Earth scorched by fire and drought is the view from the truck of a Mesa Verde National Park biologist as it rumbles down Morefield Canyon.
In the distance, a water war is taking place between two species of animals, one wild, one trespassing, both thirsty and struggling to survive.
Squaring off on either side of a small muddy spring, a herd of elk and a band of feral horses stand their ground until spooked by curious humans and their approaching machine.
The elk quickly flee out of view, kicking up dust. The horses casually move just a little more away, turning to stare.
The drama plays out every day, says Paul Morey, a wildlife biologist hired to handle the persistent livestock trespass problem at Mesa Verde.
“There are limited water sources on the park, especially in a drought, and therefore competition is high between these two groups of animals,” he said. “It puts pressure on native wildlife.”
Remote-sensor cameras recorded 1,000 images at the little spring, and the majority were of horses. Out of 57 “interactions,” 76 percent were of horses chasing off elk and 24 percent were elk doing the chasing.
Scattered throughout the park – from Wetherill Mesa and Farview to Morefield and Long Canyons– are 100 to 117 feral horses, making up 13 to 15 bands.
The colorful Morefield band is the most diverse on the park, featuring horses with deep red, white, black, and tan colors. A white stallion aggressively runs off a younger male trying to join the group. A recently born foal keeps close to his mother.
Dubbed “trespass livestock” they've become tourists attractions and exhibit crafty behavior, figuring out how to open an ice machine to happily munch on a frozen treat, and breaking open water lines. They loiter wherever there's water, including near bathrooms and restaurants, and also at the treated outflow from septic ponds.
But the horses present a perplexing problem for park managers because they trample cultural sites, cause erosion and chase native wildlife away from natural springs. They are territorial and can be aggressive, presenting a threat to visitors and staff.
“We've had a report of a visitor feeling threatened, and they have followed us on horseback, once nipping at the rear of our horses,” Morey says. “We've had to do some hazing with a special paint gun, and seen tourists feeding them cantaloupe and watermelon – not a good thing to do.”
Horses are an iconic image of the West, and they have been at Mesa Verde National Park since it opened in 1906. Early on, the park included grazing allotments, and there were scattered homesteads complete with pioneer horses.
Their descendants hold on, but their time may be limited.
The park has redoubled its efforts to coax the horses off of Mesa Verde. They are working with the bordering Ute Mountain Ute tribe to the south, which also has a problem with feral horses competing with cattle and threatening ruins in the historically rich Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park.
Deer and elk will get the advantage this summer at the Morefield Canyon spring. Specialized mesh fencing will replace 15 miles of barbed-wire fence at common border crossings. The high tensile-strength mesh fence is at a height deer and elk can leap over, but not horses. Room is provided for smaller wildlife to pass under.
“We'll see how it goes. The horses could try and push it over, but hopefully they will move on,” Morey said. Cameras will be set up to observe the reaction.
The goal is to direct the horses to the western and southern boundaries of the park where one-way, exit-only gates are being installed.
Park round-ups and birth-control methods using darts on mares are not in the management plans because of the cost, difficulty and rugged terrain.
The park classifies the herds “trespass” horses. They aren't considered “wild” and don't qualify for protected status under the Wild Horse and Burro Act, Morey said.
Free horses, and sometimes lost cattle, are attracted to Mesa Verde's cooler temperatures in summer. Three feral bulls have taken up residence in Long Canyon, and need to be evicted.
Horse with no home
The park and the Ute Mountain tribe share the problem of managing feral horses.
“We have good communication about both of our plans. They're addressing the issue as well,” Morey said.
Once the horses get shut out of the park and onto Ute land, they become a problem for the tribe's cattle operation because they compete for range and take advantage of stock water.
Don Tozer, a rancher for the Ute Mountain Utes, is charged with managing the renegade horse herds on the reservation. Recent roundups have netted 350 horses, he said.
“We found a buyer, but there is more work to be done,” Tozer said. “It is a problem because nobody has a use for horses anymore like in the past. They populate very quickly out here.”
The tribe still has hundreds more feral horses, he said, and additional round-ups are likely.
“We have such limited range, and we need it for our cattle operation,” he said. “The horses really hammer the vegetation, walk across our ruins, and damage riparian areas.”
For the charming Morefield herd, taking away their water is bittersweet, but park officials feel it is necessary to protect natural wildlife and cultural resources.