A band of 80 feral horses and about 12 head of cattle roaming Mesa Verde National Park have rangers at a loss for how to handle the trespassing animals, which have caused significant damage to archaeological sites and pose a risk to visitors.
The animals, under law, are considered “trespass livestock” and have been banned from the park since 1908 – just two years after the site received the presidential designation that seeks to preserve significant prehistoric sites.
But ever since the early 20th century, when park officials attempted to fence off the park’s boundaries, livestock from surrounding properties managed to escape their enclosures and thrive on the arid land, about an hour’s drive west of Durango.
The Park Service responded by trying to mitigate the animals’ populations, but the agency recently said in a news release that existing park programs and practices, including maintaining existing fencing, have not been effective at managing livestock, and the number of trespass livestock, particularly horses, has increased during the past 20 years.
This has caused damage to archaeological sites, stressed resources for native animals and posed a threat to humans.
“The deer and other animals tend to stay away from the (archaeological) sites,” said Cristy Brown, public information officer for the park service. “But the livestock will go right across the sites. We’ve even seen cattle inside some of the structures in the backcountry.”
Brown said horses in the past have been struck by vehicles and even charged tourists who’ve come too close.
“We do our absolute best to prevent anything negative like that from occurring,” she said. “But the visitors definitely are attracted to any sort of animal they see in the park, whether it’s horses, deer, turkeys or bunnies. But they tend to associate horses as something that’s domesticated, and, unfortunately, these horses react in a different way than a horse in a petting zoo, and people don’t realize that.”
Last year, six feral horses died from dehydration-related causes, sparking protests at the park when rangers refused to provide the animals water – standard protocol for wildlife management on federal lands.
“Elk and deer are native species, and horses are not,” Neal Perry, a park wildlife biologist, told The Cortez Journal at the time. “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.”
Brown said there is a distinction between feral and wild animals. The animals are legally considered feral because they’ve eluded domestication and, therefore, do not qualify for protections under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which designates an area for the Spring Creek herd in Disappointment Valley.
That leaves only one legal option, park officials say: completely remove the livestock.
The NPS collaborated with the Colorado Chapter of the National Mustang Association last year to organize a roundup, but those plans fell through after it came to light that under law, the animals would have to be sold at auction, which could send the horses to the slaughterhouse.
Now, park service officials are seeking public comment about ways to remove the trespassing livestock, how to prevent future entry into the park and any other related issues or concerns.
“At this point, we really are just asking for viewpoints from the public about what they feel we should do,” Brown said.
This week, the NPS released a set of proposed actions. Ideas for the capture, removal and exclusion of the livestock included roundups, baited-pen capture, fencing and fertility control. As for long-term placement, the NPS suggested public or private sale, or possibly adoptions.
Comments can be submitted on the park’s website, www.parkplanning.nps.gov/meve_livestock. The deadline is Jan. 8.