The recent deaths of six feral horses at Mesa Verde National Park triggered an organized protest Tuesday in front the park’s Visitor and Research Center.
Protesters say the horses died of dehydration, and they demand that the park change its ban on providing water for the horses.
“It’s unethical and inhumane to deny these horses water at a national park,” said Denise Miller, of Dolores, who organized the protest. “Until a solution is found on what to do with them, they deserve better treatment.”
More than 100 feral horses – 13 to 15 bands – are scattered throughout the park. The horses cause resource damage, compete with native elk and deer at natural water holes, and may threaten tourists.
On July 8, park biologists discovered a gruesome scene at Wetherill Mesa. Four horses were found dead, including a foal, said Neal Perry, a park wildlife biologist.
“They did not all die at once. But that is a significant number to find, so we understand the public’s concerns,” Perry said. “Dehydration likely played a role. When it gets really dry like it has this summer, it is a real crux for them.”
Two carcasses, a mare and her foal, were found in early June. Dehydration is not suspected because there was more water available then.
He said the park’s ban on feeding or watering wildlife is standard protocol for federal public lands.
To manage the horses, the park first fences in the feral horses so others don’t wander in from Ute Mountain Ute land.
“Once we isolate the bands within our boundaries, then we will begin the process of deciding how to better control them,” Perry said. “That could be a roundup and sale, or birth-control techniques. It’s a long process that will be decided with public input through the NEPA process.”
No natural springs have been fenced off to block horses, Perry said.
This summer and fall, wildlife-friendly fencing is being installed on the western border of the park where horses are mostly coming and going. Deer and elk can jump over, but horses can’t. A earlier plan to install one-way gates, where horses can leave but can’t return was dropped.
Wildlife vs. horses
Limited natural water in the park is causing competition with deer and elk, Perry said. Cameras set up at a spring in Morefield Canyon document that horses chase off deer and elk 80 percent of the time.
“Elk and deer are native species, and horses are not. We feel the balance should be more in favor of native wildlife,” Perry said. “Also, elk and deer have a natural instinct to move on when water is limited, whereas feral horses were once bred for certain attributes and become loyal to one water spot. When it dries up, it leads to dehydration.”
Competition among horse bands also leads to weaker individuals being denied access to water, he said. Feral horses are fiercely territorial and will defend their water source from other horses.
“Elk and deer will die in search of water, where we see horses die at a watering hole that has dried up,” Perry said. “They won’t seek out another source, because another band will deny them access.”
Horses have found ways to tap domestic water in the park, including breaking open water pipes and learning to open an ice machine, Perry said. When broken lines are repaired and blocked off by maintenance crews, the horses relying on it may have trouble finding another source.
Perry points out that limited natural water sources and the high-desert environment of the park stresses all wildlife in summer.
“We find carcasses of all different species,” he said. “They die of all manner or causes, from disease, old age, predation and dehydration.”
In June, the park negotiated with the Colorado Chapter of the National Mustang Association to round up the feral horses. The deal fell through because Colorado branding and inspection laws require all horses to be inspected, branded, and auctioned.
“The horse groups balked at that because meat buyers raise the price more than they can afford,” Perry said. “They want to put the feral horses up for adoption.”
Perry said legal staff is researching whether the park can get around branding laws so they can conduct roundups that satisfy horse groups and reduce park populations.
Ute Mountain Utes have their own problem with feral horses, which compete with their cattle and trample archaeological sites. This summer, the Utes have been rounding them up and selling them on the open market.
On Tuesday at Mesa Verde, seven protesters holding up pink signs pleaded their case to tourists walking to the park visitors center. They say the current park plan is unacceptable because it means horses suffer unnecessarily.
“Providing them water does not seem too far-fetched,” said Sheila Wheeler, of Dolores. “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.”
“Visitors have been appalled,” said Sandy Harris. “They want to know more when we tell them horses are dying because of a lack of water. Deer and elk can jump fences to get water, horses cannot, so they should be easier on them.”
The park took too long to handle the problem, said Ginny Getts, of Mancos.
“They need to keep the horses at a more manageable level so this does not happen again,” she said.
Park employees were on hand to provide information about the horse issue, and said the protesters were well-behaved and courteous.
“It is their First Amendment right to be here. We’re not going to squash it,” said chief ranger Jessie Farias. “They have been calm and not harassing visitors. If there are more than 25, then they need a permit.”
A few tourists stopped to find out what the commotion was about.
“It’s an interesting issue,” said Luke Coley, a tourist from El Paso, Texas.
“Horses have survived here all these years. But are they still wild if we give them water?”