Mesa Verde National Park prefers removal of ‘trespass horses’

Monday, April 16, 2018 6:23 PM
About 80 horses live off the land at Mesa Verde National Park. The park refers to them as “trespass horses” because park rules prohibit livestock grazing.
Free-roaming horses survive in the backcountry at Mesa Verde National Park. The park is proposing to remove the horses and fence them out.
An image from a game camera shows how wild horses at the park chase elk from watering holes.

Mesa Verde National Park is seeking public comment on a plan to remove free-roaming horses and cattle from the park’s interior.

Currently, about 80 “trespass horses” and 12 feral cattle roam the backcountry of Mesa Verde, which is known for its Ancestral Puebloan ruins. The animals are not considered wildlife, and the park does not allow livestock grazing under its management policy.

On Friday, a Livestock Removal Environmental Assessment was released for a 30-day public comment period on the issue. The park’s preferred Alternative B includes a phased, proactive approach to remove all livestock within five years, and improve the park’s boundary fencing over the next 10 years to prevent livestock from re-entering the park.

“We are working on how to humanely remove livestock from the park and identify potential homes for captured, unclaimed livestock,” said Mesa Verde National Park Superintendent Cliff Spencer. The primary capture methods identified in the preferred alternative include baited pen trapping and horseback roundups.

The National Park Service will coordinate with the Colorado Brand Inspection Division and local brand inspectors to identify possible owners of the trespass livestock, and will follow the most humane methods as defined by the American Veterinarian Medical Association, the park said.

Park managers have been working to reduce the population of the horses, including working with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe to return horses that have wandered onto the park from the adjacent reservation, said spokeswoman Cristy Brown. But because of the horses’ fast breeding rate, the park is looking for a permanent solution.

“Legally, we are not supposed to have them here,” she said. “They compete with native wildlife and cause damage to water lines.”

Park officials said additional action is needed.

“Park programs and practices, including maintaining fencing along its boundary, have not been effective at removing and preventing livestock from entering the park,” Spencer said in a cover letter.

The horses at Mesa Verde do not fall under the protection of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act. That law identifies specific public lands in the West where wild horses are managed long-term, and Mesa Verde National Park is not one of them.

Mesa Verde supports removalAccording to the park’s preferred plan, horses would be captured using baited pen trapping as the primary method of removal during the first two years at Morefield Spring, Chapin Mesa, Wetherill Mesa, Far View wastewater lagoons and Moccasin Mesa. A tamed “Judas horse” trained to lure horses into a pen or corral might be used.

After livestock have been removed from an area of the park, wildlife-friendly fences would be installed around the park and water sources to prevent livestock from recolonizing the area. A remote camera would determine whether livestock are still in the area. Water would be restored if remaining livestock are in distress.

The horses would be transferred to holding corrals and be provided with food, water and veterinarian care. Owners would be sought to retrieve branded horses.

The unclaimed livestock would then be offered by public or private sale, auction, adoption or donation on-site, with the National Park Service issuing a bill of sale.

Wrangler herding and roundup capture methods might also be used. Conditional helicopter herding would be considered if removal goals after the second year were not being met, according to the preferred alternative.

As a last resort to meet the removal schedule, horses that could not be captured with herding or pen baiting might be shot with anesthetic darts or shot dead.

The preferred alternative includes a partnership option with horse advocacy groups to help find buyers and homes for the captured horses.

Other alternatives droppedMesa Verde Park officials dismissed some alternatives that were suggested during the analysis’ scoping comment period. Several commenters suggested transferring the captured horses to other federal units that manage horse herds. But park officials said they didn’t find any takers.

Another alternative that was dropped after a review entailed transferring the horses to a sanctuary. A local group is considering creating a sanctuary near the park to accept captured horses, but when the park contacted five other sanctuaries in the area, three said they could not accept additional horses, and two did not respond.

“Other than this potential local effort, the National Park Service is unlikely to identify a willing sanctuary,” the report states.

Commenters also urged that the park prohibit the use of helicopters during roundups because of concerns for horse health. Park officials said helicopters are an acceptable method for roundup, and because of the parks rugged terrain, helicopters might be the best tool to drive horses toward holding facilities.

Others suggested that the park manage the horse herds by means including fertility control. But because the parks management plan prohibits managing trespassing livestock, the options were not considered.

Horses defended locallyThe horse issue at Mesa Verde National Park has been hotly debated in the Four Corners area. Advocates argue that the horses are naturally wild and should be allowed to stay because they are a historical part of the park. They point out that the impressive stallions and horse herds with foals are a tourist attraction and a historical part of the West.

Park officials said they understand the tourist attraction, but reiterated that their management plan does not allow the horses. They’ve struggled to control the horses, which cause problems such as breaking water lines, harassing elk at watering holes and trampling ruins.

In the summer of 2014, six horses died at the park, likely from dehydration. The deaths triggered an organized protest in front of the park’s Visitor and Research Center, and advocates urged park officials to provide water for the horses. However, feeding or watering wildlife is prohibited at the park.

“Providing them water does not seem too far-fetched,” Sheila Wheeler, of Dolores, said at the 2014 protest. “Horses have served us for hundreds of years. It is ungrateful to turn our backs on them.”

She was holding a pink sign that read, “Cruelty to animals, Horses die on Mesa Verde.”

How to comment

The 30-day public comment period for the draft Livestock Removal Environmental Assessment opened on Friday, April 13. Comments are requested by Sunday, May 13.
The public comment site is available online at
A printed copy will be available for review at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center Library. Call the park at 970-529-4465 to make arrangements to review one.
Comments may also be mailed to: Superintendent, Mesa Verde National Park, PO Box 8, Mesa Verde, CO 81330-0008.
The Journal