Wild-horse advocates and BLM officials alike were pleased by the success of a wild-horse adoption that took place Aug. 27 in Montezuma County.
“As far as placing these animals, getting them all adopted, the auction went very well,” said Pati Temple, a member of the National Mustang Association’s Durango chapter. “Every single one was adopted – you can’t beat that.” The horses – mustangs with Thoroughbred and Morgan blood, all from the Spring Creek Herd Management Area in the Disappointment Valley northwest of Dolores – were rounded up Aug. 21 with the aid of cowboys and a helicopter.
The roundup proceeded swiftly and with relatively little trauma to the horses, observers said.
“We saw a real difference from what happened just five years ago in the last gather,” said Jamie Sellar-Baker, associate field manager for the Dolores Public Lands Office. “These things are dynamic. We’re learning all along and we’ll be able to do an even better job next time.”
The roundup, the first for the Spring Creek herd since 2000, was conducted because BLM officials said the total of 93 adult horses and numerous foals was too much for the arid, 22,000-acre area to sustain.
The BLM is the agency responsible for managing most of the nation’s wild horses and burros. Ninety-one horses were originally gathered during the oneday round-up, 17 of them foals. Forty were turned loose back to the wild, according to Sellar-Baker, including one particularly handsome steel-gray stallion familiar to observers of the Spring Creek bands.
Another 21 — wet mares with foals, and horses older than 5 — were sent to Cañon City to a special training facility where older horses can be worked with before being made available for sale, a process slightly different from adoption.
That left 30 horses for the auction at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds, which drew a steady stream of onlookers and potential buyers. They ambled past the pens where the horses were separated into groups, placing silent bids on the ones that struck their fancy. The horses huddled as far from the people as they could get in the small pens, shy and skittish. But wild-horse lovers in the crowd swapped tales of mustangs they had adopted and gentled that turned out to be as affectionate and loving as puppies — and smart and spirited to boot.
“They’re just special,” Temple said. She said the round-up went as smoothly as could be hoped, and praised the BLM for its work publicizing the adoption.
However, she believes more could be done to reduce stress for the sensitive animals and help them stay uninjured.
One such measure would be keeping family bands together. Horses join in small, tightly knit groups with one stallion as the leader. The social structures are extremely important, Temple said.
“Keep the family band together all the way up to and including the adoption,” she said. “Then fighting won’t happen. Manage these horses according to their psyche.”
Horses pushed into pens with unfamiliar animals often fight, sometimes causing injuries. Several of the horses at the adoption had nicks or cuts, two had abscesses, and one had a swollen knee, Temple said.
“If the family unit is together, it means less stress,” she said. Sellar-Baker agreed that would be a good idea, but said it’s difficult to carry out. “When they’re rounded up, the bands get mixed together,” she said. “It takes a lot more time in the air (for the helicopter) to bring them in in individual bands.
“It would increase the gather costs and time, so there are pros and cons.” However, she said it was something that Bob Ball, the BLM natural-resource specialist responsible for overseeing the herd, wanted to consider.
Temple also urged the BLM to use better corral panels without sharp edges. It was a kick to one of the panels that apparently caused the worst incident of the round-up.
The incident took place the evening of Aug. 26 when a widely respected trainer brought in by the National Mustang Association, Tim McGaffic, was conducting a public demonstration of low-stress methods of gentling wild horses. But the young stallion he selected was extremely nervous, according to observers, and whacked his leg against a panel. He then began hobbling on three legs.
A subsequent demonstration with a wild filly went smoothly.
The next day, when the stallion still would not put pressure on the forefoot, he was X-rayed and found to have a spiral fracture to a pastern bone. He had to be euthanized. “At least we spared him a six-hour ride to Cañon City,” Temple said.
Temple said the spiral fracture might have indicated the horse had a previous injury. It would have been difficult for it to sustain such a fracture from merely kicking a panel, she said, and other observers agreed the blow did not seem severe.
Sellar-Baker said she didn’t witness the event and knew only that the horse didn’t come up lame until after the training. “He seemed sound when we rounded him up,” she said. “It’s hard to say” if he had an older injury.
Temple also said she would also like to see the NMA work with the BLM to train volunteers who could, upon request, go to the homes of people considering adopting mustangs and tell them whether their corrals, stable and equipment were suitable. “We could avoid mistakes and trauma for the horses and people,” Temple said.
“We use volunteers in many other capacities,” Sellar-Baker said. “It’s definitely worth exploring.”
Temple also urged that the BLM consider injecting gathered mares with aminocontraceptives that would keep them from bearing foals for a year or more. That could reduce the number of round-ups and help keep the animals wild.
Sellar-Baker said that’s also worth considering. “This is in its infancy for a small herd like these,” she said. The drawback might be that, if sickness or drought wiped out much of the herd, it would be several years before it could rebound.
Sellar-Baker said local officials appreciate the association’s help and suggestions. “Having groups like the NMA helps us a lot,” she said. “They keep up with new ideas like this, and we explore what they bring to us.”
All 30 horses at the auction were adopted, except the one who had to be euthanized and a 4-year-old stud taken to Cañon City to be gelded and then adopted. The highest bid was $675; the minimum bid was $125. The BLM estimated that the adoption brought in about $6,000, based on the average adoption price of $227. The money goes to help defray horse-transportation costs.
The Spring Creek herd is now down to 45, 10 of them foals, which is within the range of numbers the BLM considers optimal.
Wild-horse advocates, however, say mustangs should get a little more room on the nation’s ranges. Currently there are approximately 37,000 wild horses on public lands compared to 4 million cattle and sheep, and the BLM is looking at cutting the total number to 28,000 and eliminating one of Colorado’s four wild herds.
Herds are often so small they cannot sustain genetic diversity, which requires at least 150 animals. With the Spring Creek herd, the BLM periodically has to bring in wild mares from other areas to provide fresh bloodlines.
Horse advocates also remain upset over a rider to last year’s appropriations bill that specified that mustangs over 11 or those that fail three times to be adopted should be sold for any purpose, including slaughter [Free Press, June 2005]. A public outcry caused the BLM to shut down its sales temporarily after it was learned that 41 horses had been resold and slaughtered at an Illinois meat-packing plant.
Francis Ackley, the BLM’s wild-horse program leader for Colorado, said several months ago the BLM placed restrictions on the bills of sale for mustangs that provide criminal penalties for anyone knowingly buying a wild horse for slaughter or reselling it to someone else planning to slaughter it. Since then, Ackley said, the sales program has slowed quite a bit.
Horses that can’t be sold go to long-term holding facilities.
Ackley said he did not believe any of the horses sent to Cañon City from the Spring Creek herd are in danger of the slaughterhouse. Only one is over 11, he said, and that palomino stallion is probably going to be sold to a person planning to keep it with his mare.
Ackley added that the BLM in Colorado is trying not to remove the older horses from the range in the first place. “We were able to do that with the Spring Creek herd, and that’s good,” he said.