Horse News

Horse deaths trigger protest at Mesa Verde

Park service employees Neil Perry and Jesse Farias discuss the horse issue with protester Denise Milleron Tuesday. Six wild horses died at Mesa Verde during the recent dry spell. The park policy is to not feed or water wildlife.

photo by Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Park service employees Neil Perry and Jesse Farias discuss the horse issue with protester Denise Miller on Tuesday.  Six wild horses died at Mesa Verde during the recent dry spell. The park policy is to not feed or water wildlife.

The recent deaths of six feral horses at Mesa Verde National Park triggered an organized protest Tuesday in front the park’s Visitor and Research Center.

Protesters demonstrate Tuesday outside the Mesa Verde Visitors Center after six wild horses were found dead in the park.

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Protesters demonstrate Tuesday outside the Mesa Verde Visitors Center after six wild horses were found dead in the park.

A remote-sensor camera captures feral horses chasing off an elk at a natural spring in Morefield Canyon in Mesa Verde National Park. Park biologists are attempting to control the feral horse population to ease pressure on native wildlife.

Photo courtesy of Mesa Verde National Park

A remote-sensor camera captures feral horses chasing off an elk at a natural spring in Morefield Canyon in Mesa Verde National Park.  Park biologists are attempting to control the feral horse population to ease pressure on native wildlife.

Protesters say the horses died of dehydration, and they demand that the park change its ban on providing water for the horses.

“It’s unethical and inhumane to deny these horses water at a national park,” said Denise Miller, of Dolores, who organized the protest.  “Until a solution is found on what to do with them, they deserve better treatment.”

More than 100 feral horses – 13 to 15 bands – are scattered throughout the park.  The horses cause resource damage, compete with native elk and deer at natural water holes, and may threaten tourists.

‘Significant’ die-off

On July 8, park biologists discovered a gruesome scene at Wetherill Mesa. Four horses were found dead, including a foal, said Neal Perry, a park wildlife biologist.

“They did not all die at once.  But that is a significant number to find, so we understand the public’s concerns,” Perry said.  “Dehydration likely played a role.  When it gets really dry like it has this summer, it is a real crux for them.”

Two carcasses, a mare and her foal, were found in early June.  Dehydration is not suspected because there was more water available then.

He said the park’s ban on feeding or watering wildlife is standard protocol for federal public lands.

To manage the horses, the park first fences in the feral horses so others don’t wander in from Ute Mountain Ute land.

“Once we isolate the bands within our boundaries, then we will begin the process of deciding how to better control them,” Perry said.  “That could be a roundup and sale, or birth-control techniques.  It’s a long process that will be decided with public input through the NEPA process.”

No natural springs have been fenced off to block horses, Perry said.

This summer and fall, wildlife-friendly fencing is being installed on the western border of the park where horses are mostly coming and going.  Deer and elk can jump over, but horses can’t.  A earlier plan to install one-way gates, where horses can leave but can’t return was dropped.

Wildlife vs. horses

Limited natural water in the park is causing competition with deer and elk, Perry said. Cameras set up at a spring in Morefield Canyon document that horses chase off deer and elk 80 percent of the time.

“Elk and deer are native species, and horses are not. We feel the balance should be more in favor of native wildlife,” Perry said.  “Also, elk and deer have a natural instinct to move on when water is limited, whereas feral horses were once bred for certain attributes and become loyal to one water spot. When it dries up, it leads to dehydration.”

Competition among horse bands also leads to weaker individuals being denied access to water, he said.  Feral horses are fiercely territorial and will defend their water source from other horses.

“Elk and deer will die in search of water, where we see horses die at a watering hole that has dried up,” Perry said.  “They won’t seek out another source, because another band will deny them access.”

Horses have found ways to tap domestic water in the park, including breaking open water pipes and learning to open an ice machine, Perry said.  When broken lines are repaired and blocked off by maintenance crews, the horses relying on it may have trouble finding another source.

Perry points out that limited natural water sources and the high-desert environment of the park stresses all wildlife in summer.

“We find carcasses of all different species,” he said. “They die of all manner or causes, from disease, old age, predation and dehydration.”

Roundup dropped

In June, the park negotiated with the Colorado Chapter of the National Mustang Association to round up the feral horses.  The deal fell through because Colorado branding and inspection laws require all horses to be inspected, branded, and auctioned.

“The horse groups balked at that because meat buyers raise the price more than they can afford,” Perry said.  “They want to put the feral horses up for adoption.”

Perry said legal staff is researching whether the park can get around branding laws so they can conduct roundups that satisfy horse groups and reduce park populations.

