DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
Volunteers this week were in the remote Disappointment Valley north of Dolores repairing fences that authorities say vandals cut in retaliation for a Bureau of Land Management roundup of wild horses in September 2011.
The team, 10 University of Missouri students on spring break, worked under the guidance of Kathe Hayes, director of volunteer projects at the San Juan Mountains Association.
Tif Rodriguez, from the Mesa Verde Backcountry Horsemen, and TJ Holmes, president of the National Mustang Association’s Spring Creek Basin chapter, temporarily patched the fence in February. This week, they went with the group to repair it.
BLM officials, members of equestrian groups and others involved in the mustang roundup that began Sept. 16 are tight-lipped about what they know concerning the fencing that was damaged on the east and west sides of the Spring Creek Basin Wild Horse Herd Management Area. Few details, too, have been released about a small airplane that harassed the first day of roundup.
During the Sept. 16-18 gather as it’s called, a helicopter chased about 50 of the 80 mustangs that roam 22,000 acres in the Spring Basin into corrals. Twenty-five top-quality equines and 12 other horses were adopted. Twelve mustangs were released, among them five mares that received an initial injection of an anti-fertility drug called PZP, the first step toward keeping mustang herds to sustainable size.
Mustangs – the name derives from mesteńo, Spanish for a stray animal – descend from horses brought by Spanish conquerors and from stock lost or stolen as the United States expanded westward.
The first horses in the Disappointment Valley were mounts stolen from a Montana rancher in the late 1800s and sold to the Army for use by the cavalry. In the 1940s, ranchers removed most of the horses but left a few from which the current herd descends.
BLM officials are sure they know who the vandals are but say they can’t name them because there were no witnesses. Another reason is pending litigation filed by an activist and filmmaker who wants to free the horses.
The lawyers in the litigation aren’t talking, either.
Attorney Danielle DiMauro with the Office of the Solicitor General in Denver, who represents the BLM, said she can’t comment on pending cases. Diane Wolfson, a Telluride attorney who represents the plaintiff, didn’t return repeated telephone calls.
Bare-bones information about the vandalism comes from Shannon Borders, a spokeswoman with the BLM in Montrose.
The BLM learned Sept. 9 – the day the roundup was to start – that sections of fence in the Spring Creek herd area had been cut, sectioned into 2-foot lengths and left strewn on the ground.
Borders wouldn’t say who alerted the agency.
A few days earlier, BLM law-enforcement officers had dispersed people camping in the herd area who they think intended to disrupt the roundup, Borders said.
When the roundup, which was delayed by bad weather, began Sept. 16, visitors were escorted to a vantage point overlooking corrals.
Among the observers were mustang admirers, BLM and Forest Service officials and two plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
James Anaquad-Kleinart, an activist, filmmaker and founder of the Spirit Riders Foundation, has challenged the roundup in federal court in Denver.
He alleges the roundup violates the 1971 Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act, the National Environmental Protection Act and the U.S. Constitution. He wants the horses adopted in September to be returned to a much larger herd area that existed in 1971.
A small plane circled several times close to the corrals and the helicopter that was driving mustangs into corrals. The helicopter landed twice as a safety precaution.
The owner of the plane, identified by its tail number, is Don Colcord of Nucla. He was not the pilot that day.
The Federal Aviation Administration in Renton, Wash., is looking into the fly-by. Agency spokesman Mike Fergus wasn’t able to supply any information.
Anaquad-Kleinart and his supporters say the long-range goal of the BLM is to “zero out” the Spring Creek mustang herd to make way for uranium mining, oil and natural-gas exploration and corporate cattle grazing.
They also say that mustangs removed from herd areas, if not adopted, meet a cruel fate, wasting away in government holding areas.
This is the 12th year that students from the University of Missouri have come to Southwest Colorado on spring break as volunteers for the Bureau of Land Management.
Several of their projects have been in the Spring Creek Basin.