The Bureau of Land Management has finalized a new plan for managing wild horses in Spring Creek Basin that builds upon current fertility control and bait-trapping practices.
Although the plan codifies practices that the Tres Rios BLM office already implements, the herd management plan had not been officially updated since 1994.
The revised plan of 2020 does not ban helicopter roundups, when the BLM uses helicopters to herd the animals into a pen for eventual adoption.
But the plan does allow for 50 to 80 wild horses in Spring Creek Basin, an increase from the current 35 to 65 horses.
“We have a really good situation here with our BLM, and we worked really hard to achieve that,” said TJ Holmes, a local wild horse advocate who has worked with the BLM to track the Spring Creek Basin herd. She also has advocated for the use of fertility control over disruptive helicopter roundups to manage the herd’s size.
A larger herd can help prevent inbreeding and deepen its genetic pool. But for Holmes, the increase also is a testament to the effectiveness of fertility control, a method for sustainable management that was not included in the previous plan from 1994.
The last helicopter roundup in Spring Creek Basin was in 2011.
The BLM uses data on vegetation and forage to determine the number of horses the land can sustain, as well as an environmental assessment to make sure the land meets Colorado rangeland health standards.
The minimum number of horses, 50 in Spring Creek Basin, ensures the BLM doesn’t reduce the herd to zero horses. It also promotes genetic diversity by increasing the number of breeding-age horses.
The new herd management plan was sent for review to about 6,000 people and organizations, many of whom track and advocate for wild horse protection, said Mike Jensen, BLM rangeland management specialist and manager of the Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area.
The agency received about 25 comments.
“Overall, they were very supportive of the proposed action,” Jensen said.
The revised plan gives the herd use of 35% of the forage grasses, the highest amount deemed sustainable for the land and horses. The management plan also factors in the migration of elk and deer into Spring Creek Basin during the winter months, Jensen said, though the management of those population numbers falls under Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“We don’t want to degrade the ecosystem,” Jensen said.
But the increase certainly shows the success of the system for Spring Creek Basin, Jensen said.
“The blueprint we have here works for us good,” he said.
Scaling upHolmes said she hopes the new management plan will serve as a model for other herds across the West, because it prioritizes kinder treatment of the wild horses. But Jensen said the scalability of the plan from smaller herds to larger herds with hundreds or thousands of horses depends on the human accessibility of the herds.
Holmes’ familiarity with the Spring Creek Basin herd helped the BLM identify the best mares to treat with fertility control, Jensen said. And because the open basin helps the herd become accustomed to humans, it is not as “flighty” as other herds.
PZP, the protein used in fertility control, is at least 90% effective, according to a series of BLM studies. But how different herd management areas administer it will vary, Jensen said.
Large herds that stretch across hundreds of thousands of acres will need a high percentage of mares to be treated early for fertility control to be effective. However, it can be difficult for humans to get close to the horses if they aren’t accustomed to human presence or can find easy cover in the landscape.
Legislative supportThe U.S. House of Representatives passed a wild horse protection amendment in conjunction with the State, Foreign Operations, Agriculture, Rural Development, Interior, Environment, Military Construction, and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act of 2020.
It requires the BLM to use at least $11 million of its annual operating budget for its Wild Horse and Burro Program on the humane fertility control vaccine PZP.
The amendment was led by a bipartisan team of lawmakers, including Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo.
“I am pleased to stand with the vast majority of my constituents and the over 80% of Americans who want wild horses protected on Western public lands,” Neguse said in a news release. “I’m proud that Colorado has been leading the way for humane management of wild horses with PZP fertility control.”
Jensen sees the new amendment as a positive thing, because it will direct the BLM to prioritize fertility control as an effective herd management practice. In turn, it will reduce roundups because there are fewer animals. That means fewer horses going into crowded holding pens on BLM land.
Holmes said she hopes the required budget for PZP will contribute to getting people trained on how to do it, as well as education and outreach on why it is effective.
“We’ve become a model,” Holmes said.
email@example.comA previous version of this story referred to the PZP vaccine as a hormone chemical sterilant per information provided on the Bureau of Land Management’s website. However, the correct science behind PZP identifies it as a protein that works for one year on a mare’s immune system to prevent contraception.