West Douglas wild horse emergency gather suspended | PostIndependent.com

West Douglas wild horse emergency gather suspended

Amy Hadden Marsh
Post Independent Contributor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Christopher B. Joyner U.S. Bureau of Land ManagemeCaptured West Douglas herd mustangs and a foal were lured to BLM's Yellow Creek Corrals in July with tanks of water placed in the parched landscape of Texas Mountain. But after the first week, no more horses came to the water trap, and BLM suspended the emergency gathering procedure on July 23.

RANGELY, Colorado – On July 30, the Bureau of Land Management suspended an emergency gather of wild horses south of Rangely. Operations had begun in mid-July with the goal of removing up to 50 mustangs from the West Douglas Herd Area.

Officials with the White River Field Office in Meeker determined that, due to drought conditions, available water and forage could not support horses near Texas Mountain.

Springs on the southeast side of the mountain had slowed considerably, said Chris Joyner, BLM public affairs specialist.

“The horses were drinking out of hoof prints in the mud,” he said.

In late June, the BLM closed a portion of the herd area and began providing water to the Texas Mountain horses from two tanks on a hillside 2,000 feet above the springs. Hoses carried water downhill to the natural watering area.

“We hauled 1,000 gallons of water every three or four days,” said Jerome Fox, BLM wild horse specialist for northwest Colorado.

Grand Junction resident Toni Moore, an advocate for the West Douglas mustangs for over 20 years, traveled into the herd area with BLM officials in June.

She believes the BLM could use this opportunity to eventually remove all mustangs from the area.

“We’re going to see if BLM plans to use their purported drought to remove the West Douglas horses without the data to substantiate it,” she said.

Moore has been involved in litigation since 2006, when the Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Coalition, the Cloud Foundation, and others sued the BLM to stop removal of all West Douglas horses.

Mustangs and burros on public lands have been federally protected since 1971. The U.S. Forest Service manages mustangs in some Western states, but the BLM manages most of them on herd management areas (HMAs). There are four HMAs in Colorado but the West Douglas Herd Area is not one of them.

The BLM planned to remove the West Douglas herd in the early 1970s, according to agency documents, mainly due to potential energy exploration. Ranchers also have grazing permits within the herd area boundaries and contend the horses compete with cattle for forage. The agency prefers to manage mustangs on the nearby Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area.

But, funding shortfalls and on-going litigation have stymied the agency’s efforts.

In 2009, Federal District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in favor of maintaining horses on the West Douglas Herd Area because the BLM had no data to prove they were in excess. The following year, the agency tried again to remove them and was again taken to court. Local ranchers have intervened in the case, which has yet to be decided.

The BLM typically uses helicopters to gather mustangs, but critics claim the procedure is inhumane. Fox said the agency is turning to water and bait trapping because of these complaints. Bait-trapping has been used as part of helicopter operations, he said.

This summer’s gather aimed at the West Douglas herd, Fox said, “is the first, stand-alone, bait-trapping contract in the country.”

Water trapping is a slow process that involves a lot of waiting.

“It’s like watching paint dry,” said Joyner.

Instead of chasing mustangs into a corral with a clattering helicopter, panels and gates are set up around a water hole. When the horses come to drink, a gate is closed, trapping the animals.

“There’s less stress on the horses,” Joyner said.

The West Douglas trap was set in steep terrain. It resembles a corral and blends in with the nearby oakbrush.

“I would say this site covers about two-tenths of an acre,” said Joyner.

Once inside the trap, the horses are pushed uphill through a wide chute into a trailer and hauled to BLM corrals.

Plaintiffs in the current lawsuit filed a stay of execution in June to stop the gather. But, on July 3, Judge Collyer denied the request and 10 days later, BLM announced plans for a round-up that would last for “30 days or until 50 horses are gathered, whichever comes first.”

Trap construction began on July 13. The gather began a week later and 20 mustangs were captured in the first four days. An orphaned foal went to foster care and the rest were shipped to BLM’s Canon City holding facility.

Joyner said the fact that the horses were captured quickly indicates they were in need of water. No horses entered the trap after July 23, a week before BLM suspended operations.

Did the horses get wise to the trap?

Fox said she believes recent rains relieved the emergency and the horses found water elsewhere. But, that doesn’t mean the gather is over.

Even though the initial 30-day contract ends on Monday, Fox said the BLM has authority to extend the gather.

“We can do this as long as emergency conditions exist or we gather 40 to 50 horses.”

Fox checks the area every seven to 10 days, and for now, he said, there is sufficient water and forage for the remaining horses of the West Douglas herd.

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