By Katharina Buchholz
A dozen 2-year-old mares pushed their noses through the metal bars of the holding pen at the prison complex outside of Cañon City, Colo., and curiously nudged the people standing outside. Some allowed the visitors to pet them, while others flinched at the extending hands. Despite their apparent tameness, the animals were born into the wild, gathered off the Western range in an effort to control their population growth.
One of the people reaching out his hand to wild horses was Randy Barnes of Buena Vista, Colo. The 59-year-old music teacher hoped to adopt a mustang. Adoption is a way in which these so-called excess horses can find a new home.
“I realized that there are so many mustangs that go through this process, so I thought I might learn how to train horses,” Barnes said. “It’s really awarding to see the wildness fade away and to see their trust building.”
Less than a thousand wild horses live in Colorado today. In the last six years, the Bureau of Land Management has removed roughly the same amount of mustangs from Colorado’s Western Range to control an annual population growth of 18 to 25 percent. While older horses are passed on to long-term holding pastures located in Midwestern states, a large number of younger, adoptable horses are kept at the short-term holding facilities in Cañon City. But few of the wild mustangs of the West find a domestic use. The horses that remain are a growing financial challenge, as their numbers — and the cost of their feed – are bound to increase in the future. While contraceptive initiatives exist, their implementation is expensive especially for remote and dispersed herds.
Barnes has adopted four wild horses in the past four years, two of them from the Cañon City facility. He currently owns one.
“I would train them for trail. I might keep them, or I might sell them,” he said, adding that mustangs’ short build and sure-footedness make them ideal companions on backcountry trails. “You have to make a time commitment and really put the effort in.”
Barnes, who had a horse as a child, said he knew little about breaking mustangs but recognized the need for someone to adopt them. He was one of only two people interested in adopting a wild horse on the facility’s adoption day, which takes place every second Friday.
“Who wants to buy an untrained, potentially dangerous horse?” Barnes asked.
In fact, Cañon City’s mustangs are dead stock rather than the popular symbol of Western heritage, an image that helped them gain their protected status. The federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 recognizes wild horses as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and protects mustangs as well as wild donkeys, or burros, from unauthorized capture, branding, harassment or death.
Now inside the enclosure, a group of 3-year-old mares surrounded Barnes, his friends Thad and Mary Putnam, also of Buena Vista, and the facility’s Wild Horse and Burro Program leader Fran Ackley, who was taking the group around the pens. The conversational tone was friendly. Barnes is a frequent guest. He pointed out a flaxen horse with white socks and knots in its blonde mane.
“A Belgian,” he said.
The naming of the color pattern, which shows frequently in wild horses, is not incidental.
Belgian Draft horses worked on American farms and pulled freight wagons through city streets. After the Belgium government exhibited them at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, the breed became one of the most popular working horses in America.
“They are descended from draft horses,” Ackley said. “When the gas-powered engine was developed, some of the horses they used for pulling were just turned loose.”
But Americans not only turned their horses out on the prairie, they also used wild herds as a source of domestic horses. The Pony Express used mustangs on their Western routes. The Nez Perce Indians of eastern Oregon and western Idaho cultivated wild herds. Gelding, or neutering, stallions they considered inferior, the tribe bred the Appaloosa horse, known for its colorful leopard-spotted coat.
Ackley said that changing demographics made it hard to find adopters for today’s wild horses.
“Kids don’t want to be outside. They are interested in texting and Facebooking,” he said. “Horses become obsolete.”
Ackley’s colleague, Brian Harding, agreed.
“We’ve definitely seen the average age of the adopter go up,” said the supervisor of the Wild Horse Inmate Program.
Coping with limited resources and an increasing number of horses, the BLM has joined forces with another one of Colorado’s growing populations – prison inmates. Participants of the Wild Horse Inmate Program are minimum-security prisoners at the East Cañon Correctional Complex – a facility made up of five different prisons and housing over 3,500 inmates. Still, operating the holding facility is pricey.
“Temporary storage is a financial challenge, because it costs to feed those horses, but you don’t see the kind of environmental impact you would have if you left all those horses on the public lands,” said Steven Hall, spokesperson for the BLM in Colorado.
The BLM manages the public land wild horses graze on for multiple uses. Horses, as well as livestock and elk and deer populations, are allocated certain grazing rights.