Ute Mountain Utes have their own problem with feral horses, which compete with their cattle and trample archaeological sites.  This summer, the Utes have been rounding them up and selling them on the open market.

Protesters ‘courteous’

On Tuesday at Mesa Verde, seven protesters holding up pink signs pleaded their case to tourists walking to the park visitors center.  They say the current park plan is unacceptable because it means horses suffer unnecessarily.

“Providing them water does not seem too far-fetched,” said Sheila Wheeler, of Dolores.  “Horses have served us for hundreds of years.  It is ungrateful to turn our backs on them.”

She was holding a pink sign that read, “Cruelty to animals, Horses die on Mesa Verde.”

“Visitors have been appalled,” said Sandy Harris.  “They want to know more when we tell them horses are dying because of a lack of water.  Deer and elk can jump fences to get water, horses cannot, so they should be easier on them.”

The park took too long to handle the problem, said Ginny Getts, of Mancos.

“They need to keep the horses at a more manageable level so this does not happen again,” she said.

Park employees were on hand to provide information about the horse issue, and said the protesters were well-behaved and courteous.

“It is their First Amendment right to be here.  We’re not going to squash it,” said chief ranger Jessie Farias.  “They have been calm and not harassing visitors.  If there are more than 25, then they need a permit.”

A few tourists stopped to find out what the commotion was about.

“It’s an interesting issue,” said Luke Coley, a tourist from El Paso, Texas.

“Horses have survived here all these years. But are they still wild if we give them water?”

24 replies »

  1. They’d rather twist logic to promote their own agenda. If the BLM doesn’t consider them wildlife, but human cast-offs, isn’t it the decent thing to do to give them water?


  2. Well which is it? Are they wild life or are they feral? If they (the mustangs) are feral as they usually are (according to the government) then they should receive water but the other wild life should not be allowed to get any water. If they are wildlife then we should let them all die of dehydration??????? Makes sense to me – NOT.



    BLM Threatens Mesa Verde with Oil and Natural Gas Drilling

    BLM has not officially announced what parcels will be included in the Nov. 14 lease sale. But the agency plans to include the 12 deferred parcels, including the eight near the park, in a formal Aug. 15 lease sale notice 90 days prior to the sale, said Vanessa Lacayo, a BLM spokeswoman in Denver.

    The lease sale notice will kick off a 30-day protest period, during which time any of the parcels offered for lease can be challenged. BLM, Lacayo said, “has the discretion up until the morning of the sale” to remove any of the lease parcels.


  4. “Perry said, “They won’t seek out another source, because another band will deny them access.”
    Can’t believe that this is true. Horses aren’t stupid; they will stand at a barricaded water source that ranchers claimed for their cows though. Some humans are the ones who are cruel.


  5. Fracking near Mesa Verde and White River

    Colorado is home to some of the most beautiful national parks and forests in the country. But several of these treasured places—from White River National Forest to MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK are now threatened by the oil and gas industry’s plan to expand fracking.

    A threat to Colorado’s environment

    With well pads, compressors, pipelines and hundreds of truck trips, fracking in our national forests would mean turning some our most special places into industrial zones.

    And fracking uses millions of gallons of FRESH WATER , and leaves them polluted with toxic chemicals. This toxic wastewater can leak and contaminate our rivers and streams, and should be kept far away from our national forests and parks.


    • Book Cliffs had horses removed in recent years, and is the site of Utah’s soon to be opened Tar Sands mining operations:

      “The mine, about 180 miles (290 km) southeast of Salt Lake City, is operated by Calgary-based U.S. Oil Sands. It is set to become Utah’s first commercial fuel-producing tar sands operation when it opens next year.

      Grading and construction of a processing plant are under way…”

      (note that comments are already closed for this July 21 article)


  6. Frackers Spill Olympic Pool’s Worth Of Hydrochloric Acid In Oklahoma

    An acid spill on Monday in rural Kingfisher County northwest of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma could turn out to be the largest spill “in relation to fracking materials” in the state according to an Oklahoma Corporation Commission spokesman.

    Spokesman Matt Skinner said 480 barrels of fracking-related hydrochloric (HCL) acid, nearly enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, emptied out of a tank where it was stored. Acid is used in the fracking process to both clean wells and stimulate the flow of oil and gas. The cause of the spill, which occurred in an alfalfa field, is under investigation


  7. Two questions. Were autopsies done on the mare and foal who died mysteriously? If not, why not since if there is a communicable disease wending through wild herds it will eventually reach domestic animals too.

    And, per the Utes, why do they claim horses “trample” archaeological sites but not cattle??? Cattle especially are notorious for rubbing and chewing on just about everything, and congregate far more than horses typically choose to do.


