BLM offers tour of Axtell off-range wild horse corals, official says horse adoptions on rise

Gus Warr (seen here in cowboy hat), wild horse and burro program manager for BLM Utah, fields questions from the general public and wild horse enthusiasts during a public tour of the Despain Ranch, a privately-owned, BLM-contracted off-range corral facility in Axtell.


BLM offers tour of Axtell off-range wild horse corals, official says horse adoptions on rise


Robert Stevens

Managing editor



AXTELL—After a nearly 83-percent drop in the number of wild-horse adoptions, the Bureau of Land Management’s horse adoption program is beginning to pick up again in Utah, says the BLM’s top man overseeing the program.

And that’s a good thing, considering the drastic 175-percent overpopulation of wild horses on BLM land, said Gus Warr, BLM Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program manager, when he spoke during a public tour of the Despain Ranch on April 19.

The Despain Ranch is one of two in Sanpete that care for wild horses rounded up on BLM land. Warr spoke there and fielded questions from the public and wild-horse enthusiasts, who had been invited to tour the privately-owned, BLM-contracted facility.

“This is a great addition to the community here,” Warr said. “It does a great service to the BLM to have this facility available.”

The Axtell off-range corals are owned by the Despain family and contracted by the BLM to hold wild horses and burros gathered from the open range, such as those gathered during the recent Sulphur Herd Management Area gather. The facility holds horses gathered from all across the nation says Warr.

The other Sanpete facility that contracts with the BLM to hold wild horses—Tate Farms just north of Fountain Green—has a different purpose.

“Horses that go to Fountain Green are going to live their lives there forever,” Warr said. “They are not going to be adopted. It’s kind of like a sanctuary or a retirement home for horses.”

Despain Ranch, he said, “is for short-term corralling mostly, and we hope that the horses are only here a limited amount of time and then go off to adoptions.

Such adoptions had seen quite a decline in the several years. At the same time, there was a “huge” issue with overpopulation on the range and it was drastically affecting the living conditions of the wild horses that currently survive there.

“When we gathered horses this winter there were so many in such poor condition from the overpopulation problems that many could barely be driven a mile before they would just shut down,” Warr said. “Horses were literally dying during the gather because the overpopulation had caused a lack of forage and poor body condition. It’s not everywhere, but there are really some key areas where we have a very big problem.”

Warr says the current estimated population survey for Utah wild horses was 5500 and the range can only support 2000.

When questioned by a tour attendee why the state couldn’t handle a larger population, Warr told them that he regularly gets asked that question.

Warr  answered, “When I get asked that, I have to say ‘you weren’t out there like I was, seeing horses die on the range during winter from these issues that stem from overpopulation.”

Moritz asked Warr what his thoughts were on the current wild horse and burro adoption levels. Warr says they had gone from 18,000 a year, 15 years ago, to 3,000 a year in current times, but the adoption rates were beginning to rise again.

“They are going up,” Warr said. “Thanks in part to efforts by organizations such as the Mustang Heritage Foundation. We are projecting the adoption rate could be as high as 4,000 this year.”

Wild horses being held in the Axtell based, BLM-contracted Despain Ranch. The horses are meant to be kept at the facility on a short-term basis until they are adopted from the BLM.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation sponsors the Extreme Mustang Makeover, in which trainers have 100 days to tame a wild mustang to compete in events across 10 U.S. cities.

Attending the tour was Gabriele Moritz, of Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, a member of the Northern Colorado Mustang Riders (not affiliated with the Mustang Heritage Foundation) and the Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Partners. Moritz said she has seven mustangs, once of which she trained and competed in the 2011 Extreme Mustang Makeover.

Moritz posed a question to Warr, asking him why the BLM didn’t use drones to survey wild horses on the range, rather than larger and more disruptive manned helicopters.

Warr said the BLM was experimenting with drones and had seen some success in California, but because non-military drones are limited in range and battery capacity, they are not well-suited to the task.

“They just can’t go the distance right now,” Warr said, “but we’ll get there.”

Warr also said drones are not large or loud enough to cause the horses to move around, but such motion allows the BLM to perform more accurate surveying and head counts.

Moritz asked Warr what was the longest a horse had been kept in the Axtell corrals. Warr replied that, although they try to move them on to adoption as quickly as possible, there are some horses in the Axtell corrals that have been here since the BLM contract began with the Despain Ranch in July 2015.

“Do you think the new political changes in the country will affect the BLM horse program,” Moritz asked Warr? Warr answered that he had not seen any impact yet, but he couldn’t speculate on what was in the future.

“I’m not expecting a major change,” Warr said. “I am not really sure where it would begin, but it would be great if we could get more funding, more resources and more adoptions happening.”