The sun is low on the horizon, casting soft light on the crimson boulders and cliffs of Spring Creek Basin. Bands of colorful wild horses dot the folded landscape as it gently dips toward the dry wash and empty highway in the distance. This peaceful place is one of four Herd Management Areas in Colorado where our agency, the Bureau of Land Management, works to sustain wild horses.
Here, fertility control darting efforts led by our partner, Spring Creek Basin Mustangs, and water infrastructure funded by the bureau maintain a stable population of 71 wild horses, which is within the 50-80 horse appropriate management level, or carrying capacity, of the area.
On the ground, maintaining herds within the appropriate management level means healthy horses on healthy rangelands. The bureau increased the appropriate management level in this area in 2020 due to the successful fertility control program, and horses have not been gathered since 2011.
As the sun disappears behind the cliffs, I lean against the dusty truck and wonder aloud: “why don’t the newspapers write about Spring Creek Basin?”
While building on our success in Spring Creek Basin will be difficult, the Colorado office of the Bureau of Land Management is taking steps to achieve this vision in the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area in Northwest Colorado. The Sand Wash population now sits at an estimated 300 horses, within the 163-363 appropriate management level, due to challenging conditions last winter that resulted in losses of big game and wild horses. As a result, the bureau will forgo a planned small-scale gather this fall in Sand Wash.
The bureau also recently announced an investment of over $600,000 in infrastructure in Sand Wash, and we hope to work with the state’s new Colorado Wild Horse Project to provide additional support for our partner organizations — the Sand Wash Basin Wild Horse Advocate Team, and Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin — to invest in range improvements and fertility control to maintain the population within the appropriate management level range. If populations approach the upper limit of the appropriate management level in the future, we plan to gather smaller numbers of horses through fixed bait-trap stations, taking advantage of our partnerships with organizations such as the Meeker Mustang Makeover and The Wild Animal Sanctuary to swiftly find these horses new homes.
The Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area near Grand Junction is another Bureau of Land Management success story. Friends of the Mustangs, our partner organization, was one of the first to pilot fertility control darting for wild horses, and their experience inspired similar efforts in other states. However, the pandemic slowed fertility control darting in these canyons and now the population stands at 230 horses, above the 90-150 horse appropriate management level.
Even more challenging, Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area has a population of more than 800 horses, dramatically above the 135-235 horse appropriate management level. The bureau also recently awarded $120,620 to Piceance Mustangs for fertility control efforts, but to regain appropriate management level and have any chance of long-term success of staying within that range, we will need to conduct gathers in these areas again.
We often hear a preference for fertility control instead of gathers, especially helicopter gathers. While fertility control is a vital and growing part of the bureau’s strategy to manage wild horse populations, it is not an alternative to gather operations in large Herd Management Areas, particularly those in other states. In such cases, even if a Herd Management Area is at the appropriate management level, routine gathers are still required due to the number of animals and vastness of the landscapes that make it extremely difficult to administer effective fertility control.
Wild horse gathers elicit a passionate response from the public. This emotion is justifiable, but sometimes it distracts from the facts.
Take, for example, the 2023 West Douglas gather, which has been extensively covered in the media. Bureau of Land Management staff and contractors did an admirable job keeping wild horses safe during the gather, with zero horse deaths due to gather operations.
Or, consider the notion that livestock is to blame for overgrazing Colorado’s Herd Management Areas. In fact, two areas, Spring Creek Basin and Little Book Cliffs, have no livestock grazing. And in the Sand Wash Basin and Piceance East Douglas Herd Management Areas, livestock grazing accounts for 14% and 20% of forage use, respectively, which makes sense because livestock use is seasonal, and wildlife and wild horses are year-round residents.
Finally, Bureau of Land Management staff love our wild horse herds. They are truly magnificent, and it is a privilege for all of us to manage these magnificent animals and their rugged homelands.
While other states where the bureau operates face even greater challenges where fertility control application effectiveness is significantly reduced due to larger areas and horse populations, we have a real opportunity to reach sustainability in our four Herd Management Areas in Colorado. We look forward to working with the Governor, state agencies, partner organizations, and other collaborators as the Colorado Wild Horse Project kicks off this fall.
If we work together, we can address any difficulties that may arise, and the bureau’s Colorado wild horse program can be a model of success for the nation. In the meantime, we invite you to enjoy the sunset in Spring Creek Basin and the serenity of healthy horses on healthy rangelands.
Doug Vilsack, of Denver, is the Colorado state director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
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