Growing herds, growing concerns

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— During early spring 2003, Valerie Dobrich, a wild horse specialist for the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado, secured extra funding for an emergency mustang roundup in Northwest Colorado by distributing a photograph of a desperate, thirsty foal eagerly sucking at a dry mud hole with no water in sight.

Drought had made the situation dire, the herd's population had exploded unexpectedly beyond a sustainable level, and competition for federal funds to care for wild horses was fierce.

"I wasn't too happy I had to resort to that kind of tactic to get Washington's attention," Dobrich said. "But that's one of those instances where a picture did speak a thousand words."

Within a week, that one thirsty foal brought a small, temporary windfall to a financially parched Bureau of Land Management field office, enabling Dobrich to gather and remove for adoption a glut of 529 wild horses from the Colorado side of the Colorado-Wyoming border.

For Chuck Reed, Dobrich's counterpart in Wyoming, the job of figuring out how to manage an extra 760 horses from the same herd that were on his side of the state line required a separate battle for federal funds and, ultimately, a judge.

The scenario on Colorado and Wyoming's neighboring grazing lands provides a microcosm of the issues facing communities living alongside wild horses throughout the West: Ranchers are angry, lawsuits are pending, funding is scarce and land resources are taking a beating. The challenges of managing horses under a strong federal mandate are not going away any time soon.

"Horses running wild were an integral part of the area's custom and culture," Reed said. "A young man's right of passage was to go out and catch yearlings for saddle horses -- a more exhilarating way to raise horses."

But times have changed and so have many people's perception of wild horses, Reed said.

"Now, we're a generation that has never dealt with that," he said. "Now they're just government pests."

In 1971, Congress recognized wild horses as a powerful, lasting symbol of the historic, free-wheeling West. That year, legislators unanimously voted for federal mustang protection by enacting the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.

The act protects "wild free-roaming horses and burros from capture, branding, harassment or death, while at the same time facilitating the removal and disposal of excess wild free-roaming horses and burros which pose a threat to themselves and their habitat."

"Disposal" means wild horses removed are from the open range and put up for adoption.

The BLM administers all protection, management and adoption of wild horses, with a stated objective to manage them "as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands under the principle of multiple use."

But wild horses are large, herbivorous animals that compete with other wildlife and domestic livestock for scarce water and vegetation. Horses are clever enough to roam widely in search of sustenance, and their herds reproduce at rates of about 13 percent to 14 percent a year, Dobrich said.

A deep, lingering drought has exacerbated tough conditions for both mustangs and the ranchers who are trying to scrape a living off the public lands.

Managing wild horses in 188 herd-management areas around the West has become a tricky balancing act for the BLM. Despite a federal mandate to humanely care for the country's estimated 39,000 mustangs, managers say virtually no funding is available to maintain wild herds at sustainable levels and ensure that overpopulated herds are culled selectively. After being rounded up, wild horses require long-term care before they are adopted to members of the public.

But caring for them is expensive, and significantly more horses need adopting than can be absorbed by the pool of willing adopters.

As rancher Pat O'Toole said, "The pipeline is full."

The management dilemma for Colorado and Wyoming wild-horse specialists continues to grow as drought-stricken horses from Wyoming migrate to Northwest Colorado in search of food and water.

"Horses trump the process," O'Toole said about the current land-management dilemma in Northwest Colorado. His family has run sheep and cattle on both sides of the state line for five generations. "This is the center of the cyclone right now," he said.

More than 200 horses run among the dry creek beds, gullies and gentle rises of Sandwash Basin, 17 miles northwest of Maybell in Moffat County.

With no spring rains and the looming threat of mustang starvation and dehydration, Dobrich said she red-flagged the Sandwash herd back in April for a possible emergency roundup later this summer. She was trying to avoid last year's scramble for emergency funding.

Mustangs share 160,000 acres of Sandwash Basin's dry, dusty terrain with off-road vehicle enthusiasts, sheep ranchers and herds of elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope.

In mid-April, Sandwash Basin's watering holes were less than half full, and the bare earth was cracked deeply.

Farther west in Colorado's Powderwash Basin, and barely a year after the emergency gather of 529 wild horses, Dobrich said another influx of about 125 Wyoming horses has wandered back on to that range.

Dobrich said some of the range is territory that has not been historic wild horse ground, but it's turf the animals initially found and flocked to in their desperate search for food and water last year.

"Horses roam miles, and once they learn a territory, they keep coming back," O'Toole said. The rancher, who has adopted four wild horses himself, said he is "beyond furious and just disappointed" in a lack of management that has allowed an overabundance of wild horses from Wyoming's "Adobe Town" herd to continue to expand their range. "I'm not saying they're bad. Too many, not taken care of, are bad."

O'Toole said wild horse populations are something ranchers always pay attention to because they factor into their grazing regimen.

"We coexisted for a long time, but they have decimated the country north of the Wyoming border," he said. "And now they've moved into Colorado."

O'Toole said the horses are moving south from Wyoming because too many of them are living together up there and there's not enough food.

"If you push them back, they'll just expand their range somewhere else," he said. "Colorado is better country -- and finding that is dangerous. They've smelled it, and they have millions of acres."

That's millions of acres of historically prime winter range for several fourth- and fifth-generation ranching families who graze sheep and cattle on private and public lands on both sides of the Colorado-Wyoming border. Booming horse populations provide stiff competition for grazing.

O'Toole feels like he has already done his part to protect this Colorado range. He said he is grazing five percent or less of the number of sheep he used to run on that land and no cattle.

As for last year's stampede of Wyoming's Adobe Town herd into Northwest Colorado, Wyoming horse specialist Reed said it was remarkably clear to him that a few horses had been in the area for a long time and people just never noticed them. This is contrary to Dobrich and the local ranchers' contention that there had been no horses in that area for years.

When the horses left Wyoming, they met up with horses in Colorado that "showed them around," Reed said.

But at the same time that hundreds of wild horses were flocking to Colorado, Wyoming was having trouble bringing attention to its overabundance of horses.

Ranchers took the Wyoming BLM to court to force a wild horse collection on the Adobe Town herd last year. In a consent decree, ranchers got what they wanted and the Wyoming BLM got the federal funds to remove an excess 760 horses to bring the herd closer to target management levels on the north side of the state line.

In all, nearly 1,300 horses were collected from Colorado and Wyoming in emergency gathers from the Adobe Town herd during spring 2003. That left the cross-border herd population at about 650 wild horses -- a level that specialists, if not ranchers, said is sustainable for that rangeland.

The extra 125 mustangs that have crossed into Colorado's Powderwash Basin again this year are scheduled for an emergency roundup in late August or early September, Dobrich said.

And thanks to summer rains, she said the Sandwash Basin herd is doing OK and might even evade an emergency roundup this year.


--To reach Jennie Lay call 871-4210

or e-mail jlay@steamboatpilot.com\

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