MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. (AP) - Earth scorched by fire and drought is the view from the truck of a Mesa Verde National Park biologist as it rumbles down Morefield Canyon.
In the distance, a water war is taking place between two species of animals, one wild, one trespassing, both thirsty and struggling to survive.
Squaring off on either side of a small muddy spring, a herd of elk and a band of feral horses stand their ground until spooked by curious humans and their approaching machine.
The elk quickly flee out of view, kicking up dust. The horses casually move just a little more away, turning to stare.
The drama plays out every day, says Paul Morey, a wildlife biologist hired to handle the persistent livestock trespass problem at Mesa Verde.
“There are limited water sources on the park, especially in a drought, and therefore competition is high between these two groups of animals,” he said. “It puts pressure on native wildlife.”
Remote-sensor cameras recorded 1,000 images at the little spring, and the majority were of horses. Out of 57 “interactions,” 76 percent were of horses chasing off elk and 24 percent were elk doing the chasing.
Scattered throughout the park - from Wetherill Mesa and Farview to Morefield and Long Canyons- are 100 to 117 feral horses, making up 13 to 15 bands.
The colorful Morefield band is the most diverse on the park, featuring horses with deep red, white, black, and tan colors. A white stallion aggressively runs off a younger male trying to join the group. A recently born foal keeps close to his mother.
Dubbed “trespass livestock,” they’ve become tourist attractions and exhibit crafty behavior, figuring out how to open an ice machine to happily munch on a frozen treat, and breaking open water lines. They loiter wherever there’s water, including near bathrooms and restaurants, and also at the treated outflow from septic ponds.
But the horses present a perplexing problem for park managers because they trample cultural sites, cause erosion and chase native wildlife away from natural springs. They are territorial and can be aggressive, presenting a threat to visitors and staff.
“We’ve had a report of a visitor feeling threatened, and they have followed us on horseback, once nipping at the rear of our horses,” Morey says. “We’ve had to do some hazing with a special paint gun, and seen tourists feeding them cantaloupe and watermelon - not a good thing to do.”
Horses are an iconic image of the West, and they have been at Mesa Verde National Park since it opened in 1906. Early on, the park included grazing allotments, and there were scattered homesteads complete with pioneer horses.
Their descendants hold on, but their time may be limited.
The park has redoubled its efforts to coax the horses off of Mesa Verde. They are working with the bordering Ute Mountain Ute tribe to the south, which also has a problem with feral horses competing with cattle and threatening ruins in the historically rich Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park.