Study analyzes wild horse herd management

Monday, July 30, 2018 3:49 PM
Copper and Skywalker frolic on the range of the Spring Creek Basin wild horse herd in Disappointment Valley in this file photo. To keep the herd population in check, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed a bait-trapping method or helicopter roundups.
Comanche seems to watch the Horse Park Fire, that burned this summer above the northeastern boundary of Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area in Disappointment Valley.
A helicopter rounds up wild horses and herds them toward corrals at Spring Creek Basin in 2011.
Wild horses Mariah, Makani, Jadi and Remy of the Spring Creek Basin Herd in Disappointment Valley.

The Bureau of Land Management is considering bait trapping to manage the Spring Creek Basin wild horse herd between Dove Creek and Norwood.

BLM’s Tres Rios Field Office is seeking public comment on an environmental assessment on the proposal, with the potential for helicopter-assisted gathering, to keep the herd to between 35 and 65 horses.

About 60 wild horses roam the 22,000-acre Herd Management Area in Disappointment Valley. The BLM and volunteer horse groups manage the bays, sorrels, grays and pintos under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

“We work closely with our local partners to ensure a healthy wild horse population roams on healthy rangelands in the Spring Creek HMA,” said Connie Clementson, BLM Tres Rios field manager. “While we have been successful at maintaining birth rates, periodic gathers could be necessary in order to keep the range healthy.”

No roundups have been planned yet, but they might become necessary. Removed horses are put up for public adoption.

Currently, the herd population is being controlled by a fertility method that targets selected mares using specialized darts.

Wild horse numbers are controlled to maintain genetic diversity and a healthy grazing range, the assessment says. The herd’s size is adjusted, depending on the range’s condition, to promote less competition for forage and water resources.

Domestic grazing is not allowed in the herd management area, but the wild horses share the natural forage and water sources with deer and elk.

During the public scoping of roundup proposals, the BLM received 6,897 comments. Overall, the majority of the comments preferred bait trapping over helicopter roundups, according to the study.

In 2011, a roundup that used a helicopter to drive Spring Creek Basin horses into pens triggered outcry from horse advocates because of the stress it put on the animals.

Bait trapping is a less disruptive method for roundups, said TJ Holmes, a BLM volunteer who helps manage the horses. Water and food lure the horses into pens, and a remote-controlled gate traps them inside.

“It is easier and safer on the horses than being chased by helicopters,” Holmes said. “When managing wild animals, slower is better.”

Bait trapping also enables managers select horses based on specific bands and genetic diversity, Holmes said. Trapped horses that are not selected for removal are returned to the range, and mares may get a booster shot of fertility control. Occasionally during roundups, managers might introduce a mare from another herd to improve genetic diversity.

Under BLM’s proposed Alternative A action, bait trapping would be used to cull the herd if needed, followed by a helicopter roundup if necessary to capture the required number of horses. Ten bait trapping areas are identified in the study.

In the past, large amounts of horses were removed, including 74 in 2007 and 50 in 2011. The new analysis concludes that removing smaller numbers of animals not only improves genetic viability, it also improves adoption rates, keeping them from entering long-term holding facilities.

Under Alternative A, herding by horseback-mounted riders could be used in conjunction with the two techniques but would not be used for actual capture of wild horses. It would also allow for the continued collection of herd characteristics, health examination of individual animals, and collection of genetic samples for monitoring genetic variation and viability.

Traps would be temporarily constructed using 15 to 25 portable steel panels. The traps would be built to allow wild horses to move freely through them until they are accustomed to the panels. A remote-controlled gate then traps them inside the pens.

Under Alternative B, the horses would be rounded up by helicopters and horseback-assisted roping. Trap sites would be located in previously used helicopter-gather trap sites.

The BLM anticipates roundups will be necessary for the next 10 to 20 years in order to manage herd populations. The agency also will revise the Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area Plan to incorporate future goals and techniques for herd management.

According to the environmental analysis, “removing excess wild horses would keep the wild horse population in balance with the ecosystem and help to ensure that the land health standards for upland soils, healthy plant and animal communities, riparian, special status species and water quality are being achieved.”

According to the study, one application for guided wild horse viewing tours is under consideration by the field office. It could authorize about 10 trips per year with up to 12 clients per trip.

Review the environmental assessment and submit comments at To be considered, comments must be received by Aug. 27. Comments may also be mailed to the BLM Tres Rios Field Office, Attn: Mike Jensen, 29211 Highway 184, Dolores, CO 81323.