The Wild Horses of Jarita Mesa

A small band of Jarita Mesa horses on the move. Photo by Jakob Schiller


The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was amended in 1976 by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that combined with the Public Rangeland Improvement Act of 1978 to require that the United States Forest Service manage and maintain wild horses and burros on all USFS lands. Today the Forest Service administers 37 wild horse or burro territories in coordination with the Bureau of Land Management. One of those territories is the The Jarita Mesa Wild Horse Territory (JMWHT), administered by the El Rito Ranger District of the Carson National Forest.

The 55,000-acre JMWHT can be found on the mesa above and between the villages of Vallecitos and Petaca twenty miles northeast of El Rito. The size of the herd has fluctuated wildly over the years but generally ranges in size, according to the Forest Service, between 20-70 horses, although recent population counts suggest that recently the herd has been as high as 150.

Despite all the uncertainties, particularly in El Rito, regarding the origin of the herd, and the equine ecology of the mesa , the law requires that the El Rito District “[p]rotect wild horses and burros from capture, branding, harassment, or death.” Beyond just protect, the law also requires that the District “[m]anage wild horses and burros in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the land.” Even though no one is quite sure what a thriving, much less “natural” balance would look like. And there’s more. In addition to the previous requirements, the law forces the District to “[m]aintain an inventory of wild horses and burros on National Forest System lands.”

I use the word “forces” because the El Rito District has a complicated and contradictory relationship with the herd, the herd’s critics and the herd’s champions.

La Jicarita recently reported on the lawsuit filed by the Alamosa and Jarita Mesa Grazing Associations against the El Rito District of the United States Forest Service. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that the United States Forest Service, in particular El Rito District Ranger Diana Trujillo, engaged in a pattern of retaliatory practices against permittees who have long been critical of the Forest Service regarding the management of the El Rito District. In addition, and more specifically, the lawsuit charges that the Forest Service violated federal law in its “arbitrary and retaliatory decision in 2010 to reduce grazing on the Jarita Mesa and Alamosa Grazing Allotments.”

While the plaintiffs seek redress from the courts for this punitive pattern of resource management, they also note in the complaint that the USFS has created, by virtue of negligent administrative authority, conditions that make grazing today almost impossible. The complaint notes the irony of the Forest Service’s constant assertion of permittee overgrazing. The Forest Service today blames permittees for overgrazing, but the problem of overgrazed ranges is, according to the lawsuit, a function of the large elk and horse herds that failed Forest Service management has created.

Residents of El Rito District villages have lived this history of mismanagement. During the 1940s, when the Forest Service decided to turn the district over to corporate timber operators, it eliminated cattle, sheep and horse permits for local residents as a way to create an available workforce for the new timber industry. One El Rito resident told me that his mother and father owned a team of horses at the time but didn’t have sufficient pasture. His father petitioned the District Ranger, telling him that he had nowhere to keep the horses now that his permits had been cut. When the Ranger refused to reconsider, his father told the Ranger that he planned to ignore the decision and continue grazing his horse wherever he wanted. “The District Ranger walked out to the corral and shot all four horses,” he told me.

The District Ranger didn’t have enough bullets to finish the job, it seems, because most permittees just released horses into the wild, creating a huge new population of wild horses.

And it’s not just grazing permittees who are furious with Forest Service management regarding the wild horses on Jarita Mesa. In 2001, during a proposed horse roundup, a coalition of horse enthusiast organizations lobbied to stop the El Rito District from removing horses from ranges calling then District Ranger Kurt Winchester “Public Horse Enemy #1.” In a news release they noted that “[a] recently discovered herd of wild horses within the Carson National Forest have been positively identified as descendants of the Spanish horses brought to the Americas by Juan de Onate in and around 1598. Blood tests done by the University of Kentucky have verified the ‘Spanish Markers’ found in some of these horses. These horses are in danger of being removed to the point of extinction through mismanagement by the El Rito Forest.“

The blood tests conducted by the University of Kentucky did find “Spanish Markers” in the Jarita Mesa horses, but they found a lot more as well.

In the summer of 2006, while in Lexington, I sat down with the equine geneticist hired by the USFS to determine the origins of the Jarita Mesa herd. The blood tests, he said, found two interesting things. First, the herd had experienced a genetic “bottleneck” years earlier when the herd’s population collapsed. As a result of the inbreeding that followed, the herd today, regardless of how large it gets, lacks genetic diversity and therefore individuals in the herd suffer disproportionately from a series of intractable genetic problems, the most serious of which is a high incidence of blindness. The only way to improve the genetic diversity would be to increase the size of the herd by introducing new stallions. Second, while it is true that the genetic tests found a “Spanish Marker” in the herd, it was faint and nearly drowned out by the “Clydesdale marker” and the “Irish and Shetland Pony Marker” and the scores of other “markers” found among the herd. “They’re a little bit of everything,” he told me.

So much for the claims of genetic Spanish purity by horse enthusiasts. But also so much for the claims by local permittees that no horse herd existed prior to the 1940s, a claim I’ve heard many times. While researching the history of the Vallectios and Petaca land grants a few years ago, I came across a transcript of the testimony of a Petaca land grant claimant before the Court of Private Land Claims in 1891. The claimant was explaining to the court how he’d used the land grant common lands. He said that when he was a young man he had “hunted horses on Jarita Mesa.”

What do we make of the controversy over wild horses on the Jarita Mesa? They are not native to the mesa in any strict sense, but have been there longer than the people fighting over them. The District is required by law to manage and maintain the herd but has not yet developed a management plan that takes into account the genetic problems in the herd and the grazing issues on the mesa (not that such a plan would be easy to create and implement).

The lawsuit by the Jarita Mesa and Alamosa Grazing Association is compelling and the USFS has surely mismanaged the horse herd on the El Rito District, but the District cannot be blamed entirely. The District has precious few resources to devote to the herd and, making it more difficult, remains caught between two competing factions. On one side is a vocal and well-funded network of horse enthusiast organizations that willfully deludes themselves and others with their specious claims that the Jarita Mesa horses are a Spanish breed. On the other side are local permittees with real and historical claims to ranges that predate the Forest Service and their constant complaints that any horses at all constitute a total disregard for local history traditions and current rights—given the history of the herd, however, this is only partly correct. To top it all off, the vice grip that guarantees no chance for a resolution to this conflict is a Wild Horse and Burro Act that gives managers no flexibility and no resources.

This past spring, the District conducted a roundup of horses. Some were sent to the Wild Horse Inmate Program at the East Cañon Correctional Complex in Colorado (Lack funds? Prison labor!). Others were sent to a Mustang Heritage Foundation trainer near Farmington, New Mexico.

The herd is now around 90 horses, and as usual “[t]here’s a lot of competition for limited forage among cattle, elk, [and] the horses,” admitted Diana Trujillo in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal.




  1. are you aware the BLM has a “gather” planned for 102 horses in this area – they are planning to remove 66 and PZP 18 mares – that should doom them for sure. The dates for this are listed on their site for 10/1/12-2/28/13. Unbelievable!

    • Alex,
      I’m not aware of this, but the round-up couldn’t be on Jarita Mesa as it’s managed exclusively by the El Rito District. The BLM has no authority on the Carson Nat’l Forest

    • Craig,
      Have you ever been to Jarita Mesa? Are you from the area? Are you familiar with the history? Have you seen the genetic reports? Or talked to the families in the area? Or spent time with the equine geneticists? Or talked to the USFS? If any of these things were true, you wouldn’t write that the horse “is being treated so unjustly.” What’s the injustice exactly? That they freely graze the range? What about the current management priorities of the USFS could you possibly complain about?

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