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Colorado animal sanctuary acquires land to give wild horses refuge

 Several wild horses run around the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area created by the Bureau of Land Management in September 2021.
Bureau of Land Management
Several wild horses run around the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area created by the Bureau of Land Management in September 2021.

A Colorado nonprofit is setting aside thousands of acres of land in an effort to protect hundreds of wild horses.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary acquired the land needed for its Wild Horse Refuge last month and plans to open in the spring. Covering 22,450 acres near the town of Craig in northwest Colorado, it’ll be one of the largest private wild horse reserves in the nation.

Formerly known as Rio Ro Mo Ranch, the land's new owners hope it will hold some 500 horses from the Bureau of Land Management's nearby Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area.

“It's very close to the Sand Wash Basin, so it's almost identical in a lot of ways with what the horses already live on,” said Pat Craig, the executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary. “I think one of the advantages of this ranch is that the horses probably feel like they just moved on to the neighbor’s house.”

The group created the refuge in response to controversial roundups by the BLM in the Sand Wash Basin and on other public lands in the state over the past few years. The federal agency uses bait-traps and helicopters to corral horses, part of its efforts to keep wild horse populations in check.

Horse advocates argue that horses are frightened by the roundups and treated poorly at federal facilities. They point to 145 horses dying from a disease outbreak at the BLM's facility in Cañon City, Colo., last year. A BLM review found that the agency had failed to vaccinate horses in a timely manner. The American Wild Horse Campaign said the agency's report offered yet more proof of "widespread animal welfare violations ."

"We conduct wild horse gathers whenever the population of wild horses has exceeded the carrying capacity of a given area," said Steven B. Hall, the BLM's Colorado communications. "And they're done in the most humane way possible."

The agency's tasked with managing roughly 82,000 wild horses and burros across 10 Western states. Less than 2,000 wild horses are in Colorado, but they're still the subject of impassioned debate. Advocates view them as a culturally significant part of the American West, while others consider the animals an invasive species. The BLM's in the middle, attempting to manage fast-growing wild horse herds in a way that balances other uses and other species. Hall noted that 2021's Sand Wash Basin roundup, for example, was mostly focused on protecting the imperiled greater sage grouse.

“We want to see healthy herds on healthy public lands, so that's going to mean the removal of some horses at some point in time,” Hall said. "So if refuges provide that home for horses, that's a wonderful thing. But it's important to remember these are domesticated species but classified as wild horses under federal law – they are genetically identical to the horses that you would see on a ranch or on a farm anywhere in the U.S.

"So finding homes for these horses, that really is a good solution for us to manage the numbers of horses and also manage the environment."

Hall disputes claims by horse advocates, stating the BLM follows a “comprehensive” animal welfare protocol.

“The people who are opposed to horses being gathered in general are never going to be satisfied with how those horses are handled. That's probably just a reality,” Hall said. “But the BLM has proven time and time again that we do provide humane handling of wild horses.”

Craig sees the Wild Animal Sanctuary as the “middle man” in this debate. He said the organization is in talks with the BLM and intends to relocate some of the agency’s horses to its refuge to offer a suitable home.

“That's really what we specialize in is giving these animals their more or less pristine environment to live in,” he said. “We'd really like to see the horses be able to run free there for the rest of their lives and then help the state and the people of Colorado understand that there is a problem with horses if they do over-breed.”

Scott Wilson, the Colorado spokesperson for the American Wild Horse Campaign, supports the refuge, but said he'd rather see the animals stay on public lands.

“Certainly life in a refuge is a far better prospect than an uncertain life,” he said.

Wilson noted that the Wild Horse Refuge's 22,450 acres equates to less space per horse than Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area's 157,730 acres. He also mentioned many of these refuges use contraceptives to control horse reproduction — something that he thinks these horses should be able to do freely.

"One of the important objections to removing wild horses from the wild — or indeed placing them in a refuge — is that removal signals the end of the bloodline, with all stallions automatically gelded upon removal," he said. "Preserving wild horses in the wild is the only way to ensure diversity of the herd and continuity of important bloodlines."

Other refuges in our region include the Sky Mountain Wild Horse Sanctuary in New Mexico, Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary in Wyoming and the Nevada Wild Horse Range.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Emma VandenEinde
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