A federal agency's proposal to use helicopters to gather hundreds of wild horses in northwestern New Mexico has mustang advocates up in arms.
The Bureau of Land Management's New Mexico office plans to round up more than 277 wild horses off the Jicarilla/Carracas Mesa area near Navajo Dam, which is jointly managed with the Carson National Forest.
An estimated 405 mustangs now roam the 76,000-acre Jicarilla Wild Horse Territory of Carson National Forest and 32,000 acres of BLM-controlled land in the Carracas Mesa Wild Horse Herd Area.
Range managers say the herd should be much smaller, 50 to 105 horses, because there's not enough forage to keep the horses healthy, along with the elk, deer and three dozen cattle that share the area.
The BLM has issued a preliminary environmental plan for gathering the Jicarilla wild horses in January and February. The public has until Tuesday, Nov. 21, to comment on the proposal. The agency received more than 2,500 comments before drafting the plan.
The BLM's preferred option includes using helicopters, which the agency has used for decades to gather mustangs around the West, despite protests from wild horse advocates.
The last few years, the Carson National Forest has rounded up the horses by baiting them with hay and trapping them in hidden corrals, a method the BLM claims hasn't been effective in removing enough of the equines from the range.
Wild horse advocates say helicopters frighten the horses and injure more of them during a gather than no-chase methods like bait-and-trap. Plus, they say, there are other choices the BLM could use to reduce the herd size, keep it small and reduce the number of mustangs that end up in costly, long-term holding facilities. Restoring the number of mountain lions -- the mustangs' natural predator -- is one. Regularly using and tracking contraception is another.
"We're saying there aren't appropriate alternatives in the [plan]," said Patience O'Dowd, longtime advocate and founder of the Wild Horse Observers Association in Placitas.
Dave Evans, district manager for BLM's Farmington and Taos field offices, said all options are on the table for gathering the mustangs, including helicopters. "Helicopters is just one of the options we're considering for a big gather," he said. "We thought a more aggressive tactic could address this problem quickly."
He added that the BLM intends to administer birth control to most of the mares rounded up, but keep fewer than 100 for adoption. The others will be returned to the range. There simply aren't enough places to send the rest.
The Jicarilla and Carracas wild horse areas are home to rugged mesas and red sandstone canyons. They are also dotted with thousands of oil and natural gas wells, and in the fall, hunters comb the region for elk and deer.
The Carson National Forest's Jicarilla Ranger District has handled the mustang gathers in the Jicarilla since 1977 because the horses stayed primarily on forest lands. The Forest Service relied on helicopters until 1997, when three horses died during a roundup. Mustang advocates cried foul, contending the roundups harmed the horses and the Forest Service didn't need to remove so many.
From 1999 to 2004, no wild horses were gathered in the area while the Forest Service analyzed the range and came up with a management plan. In that time, the wild horse herds doubled from 93 to 197 animals, according to Forest Service reports.
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