Controversy has arisen over a planned “gather,” or roundup, of the Spring Creek Basin herd, located in Disappointment Valley about an hour southwest of Norwood, scheduled for Thursday, September 15.
The federal Bureau of Land Management organizes and executes gathers of wild horses, rounding up the horses and culling the herds to what they have determined to be sustainable numbers. The agency’s management practices during, and after, these gathers have come under heavy scrutiny by wild horse advocates, and recently members of Congress.
Telluride wild horse advocates and members of the Spirit Riders Foundation are asking for the gather to be stopped, calling into question the number of horses the BLM is removing, as well as the manner in which it does so. At the same time, The Disapointment Wild Bunch Partners, an advocacy group that has been looking after the herd for more than a decade, believes it is in the best interest of the herd for the gather to happen.
“The horses are being managed for extinction,” Susannah Smith, Telluride resident and president of the Spirit Riders Foundation, told the San Miguel County Commissioners on Wednesday. “If we continue roundups at this rate, we won’t have any viable herds. Surely, the land can handle more horses.”
Pati Temple, of the National Mustang Association and Wild Bunch, told the commissioners and a crowd who attended the meeting: “If the gather stops, the range is going to suffer. The herd reproduces at 15 percent to 20 percent a year. [The horses] will supercede a sustainable level.”
“We understand the passion associated with the gather, and how it can be very controversial,” said BLM Acting Field Manager and District Ranger Connie Clemenson, who works at the Dolores office. “But I can assure you that we are taking every measure to make sure this gather goes well.”
Three events in Telluride over the past few weeks have brought issues surrounding the Spring Creek herd and BLM gathers to light.
First, James Anaquad Kleinert, filmmaker and the artistic director of the Spirit Riders Foundation, brought his film, Wild Horses and Renegades, to the Palm Theater in Telluride on August 31.
The film scrutinizes the protection of wild horses by the BLM, as mandated in The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971. In the film, wild horse advocates, celebrities and BLM employees, including former BLM Chief Jim Baca (serving in that capacity for nine months in 1993 and 1994), testify to corrupt and negligent practices inside the BLM in regards to protecting wild horses.
Kleinert shows images of visibly inhumane wild horse helicopter roundups; horses held in dry, dusty holding corrals in Canon City; horses going to slaughter; and connections to what he and other advocates see as over-management of the herds, in order to make room for the grazing and extractive industries on federal land.
The second event calling attention to the herd was the public awareness of the Spring Creek herd gather – an event many Telluride residents, and some San Miguel County Commissioners, claimed they were not aware of until Kleinert’s screening.
According to Dolores office BLM Field Manager Tom Rice, public hearings have been occurring in Dolores County since April to discuss the September roundup, with press releases sent to the Telluride papers.
The third event was a discussion of the Spring Creek roundup at the San Miguel County Commission meeting on September 7. According to Commissioner Joan May, Telluride resident Alessandra Jacobson asked for the matter to be added to the agenda after she saw Kleinert’s film.
The Need for Herd Management According to the BLM
At the county commissioners’ meeting, Armstrong presented a short history of wild horses in southwest Colorado; the legislation passed to protect them; the historical and current conditions of the Spring Creek Herd; the reasons why management of the herd is necessary; and the protocol the BLM uses in wild horse gathers.
According to the BLM, wild horses and burros no longer have significant natural predators, and herds can grow at a rate of 20 percent a year, doubling every four years. The BLM estimates that 33,000 horses and 5,500 burros are roaming on BLM-managed rangelands in ten western states, superceding what they have deemed the appropriate management level of 26,600. To safeguard the health of the animals and ensure their longterm sustainability, the BLM believes it is necessary to control herd sizes by removing thousands of animals from herd management areas each year.
“The BLM’s top priority is to ensure the health of the public land,” Armstrong said. “The Wild Horse and Burro program must be put on a sustainable course to benefit the people, land, and wildlife.”
After a roundup, according to Armstrong, horses are put up for adoption. Those that are not adopted are put in long- and short-term holding pens. Currently there are 41,000 wild horses and burros in short-term corrals and in long-term pastures. Keeping the horses in these facilities costs taxpayers $120,000 per day; a helicopter roundup costs $200,000 per horse.
Armstrong said that the BLM believes that the appropriate size for the Spring Creek herd is between 35 to 65 horses. The agency believes there are currently 90 horses in the 22,000-acre herd management area.
In Thursday’s gather, helicopters will be used to round up 60 horses, of which 10 will be selected for release back into the herd. Mares who are selected will be administered a contraceptive; the remaining horses will be taken from the range and made available for adoption at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds in Cortez on September 24.
Kleinert and Other Advocates Distrust the BLM’s Data and Management
Kleinhert refuted just about every claim Armstrong made, citing studies funded by non-governmental entities.
“The BLM inflates their numbers,” he said in an interview after the meeting. According to the data Kleinert has seen, he speculates that there are around 16,000 wild horses and burros nationally, not the 38,500 the BLM claims.
