SAN MIGUEL COUNTY – Despite protesters, variable weather conditions and a rogue airplane, Bureau of Land Management officials, along with contractors and volunteers with the Disappointment Wild Bunch, gathered 53 wild horses using helicopter-herding techniques over the Sept. 18-19 weekend, in Disappointment Valley.
Forty of the captured horses will be offered up for adoption this weekend in Cortez.
According to BLM spokesperson Shannon Borders, after the dust settled midday Sunday, 53 horses had been captured, and 13 of them returned. Once the horses were gathered, with a helicopter crew herding them into fenced areas for health evaluations by an Animal Plant Health Inspection Service veterinarian, the horses were selected, and some returned to the herd to ensure genetic diversity and other long-term management goals. Of the horses gathered two foals, five mares and six studs were released back into the herd. The released mares were given a primer dose of native Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) one-year immunocontraceptive vaccine to control fertility as defined in the gather environmental assessment.
One horse was euthanized after the veterinarian determined the horse broke its neck when it ran into a gate. Additionally, one foal was found abandoned by BLM law enforcement. The helicopter pilot flew throughout the HMA looking for the foal’s mother, but was unable to locate the mare. Fran Ackley, BLM wild horse and burro state lead, has approved a local wild horse advocate’s adoption of the foal.
“When we gather horses, we do our best to maintain genetic diversity,” Borders said Tuesday. “We are working to continue to have a thriving and healthy herd.”
The Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area lies on more than 20,000 acres in Disappointment Valley, and varies from open, rolling hills to rugged mountainous country. Elevation ranges from 6,200 to 7,400 feet. At various times of the year, this region provides habitat for elk, mule deer, numerous birds of prey and the occasional black bear and mountain lion.
According to the BLM, a Montana Rancher first brought horses to Disappointment Valley in the late 1800s; the United States Cavalry used this original ranch stock for military mounts. In 1940, local residents removed most of the herd, leaving behind a few horses, leading to the present-day herd.
Through BLM land-use planning, which included public involvement, the agency has determined that an appropriate herd population of between 35 and 65 horses is necessary for maintaining healthy herd area rangelands. Before last weekend’s gather, the herd’s population was estimated at about 90 horses, with insufficient forage for the horses to thrive.
“It is important to manage this herd, not only for the horses’ health, but for the rangeland as well,” Borders said. “Often, people don’t remember or realize that we are not only mandated to mange the wild horse herd, but we are mandated to manage all natural resources out there so we have a thriving plant community to sustain wildlife.”
The remaining horses were transported to Cortez and Canyon City for adoption and short-term holding until this weekend, when a wild horse adoption takes place at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds.
Pati Temple, a National Mustang Association Colorado chapter boardmember and a volunteer at the gather, said she understands that everybody has good intentions for the herd, and that the BLM’s local office has worked hard to communicate well with representatives from horse advocacy groups, but that the wild-horse herding techniques could be improved upon in future gathers.
“I would say helicopter roundups are never ideal,” Temple said. “The horses are so frightened, and they get a collective fear and panic. Our group has been working so hard since 1998 to institute new tools other than helicopter roundup.”
Those tools, Temple said, include addressing the reproductive rate of the herd, rather than reducing its current population. Focusing more on reproduction means using more of the contraceptive PZP (which the BLM is using now to some extent), so that individual mares will contribute to the genetic makeup of the herd once, before going on birth control.
“Addressing the reproductive rate is a foundation,” Temple said, for solving most of the herd’s population problems. But if horses must be removed from the herd to strike a healthy balance, she recommends the BLM use mineral bait trapping techniques, involving one animal at a time, over creating the horses’ “collective fear” during helicopter roundups.
“We need to stop doing these massive roundups and disrupting the entire social order of the herd,” Temple said. “Those horses have to completely reorganize themselves. The harem politics are all disrupted now.”
Despite her criticism, Temple went on to say that the BLM’s techniques are improving and that the BLM staff at this gather “was probably the best I have seen yet.” She expressed the hope that the BLM would continue to work with wild horse advocacy groups to improve its management techniques.
“I think they have openly embraced this partnership with an advocacy group, and they appreciate us working with them,” she said of the BLM. “The two groups are working together to benefit this herd. They have acknowledged that some of our ideas will be considered. They allowed us to use PZP this time. They are allowing us to bring in a trainer to interact with the public and offer training help. What I would really like to see is this kind of model applied nationwide.
“I think everybody that was at the gather had good intentions for horses,” Temple continued. “Our group is looking to the future, and working on the existing management model, so we can make it as humane for horses as possible.”
And as for the horses ready for adoption this weekend, “Hopefully we can find some good adoptive homes so they can start a good life as a domesticated animal,” Temple said.
Interested individuals can preview the horses on Friday, Sept. 23, from 5-7 p.m., and on Saturday, Sept. 24, 8-10 a.m., at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds in Cortez. During the Friday preview, Durango wild horse adopter Emily Rapp will provide a mustang training demonstration. Adopters must be approved by Saturday morning, at 10 a.m., to receive bid cards. For more information and the adoption application, go to http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/whbprogram/adoption_program/how_to_adopt.html.
Rogue Plane Disrupts Wild-Horse Gather
A small Cessna plane flew dangerously close to a helicopter being used in a Bureau of Land Management wild-horse roundup in Disappointment Valley on Friday, Sept. 16, prompting a one-day postponement of the event.
“We are not able to comment on ongoing litigation, but we can confirm that the incident was reported to the FAA,” said BLM Public Affairs Specialist Shannon Borders.
The plane is owned, reported The Durango Herald, by Nucla resident Don Colcord. “A person who answered a telephone call at the Colcord residence said Don Colcord owns the plane but was not flying it Friday,” the Herald reported this week.
Officials halted operations one hour into the gather, after the Cessna 182 D repeatedly flew over the corral, coming close to the helicopter as it coaxed mustangs toward the mouth of the entrance to the corral.
The helicopter conducting the roundup would land whenever the plane appeared; a witness said the plane’s door was open, and a passenger could be seen inside; federal officers were not able to establish radio contact with the plane.