By Nancy Lofholm, Denver Post
At Mesa Verde National Park, wild horses are referred to as "trespass livestock." They have trampled archaeological sites, damaged ice-making machines trying to get to water, and broken through fences meant to keep them out.
But officials at the popular park in southwest Colorado have decided to back off on a plan to manage the approximately 150 horses in the park and on its borders even though allowing the animals to remain poses a conflict with the park's primary mission of preserving archaeological resources.
It's not that Mesa Verde is bowing to horse-advocacy groups who want to see the horses remain as a viable part of the park and even a park attraction: The park doesn't have the manpower or the money to manage them.
"It's a very difficult issue for the park," said Paul Morey, Mesa Verde's wildlife program manager.
Wild horses are not classified as wildlife in Mesa Verde and other national parks. They are not given any protective status in parks as they are on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands under the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
Mesa Verde is trying to manage wild horses within the park simply because they are there. They have populated the area since colonial times, and many have come from the neighboring Ute Mountain Ute reservation, which borders more than half of Mesa Verde.
The park announced earlier this year that it was going to develop a management plan to control the horses and invited comment. The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign submitted nine pages of suggestions on how to do that in a way that would preserve a wild herd in the park.
"The National Park Service has a pretty good track record of managing horses," said Suzanne Roy, director of the campaign.
Her organization encouraged Mesa Verde to use birth control on the horses and, if some horses need to be removed, to do it in the most humane way possible. The campaign also urged the park to use more fences to keep the horses from sensitive areas.
The group wants Mesa Verde to treat the animals as an attraction like they have become in other parks, including the Assateague Island National Seashore on the East Coast.
Morey said that is problematic even though some Mesa Verde visitors have come to see the wild horses as an attraction and must be warned that the animals can be dangerous if visitors get too close.
Managing the horses as an attraction, Morey said, "would be a big conflict with our primary mission which is preservation of archaeological resources."
Mesa Verde has already strengthened fences around the boundaries of the park. Morey said horses still come in and out of the park from reservation lands through rugged places where there is no fence.
Because water is so scarce in the arid park, the horses come around tourist facilities and damage water lines and ice machines trying to get at a water source. Morey said horses ran through a weather station, tearing up wires. They have collided with vehicles. And they have compacted ground over unexcavated archaeological sites.
Morey said in the face of having to drop formal management plans, the park will continue to try to strengthen boundary fences and to use fencing to keep horses away from water sources. The latter will serve as a sort of management tool: Lack of water will force the horses to go elsewhere, and when horses are under stress from too little food or water, they are less fertile.