RIDGWAY – Susannah Smith held a flake of hay out to the young buckskin mare named Gemma. Gemma sniffed, then stretched tentatively for a nibble. The five other wild horses in the corral stood back along the rails, unready to approach the flaxen-haired woman who had adopted them just weeks before.
“Gemma is a sweetheart,” Smith said through the fence. “She’s a daughter of Traveler, the band stallion in James’s film. You can see her splayed hind legs. She trots like a moose! But she’s such a sweetheart.”
Gemma’s deformity may have been the result of inbreeding in the Spring Creek herd of wild horses, managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Disappointment Valley at the far western end of San Miguel County. Smith believes that the BLM is mismanaging protected wild horses and in fact is secretly, or at least inadvertently, managing them toward extinction.
Gemma was one of 40 horses culled, or gathered, from the 82 horses in the Spring Creek herd this last September. It was a controversial and well-documented gather, in part because of showings locally of the 2010 documentary, Wild Horses and Renegades, by sometime Tellurider James Anaquad Kleinert. The film uses celebrities, including Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow and Daryl Hannah, and vivid, sometimes painfully vivid footage of wild horses being rounded up by helicopter, to illustrate what Kleinert and Smith believe is a travesty under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
Smith is a psychologist and business consultant who has lived on her eponymous Circle S Ranch, in the valley between Ridgway and Ouray, since 1993. She is one a number of activists who stepped up to adopt horses from the latest gather. (The BLM believes it must round up approximately 12,000 wild horses and burros every four years or so, from Herd Management Areas across the West – just to keep populations in check and rangeland healthy.) Smith has her six mares. Ridgway’s “horse lady” Alice Billings is adopting two. “Kathy Hamm, who runs the Dream Catcher Therapy Center in Olathe,” which uses interaction with horses to help heal people with physical and emotional challenges, “has eight wild horses: four geldings, three babies, and one stallion that she got at the ‘killer sale,’” Smith told me. Smith and others believe that a 2004 amendment to the Wild Horse Act of 1971 opened the door to wild horses being sold to slaughter. Slaughtering horses is illegal in the United States, but it isn’t in Mexico, where horsemeat is prepared and shipped to European markets.
The BLM flatly denies that there is such a thing as a “killer sale.”
Shannon Border, who is BLM Public Affairs Specialist for the Southwest District of Colorado, admits that the agency is in a bind. The defenders of wild horses have passion and emotion on their side, not to mention slow-motion images of gorgeous animals running through the sagebrush. They are symbols of the American West, they say, icons of freedom and nobility. They should be left to roam as they will.
The BLM, Border told me, is charged under the same 1971 legislation, with both protecting the wild horses and preserving the range on which they live, while also balancing the impact on other uses, like grazing, wildlife, and mining – the century-old balancing act of “multiple use.”
There is a lot of land in the Horse Management Areas, almost 34 million acres in 10 states. (The Spring Creek HMA encompasses 22,000 fenced acres.) But there are also a lot of wild horses, something like 38,000 of them. And their numbers double about every four years. The BLM claims that there are many more horses on the range now than in 1971, when their numbers had been decimated by unregulated “mustangers” and ranchers, who rounded up animals as they pleased.
Today the BLM believes that an “appropriate management level,” to “maintain the rangelands in a healthy condition,” would be about 26,600 horses and burros maximum.
Thus the gathers from virtually every HMA every few years, a process that is planned (with public input), allowed, and indeed required, Border said, under the 1971 Act. Adoptions take care of some of the animals, but by no means all. Border said there are currently about 41,000 wild horses under BLM care that haven’t been adopted. They’re kept in short-term corrals or long-term pastures, mostly in Kansas and Oklahoma. One of the big short-term facilities is in Canyon City, Colo., where inmates at a federal prison participate in a much-lauded wild-horse “halter program.” “The BLM cares deeply about these animals,” Border said. They’re cared for for life. And taxpayers foot the bill to the tune of over $30 million a year.
Demand for adoptions is down, Borders said, and holding costs are up. Still, she said, the agency does not, cannot sell the excess or unadopted horses for slaughter, as Kleinert’s film, and many horse lovers locally believe to be the case.
Susannah Smith is an animal lover. In addition to the wild horses, she has six domestic horses in the pasture, two dogs, one calico cat (who came immediately to sit in my lap), and one gray-and-red parrot. On the day of my visit, her son Chris Andrews was building another circle corral out in the sun of the meadow so that the wild mares could get out of the mud underneath the cottonwoods. “You can’t let them go out in the pasture,” Smith said. “You’d never catch them again.”
She doesn’t want them to get too tame. She and others associated with Kleinert’s Spirit Rider Foundation are suing the BLM over the Spring Creek gather. She hopes one day to release Gemma and the rest into an expanded Spring Creek HMA. (Smith said one of the goals of the lawsuit is restore Spring Creek to its previous total of 122,000 acres.) One that could support a “genetically-viable” herd of 200 or more animals. “We need to give them back their land and a chance to be a viable population.”