On February 9, 2010, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that the White River Field Office (WRFO) in Meeker, Colorado is withdrawing the 2010 gather plan for a little known herd just south of Rangely in the northwestern part of the state. No details were provided in the press release; however, the West Douglas mustangs will not be rounded up as planned this summer.
The West Douglas herd has been mired in controversy for decades; however, litigation since 1997 has stymied BLM efforts to remove the entire herd for good. Shortly after the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed, the agency made an administrative decision to remove the West Douglas herd based on projected energy development and the inconvenience of managing a small herd in mountainous terrain. But, almost three decades later, somewhere around 100 horses still roam the mountains between Cathedral Bluffs and the Utah border, due west of State Highway 139. Some point to litigation and lack of funding for round-ups as reasons for the herd’s longevity. BLM officials have also stated that the agency just hasn’t had the will to go in there and get them. In short, it’s too inconvenient and expensive to remove the horses that are too inconvenient to manage.
The first Colorado mustang herd to be completely removed was the Douglas Mountain herd in 1977 in exchange for maintaining a herd in the Sandwash area – now one of four herd management areas in the state. It was believed that the wide open spaces of Sandwash made for better public viewing opportunities. The same has also been said for the Piceance-East Douglas herd, southeast of Sandwash and neighbors of the West Douglas horses. Barb Flores, of the Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Coalition and plaintiff in lawsuits to protect the West Douglas herd, has voiced concerns that since BLM prefers to manage horses in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area, the West Douglas mustangs could follow the Douglas Mountain herd into history.
Advocates also argue that the WRFO has been remiss in providing rangeland monitoring data to support the need for total removal of the West Douglas herd. Toni Moore, advocate and plaintiff in West Douglas litigation says:
Routinely, what I have seen in northwest Colorado is an aerial census prior to a round-up, annual grazing reports from permittees, and occasionally trend monitoring by BLM. In the last several round-up documents, [herd and habitat monitoring data] has not been provided by BLM for the public to say who ate what, when, and where are they. You can’t get that data from a one-time fly-over and you can’t get that data from what a permittee turns in. You must have all of the monitoring data and inventorying data for public lands in order to make a good decision regarding excess wild horses.
In August, 2009, Federal District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed. In a landmark ruling, Collyer shut down the proposed West Douglas removal, stating that BLM did not prove the horses were, indeed, excess. It was on the BLM to provide the evidence but it seems that the agency wasn’t listening.
Less than a year later and without the necessary studies, the WRFO issued the 2010 gather plan. This is what was withdrawn a week ago. Why does BLM insist that the West Douglas horses are excess yet refuses to provide substantial evidence to back up the claim? Well, it all started in 1974.
Stay tuned for Part II: The West Douglas Double-Bind: Can’t Let ‘Em Roam, Can’t Round ‘Em Up.