News Column

Horse Power: Mustangs and Helicopters Don't Mix?

Page 2 of 1

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.

Mustang Gathers

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.

The agency's plan calls for limiting the horses to between 50 and 105 in the Jicarilla territory. Currently, there are an estimated 400 mustangs.

Anthony Madrid, who managed the wild horse program for the Carson National Forest from 2005 until last year and is now the Jicarilla district manager, said the agency agreed with horse advocates to change its roundups, including using helicopters only as a last resort.

Madrid worked with wild horse advocates on using bait-and-trap methods and an equine contraceptive called PZP with the Jicarilla wild horse herds and the Jarita Mesa herd in the El Rito Ranger District.

Gentler Methods

The agency has hired Dan Elkins, a contractor out of Grants, for the last five years to handle the bait-and-trap gathers. He works with Karen Herman of Sky Mountain Wild Horse Sanctuary to give contraception to select mares before releasing them. Elkins developed a sophisticated method of coaxing the horses into hidden corrals with food or water and using remotely controlled gates to quietly contain them. He's gathered 84 mustangs on Jarita Mesa this year alone with no injuries to the animals and helped reduce that horse herd close to the size the Forest Service considers optimal, said El Rito Ranger District supervisor Diana Trujillo.

In 2009, Elkins gathered 125 mustangs off the Jicarilla and another 73 in 2010, but that wasn't enough to keep up with the number of foals born, and the herds continued to grow.

"Dan has done a great job for us," said Madrid. "But I would say we have not been able to gather enough horses."

Mitigating factors make the gathers slower in the Jicarilla than in Jarita Mesa. During hunting season, the Jicarilla horses are more skittish and moving constantly. The territory is larger. And it takes more time to round up the horses using Elkins' methods.

"Now the population is so high, and gentle methods are not working to keep herd levels under control," the BLM's Donna Hummel said.

Helicopters may be the most effective way to quickly bring the population under control, she said. Madrid agrees that in the short run, it may be the best answer.

But longtime mustang advocates like O'Dowd say Elkins' methods combined with contraception are better, cheaper options to managing the herds than what the BLM has continued to do -- round up horses with helicopters, adopt some of them out and put the rest on pastures where the agency has to continue caring for them. Currently, 30,000 wild horses are in BLM facilities.

A Crossroads

The Carson National Forest and the BLM are at a crucial junction. The BLM is running out of room for the mustangs that aren't adopted and recently put out a request for ranchers or other property owners interested in establishing horse sanctuaries.

Madrid said the BLM isn't accepting horses from the Forest Service now because space is limited. He had been sending most of the horses to a prison program in Canon City, Colo., where prisoners trained the mustangs before they were adopted out. That program also is full. And the number of mustang adopters has declined in the last couple of years due to the bad economy and the high cost of feed, he said.

"We're really aiming to find a balance that is a sustainable herd," Madrid said. "I think the bait-and-trap with contraception will work [in the long term]."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters