Wild horse advocates prepare to haul water to Sand Wash Basin | SteamboatToday.com

Wild horse advocates prepare to haul water to Sand Wash Basin

Eleanor C. Hasenbeck and Sasha Nelson Steamboat Pilot & Today/Craig Press
Volunteers with Wild Horse Warriors called an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss concerns about lack of water for the wild horses living in Sand Wash Basin. (Wild Horse Warriors/courtesy)

CRAIG — The Wild Horse Warriors of Sand Wash Basin called a last-minute meeting Tuesday to coordinate hauling water to the Sand Wash Basin in western Moffat County to alleviate the group’s concerns that wild horses in the basin do not have access to enough water. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at Loudy-Simpson Park near Craig.

To haul water, the volunteers would need approval from the Bureau of Land Management, the agency tasked with managing wild horses and burros.

Managing wild horse populations

About 750 wild horses live in the Sand Wash Basin herd management area. The Bureau of Land Management has determined that the appropriate management level – the number of horses that the BLM said the land can healthily support – is between 163 and 362 wild horses.

Last week, the BLM announced it was accepting public comment on a gather of wild horses in the Sand Wash Basin to bring the horses' population closer to these lower numbers.

The appropriate management level sets a population range at a level the agency decides wild horses and burros can be managed for in the long term. The appropriate management level is determined by the BLM through the agency's land use planning process. Horses 1 year old and older are considered part of the population.  

Most, if not all, herd management areas have populations above their appropriate management level. The nationwide appropriate management level is 26,690. The BLM estimates that there are currently 81,951 horses and burros on the range.

About 750 wild horses live in the Sand Wash Basin herd management area — an area of about 150,000 acres under a federal designation that mandates the land be managed for wild horses and burros.

Wild Horse Warriors, a volunteer advocacy group, is growing increasingly concerned by drought conditions in the basin. Ponds and springs in the area are drying up, according to Cindy Wright, an organizer with the group. Though this happens every summer, ponds that are dry now typically don’t dry out until August or September, she added.

Three wells, two developed springs, five undeveloped springs and about 50 ephemeral catchment ponds provide water to wildlife, including horses, in Sand Wash Basin, said Steven Hall, communications director at the Colorado BLM state office. He added that while ponds are drying up, springs are flowing and well water is available.

"These ephemeral ponds along with the developed springs and wells have maintained horse populations within AML (appropriate management level), even during past severe drought," he said.

The BLM may begin hauling water if the quantity of water is insufficient to support horse health indicated by a loss of body condition, he said.   

"I think there is a lot of confusion about the state of the horses in Sand Wash. Droughts impacts on wild horses become visible fairly quickly when the horses are not getting enough water," Hall said. "We're currently monitoring for those signs, and if we see those signs — that drought is having a negative impact on the wild horses — then we'll determine what the appropriate measures are at that time to take. We're not there yet."

He explained that managing wild horses during drought is all about timing.

"Letting horses seek water as they naturally should prevents them from becoming reliant on artificially provided water. … It has been shown that horses can become reliant on hauled water and won't seek it elsewhere, and also if they get too dry, they won't drink when (water is) provided to them,” Hall said. “Wild horses are managed to remain wild, and establishing reliant water sources too early into a dry season can be counterproductive."

The Wild Horse Warriors are developing plans should water hauling be approved in the future, including possible sites to bring the water to.


"The Wild Horse Warriors wants to get ahead of the problem,” Wright said. “We don't want Moffat County, Sand Wash Basin and our Little Snake River BLM office to be under the kind of scrutiny and negative comments coming to us that the other HMAs (herd management areas) are getting when horses are dying of thirst." 

The Wild Horse Warriors are raising funds and working to repair three watering locations in the Basin. The group has been collecting donations to improve the horse's access to water in the basin. Wright said they had collected $20,000 so far.

Volunteers have added new water tanks to a well and a new pump and tanks to another spring. Volunteers and the BLM worked to repair a pump system at one more pond, but Wright said the Wild Horse Warriors are concerned the water table is not recharging that spring enough to provide water to the horses.

The Sand Wash Basin is currently home to about 750 horses, double the number the BLM has determined to be an appropriate number of horses to manage, about 163 to 362 horses.  

"The stress to resources like forage and water will be increased in an area where the population exceeds AML — in this instance nearly double the number of horses the range can support," Hall said.

Last week, the BLM announced it was accepting public comment on a gather of wild horses in the Sand Wash Basin to bring the horses' population closer to these lower numbers.

"They've never had 750 horses that were fenced in this kind of drought condition," Wright said.

Though the horses roam free in the Basin, the boundary of the herd management area is enclosed in a fence.

Contact Eleanor Hasenbeck at 970-871-4210 or ehasenbeck@steamboattoday.com. Follow her on Twitter, @elHasenbeck. Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.

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