  8. This area has been in the news before AND those in the WH&B advocacy know all too well what happens when Public Lands are subjected to Emergency Rehabilitation measures.
    Warning bells start to ring when Wild Horses or Burros become a “problem”.

    After the fires: Mesa Verde National Park

    Wetherill Mesa suffered the most damage in terms of destruction of modern buildings

    After the conflagration, a U.S. Department of the Interior Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) Team of scientists arrived to analyze the impact of the fires and suppression efforts and to recommend appropriate mitigation to prevent further damage. Their lengthy report documented damage to cultural and natural resources and infrastructure and prescribed rehabilitation measures. Funding of $3.2 million was then provided to Mesa Verde to start the proposed work that will take three to five years to complete. The BAER team also worked with the Ute Mountain tribe to assess the devastation and mitigate damage to soil, wildlife habitat and archaeological sites on the 6,808 acres that burned on their land south of the park. Another $301,000 will help the Utes and U.S. Bureau of Land Management with rehabilitation on their lands.

    In seven weeks in the fall of 2000, treatment crews worked in lower Morefield Canyon and Prater Ridge near Morefield Campground.

    Mitigation includes installing logs to stop erosion near any unprotected site and recording present status with a goal to stabilize it in its current condition. Building mortar may be replaced and water diverted to prevent flash floods across the site.


    • Rehabilitation of public lands after a fire should only be implemented if human life or building are at risk. Fire is nature’s way of cleaning house. Remember the huge fires in Yellowstone in 1988. They called that a 500 year fire and a let-it-burn policy was put into effect for most federal lands. There were small fires in the Boise National Forest the same year that were monitored. Yes, these fires are devastating to wildlife and trees and grasses, but that’s what happens. I’d hate to think what a fire there would have been like within the next 5 years if it had been aggressively controlled. New trees and grass started growing two weeks after the fire, a year later there were areas you couldn’t tell a fire had occurred. Some seeds won’t germinate unless subjected to extreme heat.

      Mitigation has its uses in controlling erosion and its impact to natural and historical resources. And it’s a good thing. Suppression to the fire event is not so good.


  9. HERE’S the problem.
    The Wild Horses have been FENCED OUT OF WATER sources by
    the National Park Service

    Posted on August 7, 2014 at 1:7 PM

    Instead of developing a humane management plan for the wild horses of the Mesa Verde National Park, the National Park Service (NPS) has fenced off the water sources in the park for these horses. Already six horses have died from dehydration, which is a horrible and painful way to die.


  10. I have been a horse fan most of my life and owned horses for over 20 years. It surprises me I have only just started researching wild horses in 2013 and on a road trip in 2014 I found a band of the Sulpher Springs horses in western Utah. What the NPS is saying in this article is contradictory: they don’t want the horses in the park and the explanation that they destroy habitat for other wildlife and trample archaeological sites isn’t a good enough argument, all animals, wild or not, have been doing that since cattle was first introduced ; then state there is a ban on feeding and watering wildlife in the park. And yet a lot of people in the Department of the Interior (BLM, NPS, NFS) argue horses are not wildlife. You can’t have it both ways. And the Department of Agriculture does not list horses as livestock. So, are horses still wild if you water them? Good question, but the best management is to let nature take it’s course. Feral means wild, so there is no distinction. The wild will manage itself. So there’s a bit of film showing horses running off a lone elk from a watering hole. Horses are territorial, so are elk, deer, and the little prairie. I could guarantee elk have run off horses from a watering hole. Horses do have natural predators (not man), and horses can jump at least a 5-foot fence; I had a mare who did just that and she didn’t have to run to do it. Animals have had natural die offs for millions of years to deal with overpopulation and cleanse the species. Even though there haven’t been any horses in the western hemisphere since the last ice age, they a are still a native and indigenous species. The “modern” horse as been in the Americas for over 500 years. Other animals have become extinct in some areas and the government will re-introduce them back into that area, ie the wolf in Yellowstone to control the overpopulation of deer and elk. Moose have been re-introduced into Colorado, but I don’t know for what purpose, except they at one time populated this state.

    Wild horses need to be classified as WILD once and for all. All factions of the government involved need to get on the same page. Yes, logical management is necessary, at long as it’s humane and low-risk. There needs to be better accounting of size herd, range travel, yes, even the biology the area. The public needs to be involved in this. To leave this to the BLM and other government entities keeps it awfully one-sided and unfair. I had read the BLM has used volunteers to evaluate herds. I’m continuing to investigate that, I want to be a part of that. The government has turned a blind eye to the meaning of public lands and how much public money they waste to make a point that is pointless.

    It’s going to take logic, responsibility, and accountability. And a lot more voices to management (the feds).


Care to make a comment?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.