Westerners struggle to manage the thriving wild horse population

Free-roaming horses graze in Plasetas, south of the Bureau of Land Management grounds near Llano del Norte and Mustang Road, in 2012. Wild horses roam private, state, and tribal lands across the West. (Greg Surber/Albuquerque Magazine)

Wild horses hold a special place in the mythology of the American West, with images of free-roaming horses grazing in the vast public pastures. But for some communities in New Mexico, the reality is tragically different.

Dehydrated and emaciated horses roam towns like Placitas, north of Albuquerque, in search of food and water, often staying away from home gardens or private farms. Their lands were cleared of pastures due to overgrazing and severe drought. Some residents climb when they can, and some feed up to 20 wild horses with hay they buy themselves. Other residents do not want Persians on their property, and feral horses have been involved in many recent car collisions.

While the public often believes that all wild horses live on federal lands managed by the US Bureau of Land Management, hundreds of thousands of wild horses roam private, state, and tribal lands across the West.

A sign on the highway via Placitas warns of wild horses. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Magazine)

Some state and local officials want more autonomy to handle the herds however they like, but face opposition over various management proposals. Some residents want officials to take horses out of overgrazed lands and put them in facilities, others put them up for auction, and still others want the horses to continue to roam freely. However, there is widespread agreement that wild horse numbers are swelling, and that fertility controls are needed.

Senator Brenda J. McKenna, D-Corales.

In New Mexico, growing herds have become a major concern, because there is no legal structure in place for the state or provinces to administer these populations on their land. Democratic Senator Brenda McKenna, who represents one of the affected communities in northern New Mexico, said this tied the hands of local authorities.

Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers including McKenna announced plans to introduce legislation next year that would bridge the legal gap.

Speaking at an event sponsored by the Northern New Mexico Riding Association, lawmakers said the bill would give state and counties the power to manage numbers of free-roaming horses, while also preparing funding for food, veterinary care, birth control and transportation to prevent overpopulation. , potentially administered by a new government agency.

“It’s simply not as sustainable as it is now,” McKenna later said in an interview with Stateline.

Senator Pat Woods, R Broadview

State Republican Senator Pat Woods, another supporter of the legislation, has been trying to change the state’s law on wild horses for the past six years without success. He noted that when it comes to wild horses, opinions are getting hotter.

Previous versions of the bill would have allowed the state to auction wild horses, but animal rights advocates were concerned that the horses would eventually be sold for meat processing in Canada or Mexico. There is also disagreement over whether wild horses should be defined as livestock or nuisance animals. Other versions of the legislation faced opposition from private property owners who felt the proposals would not prevent horses from their lands or dangerous highways.

This time, lawmakers called on different groups to come together to compromise to give local officials and organizations the power and tools they need.

“These horses can’t stay here until we do something,” Woods said. “I just hate to see animals in pain. It’s not a pretty sight.”

Some wild, underweight horses end up in the care of local sanctuaries like The Horse Shelter, a 128-acre ranch and rehabilitation facility in the high desert south of Santa Fe. Manager Susan Hemmerl said the hope is to adopt some of their 70 horses after providing veterinary care and training.

When the horses come to the shelter, she said, some are very emaciated. Their hooves grew, arched upward and sometimes a foot long. Some of these horses were born wild, and are offspring brought by European colonizers hundreds of years ago. But some escaped the hands of owners who faced tough economic times, and others escaped.

Hemmerle welcomed the bill from New Mexico lawmakers, which would allow counties to work with local horse rescues to care for and adopt horses.

“There is no doubt that it is required,” she said of the legislation. “But it’s a very ambitious, very complex, very complex mission.”

The Horse Shelter in Los Cerrillos rehabilitates malnourished wild horses, such as Polly, seen prior to treatment, and prepares them for adoption. Polly, right, is shown after treatment. As in many western states, New Mexico’s wild horses suffer from the problem of overpopulation. (Courtesy of Susan Hemmerl/Stateline.org/TNS)

The problems in New Mexico and across the West stem largely from overpopulation of the herd. The US Bureau of Land Management, which has managed wild horses and burrows on public lands since 1971, estimates that there are more than 82,000 horses and burrows on federal pastures across 10 western states — more than three times the number of horses that federal authorities say are sustainable for the system. healthy environment. In the government spending package approved in March, Congress described the situation as a “national crisis.”

