Wild Horses And the Politics of the West

Updated: This is the first part of a short series of stories about the politics of wild horse management in Northwestern Colorado that may eventually lead to eliminating one of the last icons of the West in Colorado.

Wild horses have been the symbol of the Old West ever since the Spaniards first trekked into western America in the early 1700’s and some of their stock escaped. For more than 300 years, these mustangs roamed free in Northwest Colorado and became an important part of the Mountain Ute and pioneer culture.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingFew would argue that wild horses have transcended into symbols of the New West, too, as herds are now managed by the Bureau of Land Management  and legislated by Congress. Pressure from cattlemen and oil and gas development, in addition to drought conditions, have spurred the BLM to cull hundreds of wild horses off the open range around Meeker, Grand Junction and Rangely. In December 2004, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., forwarded the “Burns amendment” that allowed horses 10 years old or older, or those that have been unsuccessfully put up for adoption three times by the BLM, to be sent to slaughter.

Animal rights groups and wild horse advocates lobbied Congress hard, stopping the flow of wild horses to slaughter in 2005. After months of delaying any wild horse sales, the BLM resumed the practice early in 2006 with many new rules and regulations that stifled the horse meat trade.

This past weekend, the BLM conducted their first wild horse sale since 2002 in the arid and desolate Piceance herd management area west of Meeker. About 25 animals under five years old were offered for auction.

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Once the horses are rounded up by helicopter and ATV’s, they are shipped to the Yellow Creek holding area. A maze of chutes and pens help the BLM handlers separate horses by age and sex.

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The horses are kept in small pens with food and grass hay. The yearlings and foals settle down within a few days, but the two-year olds on up are still easily spooked by sudden movements and sounds.

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A small group of buyers, the curious, old ranchers and mustang advocates meander in alleys between the pens to view the horses. Less than half of the visitors will bring home a horse.

There are no “typical” buyers. Some make the journey to buy “the last vestige of the West.” For others, it was to acquire a cheap horse (bidding starts at $125.) Some purchase to “rescue” a horse or two from a doubtful future.

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A silent auction about an hour long is conducted. Only the foals have competitive bidding. Half the horses never attract a buyer, mostly the one to two year olds.

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This little guy to the right is tuckered out by the noise and excitement.

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Even though the horses are separated, the “Alpha” animals still mark their territory with threatening facial gestures.

The BLM staff does their best to see that every animal gets a home, but a lot of would-be buyers also get a dose of reality: it’s not easy to tame a wild horse.

The remaining animals will be sent to Canyon City where a unique prison program that teams troubled men with outlaw horses gives each a chance for a better life.

Coming next: Wild horse management-politics and reality. Photos by Leslie Robinson

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