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26 • FEBRUARY 2018

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WILD HORSES • LAURIE FORD

New Mexico’s Other Wild Horses

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ur country prides itself on being a melting pot of diverse people with the shared goal of freedom. The parallel to the modern mustang with their mixture of breeds representing all parts of the world and similar quest for freedom, is extraordinary. When describing the subjects in the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act, how “they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the nation,” they could be describing us. And, just like the hardy early settlers survived, so did the mustang, thru perseverance and perpetual spirit. Today, many of these wild horses and burros are federally protected under the 1971 Act, but here in New Mexico, many are not. When the Spanish horses returned to the land of their ancestors, it was in the fertile valleys

The Beamers Band lives on Wild Horse Mesa, on the Colorado/ New Mexico border. (Photo courtesy Judy Barns, director of “Spirit of the Wild Horse” rescue and support organization)

along the Rio Grande where they grazed after Juan de Onate founded the first European settlement over 400 years ago. It was from these open pastures that the Spanish Colonial Horses strayed to become the wild foundation stock of the “mestano,” meaning

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“ownerless,” who gave us the wild horses of today. Simultaneously, a cattle industry was evolving from the same fields; an industry that currently is protected by the New Mexico Livestock Board (NMLB). Even all those years ago, identifying the wild horses as ownerless prevented them from being classified as livestock. And, under current livestock code they still cannot be deemed as livestock because livestock are “domesticated animals that are used or raised on a farm or ranch (77-2-1.1.A).” One of the duties of the Livestock Board is to remove estrays (any domestic animal found wandering at large or lost, particularly if the owner is unknown). If unclaimed, the animal is sold or sent to auction where the majority of horses bought end up at slaughter in Mexico or Canada. While it may seem obvious that a wild horse does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Livestock Board, first it

must be proven that the horse is, indeed, wild. Until then, the horse is treated as estray. This was exactly the challenge facing the Placitas wild horses, who roam from open space park and private lands to the San Felipe Pueblo, and across 3,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land, in a region where some of the first Spanish Colonial Horses grazed. Despite this BLM parcel being part of their habitat, they were not included in the BLM inventory when the 1971 Act was signed; therefore, they received no federal protection. Instead, the Livestock Board laid claim to them, along with hundreds of other free-roaming, unowned horses, under the estray laws of New Mexico. These are the very same estray laws that almost annihilated our wild horses in the mid-1900s, and in 2003, came back into play in Placitas, New Mexico, when the board removed and sold herd members on the grounds they were estray. Outraged, wild horse advocacy groups and local residents joined forces; working with New Mexico legislature to protect not only the Placitas horses, but all of New Mexico’s wild horses. In 2007, a new state law (NM Stat 77-185) was passed legally defining a New Mexico wild horse as “an unclaimed horse on public land that is not estray,” and that the wild horse must be evaluated and DNA tested to see if it is a Spanish Colonial Horse. If found to be a Spanish Colonial Horse it was to be relocated to an approved Spanish Colonial Horse preserve. If not, the wild horse would be relocated to public land, a preserve or adopted. Since the wild horse is not estray, it is not livestock, and therefore does not fall under the jurisdiction of the NMLB. While this provided the horses with some much-needed protection, the wording “public land” was vague – an ingredient for future disputes. The public land did not include federal land controlled by the BLM or USFS, state trust land, or private land. This gap, and as it is up to the discretion of the Livestock Board to identify a horse as wild, opened the door for the removals to continue. In 2014, along with a serious drought, the situation in Placitas escalated to new heights. After an estimated 30 horses were picked up by the board as estray livestock and sold at auction, a lawsuit was filed to have the Placitas herd legally deemed as wild in accordance with the new state law. The following year the NM Appellate Court ruled that “livestock” did not include undomesticated, unowned animals and that the Placitas horses were, indeed, legally wild, and should not have been removed. As required by the ruling, the Placitas horses were to be DNA tested and results from the first four herd members revealed a 91 percent-96 percent probability of Spanish bloodlines. Unfortunately, by this time the population had been so depleted the remaining horses barely comprised a vi-

able breeding herd. On a brighter note, many of the horses that had been removed during this time were provided sanctuary at the San Felipe Pueblo, and others did get to come home after being purchased by local residents. While a victory in the courtroom for future wild horses, it could not give back those horses removed what they had already lost, and for some it was their lives. In addition, because state law, and the Placitas ruling, had only addressed those horses on public land, there was still the question about unclaimed horses on private land, and if they are determined to be wild horses and relocated; what public land would they be able to legally roam? So, while we wait for Congress, and the ensuing battle over our federally protected wild horses and burros, these horses have their own war to fight as the state continues to restrict the use of fertility control and eradicate natural predators. While not acknowledged under the 1971 Act, many still carry the ancestral bloodlines of the Spanish Colonial Horses that are so vital to the history and culture of our state. The contribution these horses have made is clearly recognized by the San Felipe Pueblo who, in response to the growing concern for our wild horses, established a sanctuary to preserve and protect them – including members of the Placitas herd. Since 2012 they have been managing an estimated herd population of 200 with the fertility control PZP. Many organizations and individuals throughout New Mexico share the mission of the Pueblo to protect the wild horses, preserve their heritage and work towards a sustainable future. They provide sanctuary, work with government agencies to find solutions, assist with training and rehoming, and watch guard the remaining free-roaming herds scattered throughout the state. Although exact numbers are hard to determine, it is safe to say there are as many, if not more, wild horses in private care than those receiving federal protection. And it is being accomplished with less man power and less funding. Do we want to only remember these wild horses as folklore, tales told around the fire about the “Placitas Eight,” or the “White Band of Placitas,” whose band leader was gelded before his wildness could be proven? Or, do we want to tell the story of how we saved these horses and their heritage? At the time this article was submitted, Congress had yet to make the final determination on the Appropriations bill (FY2018) that will affect the future of our federally protected wild horses and burros. Here in New Mexico, there is a population of wild horses roaming public lands that are not afforded this protection under the 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burros Act. There are also hundreds that are only protected by the sanctuaries, preserves, Native American tribes, and individuals who have provided them with a refuge.

Desert Exposure - February 2018  
Desert Exposure - February 2018