Wildlife-management policies at Mesa Verde National Park are under scrutiny following the deaths of a half-dozen feral horses, possibly from dehydration.
On July 29, protesters began demonstrating against the park’s policy of not aiding the horses. Some had heard rumors that the National Park Service had actually fenced off springs and seeps that the horses relied on for water, a charge denied by the agency.
The horses were found on Wetherill Mesa in June and July and were not discovered in time to do a necropsy, according to Mesa Verde Public Information Officer Betty Lieurance.
“If we find other dead horses in time to meet the short time-window required for a necropsy to be performed, we will definitely do that to determine the cause of death.”
Bonnie Loving, who lives near Mesa Verde, owns two adopted BLM mustangs, one from Wyoming and one from Nevada. She rode her horse Ringo to the protest, which took place in front of the visitors center just off Highway 160 at the park entrance, but she had to stop before entering the parking lot because horses are not allowed.
“Mesa Verde provides a designated First Amendment area at the Visitors and Research Center for public speaking,” Lieurance explained in a telephone interview with the Free Press on July 30. “The people can gather there, but the horses cannot come in the park.”
Loving said her two adopted mustangs are amazing.
“I have been training horses my entire life. They [her mustangs] are the best horses I have ever worked with, very loyal, very intelligent, hard workers, just amazing horses.”
When she heard the rumors about feral horses being kept from water sources, Loving decided she could not sit back. She had to participate.
“Everything I have heard about this fencing issue is from internal sources,” she said. So, fearing that “the water sources are fenced off – all access to natural springs for the wild horses during the driest and hottest part of the year,” she saddled up her horse and joined the second day of the protest.
Ginny Getts, another local horse owner, attended the first day of protest.
“The Park Service was very polite,” she said, “and showed us where we could stand. It was in full public view where we could talk with visitors.”
Neil Perry, a wildlife biologist for Mesa Verde, met with the group of eight activists.
“He talked at length with us, saying that they were pretty sure the horses died of dehydration because their water sources dried up in the drought,” Getts said.
Perry also invited two of the protestors inside the park to see the wild horses in their habitat for themselves.
According to Getts, she learned that it is Park Service policy not to aid the horses, which are not native and are viewed as nuisances that compete with wildlife such as deer and elk. But she said, because these animals are not truly wild — they have not lived for generations on their own — they may need special consideration.
“These are feral horses,” she said. “They have been cared for by owners prior to living freely on the land with other horses. They are not wild horses.”
Lieurance told the Free Press she has not heard “of any fencing of water sources at the park.”
She added, “The wild horses are not native to the park. There is a lot of native wildlife — bobcats, mountain lions, rabbits, turkeys – but the horses are not native here. They can get into the [cultural] sites and cause damage.”
She said recent rains have eased the situation, at least temporarily.
“Since the recent monsoon this week, the horses have plenty of water. They are refreshed now.”
In the long term, however, some solution will have to be found for dealing with the hundred or so free-roaming equines that inhabit the national park.
“We are working on long-term mitigation plans for the horses,” said Lieurance, adding, “There are no scheduled round-ups in the plans at this time.”