By Nancy Lofholm, Denver Post
With the end of summer, the crisis over wild horses dying from lack of water in Mesa Verde National Park has ended, but the push for a long-term management plan continues.
Five national and local wild horse preservation and anti-animal-cruelty organizations are keeping pressure on the National Park Service to manage the more than 100 horses living in the park to the delight of some tourists and the chagrin of park officials.
The horse advocates are trying to ensure that no more horses die from dehydration because the Park Service treats them as "trespass livestock" and does not operate under a mandate to protect them.
"At this point, we are still at a standstill waiting to hear from the Park Service on what we can do," said Tif Rodriguez, director of the Colorado Chapter of the National Mustang Association.
Six horses died of dehydration and malnutrition in the park this summer. The deaths triggered protest letters to the Park Service's top echelon demanding change.
Rodriguez's group was one of those signing off on letters sent last month to National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis and Intermountain Regional director Sue Masica.
Masica responded with a letter that said the staff at Mesa Verde is "considering long-term strategies to mitigate impacts to horses and Mesa Verde's cultural and natural resources." Masica blamed drought for the deaths and not Park Service policies.
She denied that the park has tried to keep the horses from water sources. She did not outline any measures that might be taken to keep the horses alive if the drought continues or if the Park Service will consider management methods including birth control.
Officials from the Park Service will not talk about the controversial issue.
"It has become such a national issue that I am not going to comment," Mesa Verde Superintendent Cliff Spencer said.
Horses have resided in the park since before the archaeologically important area was designated a national park in 1906. They have become an increasing problem as more of the animals have made their way into the park from the adjacent Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park.
Mesa Verde has replaced barbed wire fences with meshed fencing along 15 miles of common crossing areas on the Ute Mountain border. According to earlier statements from Mesa Verde wildlife program director Paul Morey, the park also has tried to keep the horses away from some water sources by repairing leaky pipes and making some water supplies inaccessible to horses. That includes ice-dispensing machines that horses had learned to nudge with their noses.
The park recently has used remote sensor cameras to show that horses often drive elk from ponds. The horses also are blamed for damaging some of the park's archaeological treasures and for being a safety threat to tourists.
Horse advocates initially planned to haul water to the horses late this summer, but rains made that unnecessary. They also planned a roundup but backed off on that because of complications with Colorado branding laws that could have resulted in some of the horses being sent to slaughter facilities.
Managing wild horses hasn't been part of the mandate at Mesa Verde because the primary mission of the Park Service is to protect archaeological resources. The park horses do not fall under the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which protects the animals in designated areas.
Horse advocates say management of the park horses with birth control is going to be key to protecting them. The Park Service has successfully used contraception to control herds at Assateague Island and Cape Lookout national seashores.
"It would behoove them to outreach and work collaboratively on this problem too," said Deniz Bolbol with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.