Mesa Verde National Park has begun bait-trapping for wild horses as part of a long-term effort to habituate them for eventual capture, removal and adoption.
As many as 80 “free-roaming” mustangs live and breed in the park, in violation of the park’s management plan, which prohibits livestock. The horses compete with elk, deer and bears for grazing and water resources.
Last year, the park announced a decision for a phased, low-stress approach to gathering and removing the horses within five years. The project has been delayed because of restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic.
Currently, horses are being lured to strategic areas with water troughs, then salt licks and hay. As they habituate to the bait, sections of corral fences are positioned, and trained professionals stand nearby to get them used to people.
Eventually, a remote-triggered gate will close, trapping them. When captured, a second phase of removal and training begins to gentle the horses for adoption.
Officials say the more gentle bait-trapping approach is calmer than herding with cowboys and helicopters, which stresses the horses and makes them more difficult to tame and adopt.
The park consulted with Tim McGaffic, an expert in low-stress roundup techniques. Last year, techniques were developed for the bait-trapping.
The park has also partnered with the National Mustang Association Colorado Chapter to assist with the adoption process.
Park officials report the initial baiting process has gone well, said Nancy Schaufele, a spokeswoman for the National Mustang Association Colorado Chapter.
“The first band is becoming well-acclimated to human activity,” she said. “We’re grateful for the good job the park has done.”
Gathering and capturing the horses is still a way off, she said.
The project was “put on pause” when the park closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s now partially open.
During the pause period, the park will continue to monitor the horses and build the necessary structures for the gather, officials said. Baiting and acclimation to humans will continue throughout summer.
The Colorado Chapter of the National Mustang Association has agreed to take possession and title to all the gathered horses for adoption or placement in sanctuaries. Once captured in pens, horses will be fed, watered and monitored.
Before being adopted, the horses will be transported to the Mustang Camp in New Mexico to be gentled by professional trainer Patricia Barlow-Irick. The horses will be trained to be touched, groomed, haltered and loaded, and be ready for saddle training.
Low-stress habituation and trapping methods limit human-induced flight responses and improve their transition to domestic life, according to a YouTube video on the National Mustang Association Colorado Chapter Facebook page.
“Positive experiences occurring near humans, such as drinking water, eating hay or salt, create lasting positive attitudes,” the video says.
Fundraising for the project slowed because of coronavirus restrictions that prevent large social events. For more information and to donate, visit www.nmaco.org.
The horses at Mesa Verde do not fall under the protection of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act. That law identifies specific public lands in the West where wild horses are managed long term, and Mesa Verde National Park is not one of them.