Herds of wild horses will be removed from Mesa Verde National Park beginning this spring, according to a final decision released in March.
The park has 65 to 80 horses, but having them is in violation of federal policy, said park biologist Paul Morey. Dubbed “trespass” horses in park studies, they also compete with elk for limited water sources and impact cultural sites.
“We have documented the horses chasing away elk from watering holes,” Morey said.
The horses will be captured over the next five years using bait-trapping and wrangler roundup. The plan is to remove 50% this year and 80% by the second year.
If additional livestock enters the park after the five-year period, MVNP will remove them.
Once captured, the horses will be placed in a temporary holding facility at the park and be cared for by a veterinarian. Efforts will be made to return any branded horses to their owners.
The park is working with the Colorado Chapter of the National Mustang Association for relocation of the horses through adoption.
Tif Rodriguez, Colorado Chapter Executive director, said the group plans to begin a marketing campaign to place the horses in new homes.
While being held at the park, the horses will be identified, sized, aged and photographed, Rodriquez said. If possible, a trainer will begin gentling them to help the adoption process go smoother. Taking DNA samples to track their genetic heritage is also being considered.
“We are hoping to adopt as many as we can right from the park,” she said. “We have had a lot of interest. The horses are really beautiful with good sizes and unique colors and patterns.”
They will be advertised on the chapter’s website and social media sites.
Volunteers with the National Mustang Association also are prepared to foster captured Mesa Verde horses at locations in Montezuma County while they wait adoption, Rodriguez said. Horse sanctuaries will be contacted to take older horses that are less conducive for adoption.
The park has been installing improved boundary fencing to prevent horses from entering the park. The high-tensile, woven metal fence has been effective at keeping livestock out while being wildlife-friendly. Elk and deer can jump over the fence and not get tangled, and there is room at the bottom for smaller animals to pass.
So far, 5 miles of the specialized fencing has been installed in high priority areas, with a plan to install an additional 15 miles, Morey said. Replacing current fences with the woven style will take about 10 years.
The horses at the park are essentially wild or feral, but the park is not authorized under federal policy to manage or have them.
They are not protected under the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which has designated specific management areas, and Mesa Verde National Park is not one of them.
Horses defendedThe 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.
“We have been pushing for years for the park to keep and manage the horses, so we are sad about it not being in their mission purview,” Rodriguez said. “Now, our goal is to place as many as we can in new homes. There is definitely notoriety around adopting a Mesa Verde National Park horse.”
Park officials acknowledged that tourists like the horses but reiterated that the park cannot maintain 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.”