For now, no water to be hauled for wild horses in Colorado’s Sand Wash Basin
June 14, 2018
CRAIG, Colo. — The wild horses in Moffat County's Sand Wash Basin in Colorado will not be receiving supplemental water, at least not right now.
The Bureau of Land Management told the Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin advocacy groups on June 12 that the agency would not allow volunteers to haul supplemental water into the basin at this time.
"Wild Horse Warriors will not give permission to others to haul water, and Wild Horse Warriors will not haul water without permission, but we are going to continue to stay in touch and monitor daily what's going on with water," said Cindy Wright, an organizer with the volunteer organization. "In the meantime, we will be preparing for when the state says 'go' to be ready to go with the water. That's not gone away. This is just a delay. It's not going to happen when we thought it was going to happen. We still believe that it will happen."
About 750 wild horses live in the Sand Wash Basin herd management area comprising about 150,000 acres under a federal designation that mandates the land be managed for wild horses and burros.
Wild Horse Warriors have become concerned by drought conditions in the basin. Wright said ponds and springs in the area are drying up months before they typically do. Three wells, two developed springs, five undeveloped springs and about 50 ephemeral catchment ponds provide water to wildlife, including horses, in Sand Wash Basin, said Steven Hall, communications director at the Colorado BLM state office. He added that, while ponds are drying up, springs are flowing, and well water is available.
BLM staff and members of two wild horse organizations, the Wild Horse Warriors and Sand Wash Advocate Team, have said the groups plan to continue to monitor the condition of horses in the basin.
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"Right now, the horses are doing fine without hauling water, so we do understand the reason the BLM is holding off a little bit before we start doing that," said Aleta Wolf, program director for the Sand Wash Advocate Team, another advocacy and volunteer organization that works in the basin. "We know that Wild Horse Warriors does have everything in place, and they are ready to haul water. However, it's not really, we don't believe either, a really good thing to go haul it for them, because we don't want them to get used to that type of thing."
Wolf added there is water in the basin, though she is concerned that it will soon dry up.
"There is water in several places that we don't even know about," she said. "The horses do. They find it. Until it's really getting down to where there really isn't anything, it's probably best to wait, at least I would say, a couple more days."
Hall said that the decision did not come from one office or division of the BLM, but from the agency as a whole. He added that the agency has consulted with a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian on the condition of the horses in the basin, which are also being monitored daily by the BLM's wild horse and burro specialist.
"If we get to a place where our assessment changes, then we'll make a determination about what, if anything, we will do in regards to water in Sand Wash," Hall said. "We just have not hit those trigger points yet."
Those "triggers" are two-fold, Hall added. The agency considers the number of available water sources and how much water those sources produce. Right now, the BLM has determined through field reports from partnering organizations and BLM personnel on the ground that there are adequate water sources in the area, Hall said. If the agency sees a decrease in water sources, that could cause it to consider hauling water or other actions.
The second "trigger" is the horses' physiology.
"If we start to see issues associated with a lack of water, we will start to see a deterioration in the composition of the horses," Hall said.
One reflection of this condition is the deterioration of the vegetation horses feed on around watering holes. Too many horses in specific spots — and the Sand Wash Basin as a whole — can lead to too little available forage for the horses. The Sand Wash Basin is currently home to about 750 horses, twice the number the BLM has determined to be an appropriate number to manage, about 163 to 362 horses.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that with less water, there is less plant growth.
"If we start hauling water to horses before there truly is a water shortage in Sand Wash, then we'll make those horses too dependent on that water source too soon, which can have big impacts on forage," Hall said.
With many dispersed watering holes, the horses also spread out their impacts on vegetation, Hall added.
Members of the Wild Horse Warriors and Sand Wash Advocate Team believe that hauling water will become necessary very soon. Wolf, of the Sand Wash Advocate Team, said she hopes the BLM will allow supplemental water before the situation becomes desperate. Wright, of the Wild Horse Warriors, said her group wants to "get in front of it."
"We don't want our horses to look like they are dying before we get water to them," Wright said. "The calculations out there show that our water is going down at a very rapid rate, and the known water sources are not producing enough water to water those horses on a daily basis once we lose these three springs that are drying up."
The Wild Horse Warriors have water tanks at the ready. Wright said members of the organization were on the way to the basin with a full water tank when the group received word that the BLM would not allow supplemental water. They turned around as soon as they heard the news.
In the meantime, Wild Horse Warriors is shifting its focus to improving water infrastructure currently in the basin. They plan to upgrade solar panels at one water pump to power it for more hours a day. The organization is also calculating the most economically and ecologically viable spots in the basin to place additional water tanks.
Hall said the BLM has been "inundated" with comments from the public on the situation in Sand Wash Basin. He encouraged those who are concerned to contact the Little Snake Field Office and to get information from more than one source before commenting.
He also hopes that those who might be thinking about hauling water to the Sand Wash Basin without BLM approval will reconsider the idea.
"It is really important for people to understand that the management of wild horses is a responsibility given to BLM under federal law, and it is important for people to keep that in mind when they're considering what they're going to do," he said.