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RBC I Wild horses are thriving in western Colorado on a vast, 190,000-acre area known as the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area. It’s an area southwest of Meeker in Rio Blanco County where the Bureau of Land Management has been managing a herd of wild horses since 1971, when the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed.
BLM manages four such wild horse herd management areas in Colorado. These are areas we manage specifically to maintain healthy wild horse herds that are in balance with other uses of the land – a “thriving natural ecological balance” as the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act states.
Since 1980, we’ve conducted 15 wild horse gathers, or round-ups, in the Piceance-East Douglas area, and we have another one planned this fall. These gathers have kept this herd and its habitat healthy for decades. We gather as many of the horses as we can, then selectively remove some of them from the range before returning the rest to the wild. The horses we remove are put up for adoption or sent to long-term pastures in the Midwest.
The need for the gathers is simple. Wild horses, while an important part of our historical heritage in the West, are not native wildlife to North America. That doesn’t make them any less important, it just means they are not a natural part of the existing ecological community of the western United States. Because of that, there are no effective predators to control their numbers.
Sure, more than 10,000 years ago the ancestors of modern horses roamed the grasslands of the continent. So did large predators like American cave lions, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and giant short-faced bears. Those prehistoric horses were not the same as these modern horses, nor were their predators.
Without effective natural predators or round-ups, other natural population controls would eventually kick in – like disease and starvation. The range and habitat for wild horses, livestock and wildlife would be decimated.
These wild horses have been associated with humans – and their numbers controlled by humans – as long as they’ve been on the Piceance. Genetic studies clearly show that the wild horses on the Piceance Basin are descendants of domestic North American breeds, which means their descendants either escaped or were intentionally released within the past 100 years or so.
We estimate there are currently about 382 wild horses in the Piceance-East Douglas area, plus another 78 outside of the boundaries of the wild horse management area. We are planning to gather wild horses in this area from Sept. 20 through the end of the month. We hope to return the population to the lower end of the range we are managing for, which is between 135 and 235 wild horses.
We also hope to administer a temporary fertility drug to the adult mares we release. This slows the growth rate of the herd without harming the mares or foals they are carrying. A slower growth rate would mean fewer gathers would be necessary.
We’re proud of the wild horse management we’ve done in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area. These wild horses are a unique resource, and I encourage you to visit the Piceance and view these living symbols of the American West.
For more information about wild horses, log onto BLM.gov/co. If you are interested in observing this year’s gather on the Piceance, call 970-878-3800.
Kent Walter has been the Field Manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s White River Field Office in Meeker since 2001.