“Horses are, in a biological scheme of things, hearty eaters. Very quickly horses would dominate that ecosystem,” Hall said.
If mustangs exceed their allocation, the animals are captured and stored to avoid overgrazing. Temporary storage in pens indefinitely leads to long-term pasture holding if horses don’t find adopters.
In a different pen, Barnes had his eyes on a chestnut mare with a broad white blaze, blue eyes and a plastic tag with the number “0179” around her neck.
“Nice composition,” he remarked.
In the wild, horses receive names like “Cheyenne,” “Splash” or “Indian Rose” by local advocacy groups who catalogue herds. At the Cañon City facility, they receive numbers.
“Names are not good, people attach human emotions to them,” said program leader Ackley. “We cannot manage horses on an individual level; we have to manage on a herd level.”
Wild horse populations exist in all Western states except Washington. The BLM, which manages the horses under a federal mandate, indefinitely retains around 47,000 animals nationwide. In 2010, they removed almost 10,000 horses from the range, but only 2,742 were adopted. The BLM estimates that there are still 11,000 more horses and burros roaming free than the range can sustain.
Approximately 50 percent of the 2,405 horses at Cañon City come from Wyoming. The facility also has horses from Utah, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Oregon. Since 2009, captive mares gave birth to approximately 300 colts and foals in Cañon City. Many horses have been moved to long-term pastures, having become too old for adoption. Only 170 animals are wild captures from Colorado.
More Colorado horses could join the facility soon. The Sand Wash herd management area, 157,730 acres located in the northwestern corner of Colorado, has an acceptable management level of 163 to 363 head. The BLM currently estimates a population of 327 horses.
“Right now, we’ve tentatively planned for a gather in Sand Wash in 2013,” said BLM spokesperson Hall.
The gather would return populations to the low end of the acceptable management level. The BLM currently gathers wild horses using helicopters, and gathers take place every three to five years. After the entire herd is rounded up, the desired number of horses is removed.
Local activist Nancy Roberts, of Craig, Colo., sees room for improvement. Roberts, who maintains a blog for the Sand Wash Basin Wild Horses Club, advocates annual bait trapping. The decentralized capture method consists of luring herds into multiple corrals using feed or water over a period of months.
“You have to get them when they are babies for people to adopt,” Roberts said in a phone interview, adding that bait trapping would give the BLM the opportunity to remove foals as they are born and would also expose the horses to lower stress levels.
Last March, the BLM opened a bid seeking bait-trapping contractors. In October, the bureau successfully removed 93 burros from public lands in Arizona using the new method. More bait gathers are planned to commence by the end of September in Nevada, Montana, California and Oregon.
Unlike livestock or elk and deer, wild horses lack commercial uses as well as natural enemies.
The Sand Wash area, like many of the herd management areas, has a mountain lion population, which could act as a natural population control for mustangs. But predator numbers are managed to lower game damage levels, ensuring an ample hunting season and near-zero human conflict levels.
“We manage for hunting, because as an agency, we manage over 900 species, and yet we do not receive a single general fund tax dollar,” said Randy Hampton, public information officer for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “We are funded because we sell hunting and fishing licenses. There is an economic equation that goes into that.”
Hampton added that while larger predator populations would theoretically be possible, they would have further ramifications for outdoor recreation, cattle raising and the protection of endangered species like the sage grouse, which can be found in some herd management areas.
While the Colorado Division of wildlife is responsible for all native species that live on public land within the state, they do not manage wild horses, a species brought to the Americas during colonialization.
“I think they are a piece of our history; they are a piece of our heritage, but does that make them wildlife?” Hampton said. “We view them basically as a feral species; they are not a native species to Colorado.”
Thad Putnam, who helps Barnes train his adopted horses, is little concerned with these circumstances.
“A lot of people like to argue about whether the horses are native or not. Who cares? We have a law that protects them,” said the 54-year-old river rafting guide. “I don’t care if they are imported from Mars.”
Most horses he and Barnes examined on adoption day were chestnuts and browns. Appaloosa patterns or patterns consisting of large patches, so-called Pintos, which were first introduced into the Americas by the Conquistadors, can still be seen at today. At Cañon City, all horses exhibiting them shared a pen towards the Northern end of the facility.
