The White Sands Herd
A total of 70 wild horses were transported from the harsh sands of the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico to the lush, green pastures of South Dakota. In 1999, this transfer culminated a ten year effort by ISPMB to protect the wild horses of White Sands Missile Range.
At one time, more than 1500 wild horses roamed the semi-arid climate of White Sands Missile Range located near Las Cruces, NM. White Sands is a 2,000,000- acre Army base where top-secret operations develop such as the nuclear bomb, the stealth bomber, and the laser weapons.
Accounts from local ranchers, who once owned the property before it was taken over by the Army in the 40’s, talked about leaving their horses on the land thinking that they would return home once WWII was over. To their surprise, they never returned home again. The horses scattered and formed wild herds with the wild horses that roamed in that area already.
In 1986, the Army collected wild horses under the supervision of Dawn Lappin (WHOA). These horses were then turned over to the New Mexico Livestock Board and were shipped to slaughter. Shortly after this the American Mustang and Burro Association became involved to stop the slaughter of the White Sands wild horses. They began a boycott of tourism in the state. It was in 1989 that ISPMB was called in by then governor Carruther’s to mediate the escalating situation developing between AMBA, the Missile Range, the Livestock Board, and the Governor’s office.
From that point on, ISPMB took the lead role in preserving the horses on White Sands Missile range by meeting with the Governor and the General of WSMR every two years until July 10th, 1994 when a call came from NM from an unnamed source notifying ISPMB that the military was shooting horses.
One must understand that each visit to the range came with a new commander (every two years) and a new governor (every four years). Because of ISPMB’s past history with the Missile Range, we were granted access to the Range and the situation the next day. It was because of the General’s secretary who advised the General that it would be fine for us to come. Throughout the two-year crisis, the General refused to work with any other humane group except ISPMB.
Apparently, the water source for the horses was under construction and horses were not getting enough water and actually dying from dehydration. The Army immediately instituted carrying tankers of water for the horses.
For the next two years, ISPMB worked tirelessly on resolving the conflict and yet creating a win-win solution for all parties. One exception may have been the NM Livestock Board who would have gained $300,000.00 from the sale of horses for slaughter.
The dilemma that everyone faced was the last opinion written by the Attorney General of NM stated that if the horses remained on the base they were under the protection of the military. Once the horses left the base, they became estray animals under the jurisdiction of the Livestock Board. Since that opinion rendered in 1989, new estray laws were written for the introduction of the popular Emu farms in NM. It was under this estray law that a loophole occurred to allow the removal of wild horses from the range without coming under the jurisdiction of the Livestock Board.
Another obstacle was the military funding cuts by President Clinton. General Laws informed me that he would not take any of his limited budget to adopt the horses. So it became apparent that we would have to get an appropriation from Congress to such an adoption.
ISPMB met with NM Congressional officials to solicit an appropriation over and beyond the budget for WSMR. Through the concerted help of the Governor’s office, WSMR, ISPMB and the Congressional staff, a 1.5 million dollar appropriation was granted to WSMR for the express purpose of adopting the WSMR horses.
More than 1500 wild horses were privately adopted with the philosophy that no horse would be aged or would be classified as unadoptable. There were to be 200 wild horses remaining on the range. The military did an EIA with resultant record of decision to remove the final 200 horses from the range.
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One of the driving forces to remove the horses was the riparian issue and Pup Fish habitat. These salt-water fish were about to be classified on the T&E list and that would have possibly shut down the operation of the range from their bombing missions.
ISPMB was notified when the last 100 horses were about to be removed. Intervening on their behalf, ISPMB located a range to lease and signed an agreement with the Army to take the remaining wild horses (70).
One band came from the Oscura Mountains on the northern range. These horses were the grays and whites and a favorite of the range manager, Les Gilliland. They were never gathered or moved from their range until they were gathered for ISPMB. Another group came from the Malapai range located in the central part of the range. Mound Springs was the third area where horses were removed.
Blood was drawn from the horses to check for blood typing and they were found to have a rare North American Gaited gene; possibly Saddlebred, Standardbred and Tennessee Walker types. The interesting fact is that all the herds and bands were extremely stable for nearly ten years without a gather. The Oscure Mt horses that ISPMB received may not have been gathered since the horses roamed free on White Sands in the forties.
After the horses were removed from White Sands and relocated to South Dakota, it was noted that band stallions did eventually mate up with their mares as noted by the offspring who looked identical to their sires. This took up to several months after their release.
The horses today represent a very stable population. There have been no removals of horses within the herd since they have arrived under ISPMB’s care. The population count in 2004 was 100 horses. Band stallions remain with the same mares now for that period of time. Young bachelors are taking the excess young filly population and beginning new bands.
This is an extremely functional herd with recruitment rates ranging from 10% to 14%.