water lines and ice machines outside tourist facilities, they have collided with vehicles and torn up wires at a weather station. They have also compacted the ground over some unexcavated archaeological sites.
Supporters of wild horses say the animals have also become an attraction for visitors at the park and should be cared for as such.