“They are for the Mustang Magic,” said Lona Kossnar of the Wild Horse Inmate Program, referring to annual horse show. “Trainers pick them up. You can adopt them at the show. It’s all color.”
Kossnar talked about the Mustang Magic Trainer Challenges, which sees wild mustangs and their trainers compete for prices between $12,500 and $250,000. In 2012, The Mustang Heritage Foundation is planning nine events in seven states, one of them in Fort Collins, Colo. The nonprofit adopted out over 200 mustangs at similar events in 2010. Over the last five years, the foundation has connected over 2,000 mustangs with new owners. Apart from prominent sponsors like Dodge, Pfizer Animal Health and Western Horseman magazine, the Mustang Heritage Foundation is receiving government grants and private donations to run their programs.
Ackley said the Cañon City facility did not receive the means to advertise more adoptions.
“It is hard for us to compete. There is no federal support for this program,” he said.
Hardin said adopting out horses was a challenge.
“You have to be a mustang lover these days,” he said.
Even though it costs only $125 to adopt a wild mustang, owners increasingly feel the price of feeding a horse.
“Unless you have a use for a horse, they have pretty much become a luxury,” Ackley said. “The price for hay compared to seven months ago is double.”
The 2011-2012 United States hay production was down seven percent compared to the previous year’s harvest, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But at the same time, yield per acre was down three percent. As a result, hay prices skyrocketed. The cost of operating the Cañon City facility was around $2.2 million in the 2011 fiscal year.
One solution to the growing number of horses could be a contraception program, successfully implemented in the Little Bookcliffs herd management area through a cooperation of the BLM, the local De Beque city council and wild horse advocates.
“It has worked well and we all work together making sure the mustangs in our area are doing well,” said Ronda Clark of the De Beque Wild Horse Council in a phone interview.
Approximately 30 miles east of Grand Junction, The Little Bookcliffs herd management area comprises 36,113 acres northwest of Interstate 70. The area is currently home to 130 horses. While management plans specify that 20 to 60 horses have to be taken off the land every three to four years to maintain stable populations, the area could skip its last scheduled gather. When horses have to be taken out of the area, most find a home within the local community.
“That happens frequently,” Clark said, adding that almost the entire local advocacy group Friends of the Mustangs owned adopted mustangs. “They can ride them; they enjoy them like any other horse. They also help people who adopted a horse and need some guidance.”
Clark added that the local wild horse advocacy group worked together with the BLM to administer fertility drug porcine zona pellucida, which blocks pregnancies in mares for up to one year.
Because of the approachability and concentration of the herd in one area, the treatment is administered by dart gun. The BLM also treats mares with the fertility blocker when herds are rounded up, but because of the gathers’ infrequency, the treatment proved less effective.
Activist Nancy Roberts would like to see a dart gun program for the Sand Wash herd.
“They are fairly tolerant to people. You can dart them,” Roberts said, adding that the team administering the drug would have to be paid.
“To go out there and back, it’s a 200 mile trip,” she said. “Craig is not full of rich people.”
Other than the Sandwash herd management area, the Little Bookcliffs area is set apart only for wild horses. While this aids herd management, opinions on sanctuary herds are divided.
“The reason why wild horses are protected is not because you could see them, or because they were at the end of a dart gun,” Ackley said. “It was because of their wildness. It was because they were a dust cloud. I think it’s OK to have a couple of zoo herds, but that’s not what it’s about.”
Whether at least one of Cañon City’s wild horses will find a home was still unclear. Randy Barnes had shortlisted 19 horses, but couldn’t seem to make up his mind. If the BLM hears back from him, there will still be 2,404 horses at the Cañon City facility. Ackley added that the problem of excess horses would inevitably be passed on to future generations.
“The answer is going to come from the people, and I hope it’s a reasonable answer,” he said.
Trading the urban jungles of her native Germany for the foothills of Colorado, Katharina Buchholz developed an interest in the environment that now surrounds her everywhere. Katharina arrived in Boulder in 2011 on a year-long Fulbright scholarship, but has refused to return home. Born to a long line of coast dwellers, she now enjoys hiking and skiing as much as sailing and windsurfing. Katharina earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies and Sociology from the University of Hamburg. Curiosity about different cultures led her to work in Australia, New Zealand and China, study in the Czech Republic and an internship in public relations in India. If you give her any time off, she is sure to pack her bags and head for the closest border.