Wild horse "truce" stampeded by latest roundup

A few weeks ago, after an unusual public workshop in downtown Denver that allowed wild-horse advocates to air their concerns about alleged government mismanagement of dwindling herds, activists were feeling so encouraged that they called off a planned protest of the event. Everybody decided to hold their horses, according to Erin Bilir's report on the lovefest.

The truce was nice while it lasted. But now the wild-horse groups are on the warpath again over a roundup in Nevada that some, with typically heated rhetoric, are calling a potential "massacre."

The Tuscarora roundup could start as early as this weekend. The Bureau of Land Management is planning to gather around 1,400 horses in northeastern Nevada. Some mares will receive birth-control treatment and be released, but approximately 1,000 mustangs will be permanently removed from the range, taken to holding pens or pastures elsewhere, leaving a target herd of 350 to 550 horses.

The Colorado Springs-based Cloud Foundation and other foes of the roundups charge that the Tuscarora effort is being launched too close to foaling season, in violation of BLM's own protocols, and will cause unnecessary injuries and deaths among heat-stroked horses fleeing pursuit helicopters. They also claim that the public is being denied any access to observe the roundup.

"What is driving these roundups has very little to do with concern for vulnerable foals and everything to do with contractor availability and using up taxpayer money before the end of fiscal year 2010," Cloud Foundation director Ginger Kathrens claims in one of the organization's broadsides.

According to Debbie Collins, a spokeswoman for the BLM's National Wild Horse and Burro Program (her official title is "marketing specialist"), it's unclear when the roundup will actually start. "There's all sorts of things in process right now," she says.

The actual timing of a gather depends on many factors, she adds, including the availability of private contractors and how much of the BLM's wild horse budget has to go to feeding and caring for the animals. Because adoption has lagged well behind the horses' reproduction rates, there are now approximately 37,000 horses in holding facilities, at enormous taxpayer expense -- about as many as the BLM claims are now in the wild.

But Collins denies that there's anything unusual about the timing of the roundup or that it violates protocol. "Our gather plans have always started around this time of year," she notes. "We typically don't gather from February to early July. This is our normal schedule."

As for whether public observers will be permitted, despite heavy criticism of last winter's Calico roundup, Collins insists there will be access -- at some point. "The initial gather is on private land, and the landowner isn't allowing the public to come in," she says. "But once we get on public land, it's a different story. I am hopeful that we're going to be able to announce public observation days soon."

Meanwhile, the debate continues to rage over whether the BLM is deliberately managing the mustangs into extinction (by not leaving genetically viable herds on the range) or making headway in its efforts to stem a decades-long overpopulation problem. But activists have a new weapon in the public opinion battle: charges that British Petroleum, the infamous Gulf befouler, is tied to a pipeline running through rangelands the government seems eager to clear. For more on this wild conspiracy ride, go here.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast