Fertility way to limit mustang population

BLM, advocacy groups try to find new ways to work with wild herds

The Bureau of Land Management and wild-horse advocates plan to use fertility control instead of helicopter roundups to maintain the size of a mustang herd in Southwest Colorado.

Aerial roundups stress the equines, are expensive and leave unadopted mustangs to languish in holding facilities or long-term pastures, BLM officials and members of a support group said Tuesday.

Gathers, as they are called, are conducted when the number of mustangs threatens to outpace a range’s natural resources.

Tuesday’s presentation, sponsored by Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College, focused on the mustang herd in the Spring Creek Basin, a lonely area in Disappointment Valley in Dolores and San Miguel counties.

According to federal legislation put in place in 1971, the BLM is charged with managing wild horses and burros. There are 179 herd-management areas in the United States.

The four herd-management areas in Colorado total 366,000 acres and hold 700 equines, mainly mustangs.

In the Spring Creek area, a coalition, the Disappointment Wild Bunch Partners, works with the BLM to manage the herd.

Mustangs descend from the horses brought to the New World and horses lost, freed or stolen during the settlement of the West.

Fran Ackley, BLM’s wild horse and burro program leader in Cañon City, said there were 18,000 wild horses and 6,000 burros in the country when Congress created the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971.

The respective populations are expected to reach 40,000 and 6,500 this summer, he said. The ranges available to them can realistically support 28,000 equines.

In Cañon City alone, the horse and burro budget has doubled since 2006, he said, and the time for processing newly arrived mustangs has increased from 90 days about 25 years ago to more than a year today.

Also part of the presentation were Tom Rice, assistant manager at the BLM’s Tres Rios field office in Dolores; Kathe Hayes, volunteer coordinator at the San Juan Mountains Association; and TJ Holmes, president of the Spring Creek chapter of the American Mustang Association.

The BLM is overwhelmed, the speakers said. The same public cry that created the 1971 legislation today opposes measures to manage those herds, they said.

Lawsuits and vandalism are the response of those who say the wild equines, if left alone, will find their own equilibrium and level of comfort.

It doesn’t work that way, Ackley said.

“How many mustangs are enough?” he said. “We can’t go on doing what we’re doing.”

The Disappointment Wild Bunch Partners, which works with the BLM in the Spring Creek area, includes the Mesa Verde Back Country Horsemen, the Four Corners Back Country Horsemen, the Spring Creek chapter of the North American Mustang Association and the San Juan Mountains Association.

The 22,000-acre Spring Valley mustang herd numbers 45 after a roundup in September that saw herd-area fences cut and brought out protesters.

The roundup, conducted by helicopter, was successful in the sense that all mustangs were adopted.

Holmes, who has maintained a census and genealogy of Spring Creek mustangs since 2007 and has a name for each one, has started inoculating mares with the anti-fertility vaccine PZP.

Mares rounded up in September received a primer shot, and Holmes has followed up with open-range vaccinating through an air-propelled rifle.

A decline in fertility will limit the number of foals, and a move to baited traps to capture mustangs for whatever purpose will eliminate the need for helicopter roundups, the speakers said.

The Tres Rios field office has received a $25,000 grant from Washington toward managing the Spring Creek herd.

Rice said the money will support water storage, fence repair, tamarisk removal, public education and PZP inoculation.

daler@durangoherald.com