Kleinert also mistrusts the BLM claims that wild horses taken off the range are not sent to slaughter.
“There have been two arrests in the last two weeks in Texas of wild horses in the back of semis headed for Mexico,” he said.
Kleinert, and many of the wild horse advocates who attended the county commissioners meeting, are asking for Thursday’s gather to be cancelled.
“The BLM is currently being investigated by the Secretary of Interior,’ Kleinert said. “Let’s wait until the investigation is over until there are any more roundups. The horses [in Disappointment Valley] are doing great right now; we can save taxpayers’ money.”
Kleinert produced a copy of a letter sent to Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar, dated July 10, 2010, that was signed by 64 Congressmen and women. The letter cites the death of 17 horses in the Tucsarora Complex roundup in northeastern Nevada earlier that summer and 105 horse deaths in the Calico Mountain Complex roundup earlier that year, and requests a “suspension of further gathers until the agency addresses the failings of the current programs.”
The letter recommends an independent analysis of the National Wild Horse Burro program, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences to, among other things, provide clear and accurate numbers pertaining to herd populations and sustainable herd management as well as assess accepted management alternatives to current BLM policies.
“All agree that [current management and round up practices are] not working,” Kleinert said. “We’re asking for a moratorium on all roundups – a timeout – until scientific data can come in, and we have a good analysis of the program.”
The Disappointment Wild Bunch Supports the Gather
Although Kleinert highlights events in which the BLM has made catastrophic mistakes in its management of wild horses across the West, The Wild Bunch believes the BLM has made great strides in effectively managing the Spring Creek herd.
“Over the years, we, too, have had challenges with BLM,” Temple said. “But just recently, we’ve developed a working relationship with the local office of the BLM, and again I’m talking about the Spring Creek Basin herd and the Dolores office. We commented very extensively about the gathering process and the handling of the horses. We have support from the management and they are going to let us participate in the roundup.”
According to Temple, there is a delicate balance in the herd management area between the supply of good water and forage and the demand of the animals inhabiting the area. When the demand outweighs the supply, the animals suffer.
“The reason our group supports the gather this year is because we see it going in a different direction as far as the management of this herd,” she continued. “It wasn’t so long ago that I saw Spring Creek horses that were so little, and in really poor condition with their bones sticking out.”
“We’ve been around, dedicated to the Spring Creek herd since 1998,” Temple added. “The horses don’t have access to the perennial stream and the water out there is of inferior quality; it’s very salty. The area is fenced; the horses are confined. Once that forage is gone they can’t leave, they are not free roaming. They’re sure enough wild, but they’re not free roaming.”
Temple explained that the Wild Bunch has raised over $100,000 from private donors and that it has invested in the management of the herd over the years. In their herd management initiatives, the Wild Bunch has insisted on having updated forage assessments; they have bought grazing permits to significantly decrease the amount of livestock in the area; installed water catchments on the range; introduced immuno-contraception in effort to keep herd numbers sustainable; and undertaken weed control and maintenance projects.
Temple reiterated the need for the overall management policies of the BLM to be overhauled. Similar to the Spirit Riders, she and the Wild Bunch would like to see a variety of tools used in herd management, primarily birth control, and roundups done with bait trapping instead of helicopter herding. She wants the BLM employees working with wild horses to be trained, educated and certified, and horses out of the short and long-term holding facilities.
However, on behalf of the Wild Bunch, she firmly stands by the September 15 gather. She believes it’s better to take fewer horses now than it would be to take more horses later. She admits that the horses are currently in good condition but worries that if unanticipated factors, like drought, come into play this year, the larger herd will suffer, and there won’t be funding to do an emergency roundup.
“If they do stop the roundup, the range will suffer,” she said. “You can’t all of a sudden do a roundup, you need to do it when you have the money.”
All Three Constituents Will Move Forward as Planned
At the conclusion of the county commissioners meeting, each group remained determined to stay the course of their original path.
Diane Wolfson, a Telluride attorney representing the Spirit Riders Foundation, stated, “We are filing a federal law suit against the BLM, which reports to the Department of Interior. It’s a complaint that challenges the environmental assessment on which the gather is based. We are seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunctions to stop the gather so the court can hear the case.”
The BLM is planning on moving forward with the roundup and sent a press release inviting the media to a press conference before the Spring Creek Herd roundup. They also invite the press, as well as the public, to the gather itself.
Members of the Wild Bunch plan to attend the gather and help with the handling of the horses, the administration of the contraception to the mares that will be released back into the herd, and the selection of horses to be removed and made available for adoption.
According to Commissioner May, the San Miguel County Comissioners will draft a comment letter to the Department of the Interior and schedule a review of the letter to ensure it accurately represents how the public in San Miguel County feels about the issue.
“The Spring Creek herd has been better managed,” May said. “We need to learn more.”
Of the different initiatives, Temple said, “Both groups are going toward the protection of the horse and ultimately pushing in changing the management, which I agree with. But there are other HMAs that don’t have the advocacy we have here. If you’re going to stop a roundup, maybe a different one is better.”