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Wild Horses' Fate Up in Air

May 16, 2004|Deborah Sullivan Brennan | Special to The Times

Legislation that would have returned a herd of wild horses to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park failed in a state Senate committee, leaving the fate of the animals uncertain.

Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) had proposed reintroducing a wild horse herd that park officials had removed last year from Coyote Canyon, a ravine at the park's northwestern end.

"Not only is it disappointing but it's outrageous for everyone to be looking the other way and not trying to go back to the status quo," Morrow said of last month's vote.

Park officials feared that the animals were starving during drought conditions in 2002 and posed a threat to native wildlife by eating vegetation and crowding water sources. In March 2003, they rounded up and removed 29 horses.

Nineteen mares and foals were shipped to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota, and 10 stallions were placed in a Bureau of Land Management holding facility in Ridgecrest, Calif. Two of the horses have since died.

Morrow, however, maintains that the animals were well adapted to the harsh desert climate and represented an important part of the region's pioneer heritage. He also contends that state park officials lacked authority to remove the horses.

With the support of several equestrian organizations, Morrow introduced a bill in April to return the horses to Coyote Canyon. Although that bill failed in the Legislature, Morrow said he would seek other means to return the herd to the park.

The BLM has agreed to hold the animals for several months until the end of the legislative session in late summer while Morrow negotiates another way to return the horses.

If no agreement is reached by that time, the horses will be put up for adoption or moved to sanctuaries, said Jan Bedrosian, a public affairs specialist for the bureau. "It would be problematic to go on much longer for legal, health or humanitarian reasons," she said.

Although the bureau will defer to state officials' decision on the matter, the horses require a hospitable environment to thrive, said Tom Pogacnik, BLM wild horse and burro program manager for California.

"Wild horses are a very adaptable species, and they're an amazing, enduring animal that can tolerate a vast range of habitats, from mountaintops to the hot desert," he said. "But that doesn't mean they're compatible with every environment."

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Supt. Mark Jorgensen said the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee vote vindicates park officials' decision to remove the animals last year.

"What was made clear is that we did what was best for the horses in the worst drought ever recorded in Southern California," he said.

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