Once wild horses in search of new homes; two-day auction, Utah festival kick off

By Katie McKellar

Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 30 2013 11:00 p.m. MDT

Robyn Van Valkenburg shows off Champion, a mustang from Divide Basin, Wyo., Friday, May 24, 2013, at Van Valkenburg's house in Bluffdale. Van Valkenburg has been working with Champion for the past month working to train him to be a good, rideable horse.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SOUTH JORDAN — Mustangs pulled from the wild could gain a better chance at a stable life than the one it left behind when a two-day auction gets underway Friday to place formerly wild horses with new owners.

And it just might be the start of solving a national housing problem for horses.

“We are very concerned and stressed about the fact that we don’t have much capacity remaining to hold any excess animals that might need to come off the range,” Gus Warr, Wild Horse and Burro Specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, said.

“(Not) getting those animals adopted limits the opportunity for us to remove excess animals that might be potentially causing impacts on the rangelands.”

The population of wild horses and burros living on public lands has grown from about 25,300 to about 37,300 since 1971, according to the BLM. Thinning the herd is part of a BLM program to keep the number of horses just above 25,000 to manage rangelands.

But about 50,000 wild horses and burros across the nation, including 2,200 in Utah, have already been rounded up and currently occupy BLM holding corrals. When the program started, approximately 6,000 to 8,000 animals were being adopted per year nationwide. But with recession impacting horse ownership, that number has dropped dramatically; last year only 2,500 were adopted, Warr said.

Enter 19-year-old horse trainer Robyn Van Valkenburg.

Only a few months ago she mounted a wild mustang — now named Champion — and the horse can canter without a saddle or bridle. A video shows the progress.

Van Valkenburg and six other trainers plan to showcase the potential of the adoptable animals in the Wild Horse and Burro Festival's Trainers Challenge on Friday and Saturday, one of several events the BLM has organized to facilitate its primary means of managing wild horses and burros crowding holding facilities: adoption.

“We’re trying to balance wild horse and burro land use with our multiple-use mandate as an agency,” Warr said. “We have to look at all the players on the public lands.”

Program controversy

Paula King, director of communications for the Cloud Foundation — an organization devoted to the preservation of wild horses on public lands — said the population issues across the public range-lands and holding corrals could be resolved in other ways, apart from roundup, which she said can be stressful and harmful to the wild horses and burros.

She said horses should not be taken from public lands in the first place to be kept in holding corrals. Instead, reversible infertility drugs could be administered to the animals and protection of their wild predators like mountain lions could reduce the hose populations on public lands.

“A wild horse is a wild horse,” King said. “They live and die in the wild—that is their natural habitat. I think any of us would rather live and die in our own home rather than in incarceration.”

Warr said although BLM programs have been actively engaged in fertility control, it’s not enough, and the difficulty of the program makes a population decrease through infertility drugs complex to grasp.

“We have administered thousand of doses of fertility control to mares that have been released back onto public lands,” Warr said. However, as the drug is only good for one to two years, the animals are often difficult to access, and other factors like short time frames of when the drug can be administered make fertility control a difficult program from which to render results.

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