But the horses that live on federal lands are only a fraction of the total number of wild horses in the United States. There are about 300,000 horses roaming in many different jurisdictions across the country, including Tribal Lands, according to a July 2021 study in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

“The bottom line is Rome is burning,” said Terry Mesmer, professor of wildland resources at Utah State University and one of the study’s authors. “You have to be innovative in looking for some of these solutions, and we have to do that now.”

In October, Messmer will bring together experts and institutions from across the country for the 4th Summit of the Free Roaming Equids Network and Ecosystem Sustainability to find better ways to manage healthy flocks in Western countries. He said that countries should have some ownership in this issue.

In Utah, lawmakers in recent years have committed hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to help draw attention to and manage the state’s wild horse population through contraception and removal from the range, according to Mark Bushell, legal counsel and policy advisor at the state’s public lands. Office of Policy and Coordination. It’s a drop in the sea, he said, but it benefits critical coordination between state agencies to restore overgrazing-damaged landscapes in a worsening drought.

He said, “Wild horses and burrows are in the pastures, and that’s a good thing.” “But they need to manage them.”

Many government agencies and experts have invested heavily in contraceptives for wild horses. It is not legal for federal officials to kill healthy horses. Authorities resort to euthanasia only if free-roaming horses and burros become seriously ill, and the last US horse meat processing plant closed in 2007.

Contraception, which is usually given by shooting drugs at horses with air-powered arrow guns, is the best way to deal with overpopulation, said Terry Neate, professor emeritus of animal reproduction at Colorado State University. But he said it requires more investment by federal and state lawmakers.

“There is a lot of work to be done, and the problem is getting worse,” he said.

While federal officials administer contraceptives to the herds, most of their resources go to collecting thousands of wild horses—often using helicopters to chase animals into traps—to get them out of overgrazed pastures and put them into holding facilities. Federal authorities estimate that the cost of keeping horses in a holding facility is $50,000 over their lifespan, which typically lasts about 25 years or more.

A few members of a large herd of wild horses, photographed in March 2013, near Placitas. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

In May, Colorado Governor Jared Polis appealed to federals to stop arrests of Mustangs in his state after 144 horses died at a holding facility in Canyon City, southwest Colorado Springs, when they contracted equine flu. Polis called for a “more cost-effective and humane” alternative – more birth control. Animal advocates and equine experts tend to agree with Polis’ position.

When applied in New Mexico, fertility treatments have been very effective, said Karen Hermann, manager of the Sky Mountain Wild Horse Sanctuary, with mare thriving alongside deer, wild cats and sheep. With their partners in the Mount Taylor Mustangs, the sanctuary injects the mares with the Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP, contraceptive vaccine.

The vaccine has significantly reduced the fertility rates of wild horses among 160 free-roaming horses in Sandoval County – the site of the reserve. Compared to 2019, reproductive rates among mares decreased by 70% in 2020 and by 57% in 2021 after receiving PZP. With a booster dose two years after the first dose, the drug can keep a mare sterile for more than four years, she said.

“It’s safe for the animal, doesn’t pass through the food chain and is reversible,” Hermann said.

Strengthening fertility control efforts is critical, said Jessica Johnson, chief government affairs officer for the nonprofit New Mexico Animal Protection and its animal protection arm. Johnson is part of a coalition of advocates, experts and lawmakers that has been trying to shape the legislation that lawmakers will introduce during the 2023 legislative session.

Placitas resident Mike Ness, who has fought against several New Mexico animal protection proposals, said fertility control couldn’t be the only solution. Solutions must respect the rights of private property owners and keep horses off public highways. He said the proposals did not sufficiently meet his concerns.

“I love horses,” said Ness, “but I want to protect my own property.” “We have free horses in limbo. Private property owners don’t want to see them killed. We just want proper management.”

Johnson said the bill would be just the first necessary legislative reforms, as it envisions the state creating or conserving a large wildlife sanctuary for this line.

“Horses are very deep in our history no matter who you talk to,” she said. “I think there is a sense that wild horses are a better part of our past, something that feels so natural and spiritual and free and free. It is sad to watch these horses take away their freedom and soul.”

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