PLACITAS, N.M. - For decades, free-ranging horses have roamed this mountain village in New Mexico, galloping on residents' property, dashing along roads and attracting tourists and wildlife fans hoping to catch a glimpse.
Their presence has long defined Placitas. But the horses are now drawing the ire of some residents who say their growing numbers are hurting the delicate desert landscape because they eat what little vegetation there is amid an ongoing drought.
"We're going to be living in a dust bowl in a few years," said resident Peter Hurley, noting that it may take possibly a decade before the vegetation in some areas in the village north of Albuquerque returns to normal.
Horse advocates say the drought is to blame for damaging landscape and state officials have blocked their attempts to administer a female contraceptive to help control the horse population.
A round-up of some of the 125 or so horses by state authorities and a plan by federal officials to remove some from nearby federal land have raised the potential for a standoff between horses advocates and federal officials over the animals' fate.
"People are willing to die for these horses," said Gary Miles of the Placitas Animal Rescue. "I know I am."
Miles said any new roundup of horses could spark a "Cliven Bundy situation," referring to the Nevada rancher and his armed supporters who got into a confrontation in April with federal government over public land use.
Sandoval County officials say they understand the passion around the horses and their importance to village, but Commissioner Orlando Lucero said the horses pose safety concerns, especially for motorists in the increasingly busy area.
"My biggest fear is that someone will be killed or maimed for the rest of his life by hitting one of these horses at night," said Lucero, who has long sought a compromise. He and others have proposed a private horse sanctuary to house the animals.
"No county in the country is in the livestock business," he said. "So we can't be the ones who pay for these horses."
There are differing stories about how the horses ended up in Placitas.
Advocates say just as other horses in the Southwest, they are part of herds left over from the time of the Spanish conquest.
Federal and local officials, however, believe they are part of herds from recently abandoned horses or come from nearby American Indian pueblos, though none claim ownership to them.
Earlier this year, the New Mexico Livestock Board officials removed more than 50 horses roaming around the unincorporated town following complaints by some residents.
Miles and other advocates bought them at auctions, some for around $10, then brought them back and adopted them to residents. Miles and his group work off donations to feed around 50 horses which cost them close to $3,000 a month just in hay.
The Placitas-based Wild Horse Observers Association then sued to stop the state from continuing with any more roundups. But a state judge ruled in June the Placitas horses aren't considered wild and therefore fall under state livestock laws.
Patience O'Dowd, a resident and the association's president, said the judge's ruling was wrong and vowed to continue to fight. "These horses are wild and you can know that by their wild behaviour," O'Dowd said.
John Brenna, active field manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said despite advocates' claims, federal and state courts have ruled that the horses aren't wild and federal officials consider the animals "unauthorized excessive livestock."
The BLM recently posted a notice at the Placitas Post Office notifying residents that the agency plans to remove around 48 horses on BLM land sometime between now to Dec. 31.
"We're not saying when we will go out there because we want to prevent a Bundy-type situation," Brenna said. But he added that BLM officials will only remove horses on federal lands and not those roaming on private property.
Brenna said that more than 40 rescue groups have been contacted about adopting the horses scheduled to be rounded up in Placitas and federal officials don't want the horses to be auctioned off to slaughter houses in Canada or Mexico.
Meanwhile, Miles said residents monitoring for any roundups will be waiting and ready to prevent the horses from leaving.
"We have eyes and ears everywhere," Miles said. "We're ready."
Wild Horse Observers Association: http://whoanm.org/wordpress/
Let Our Land Rest: http://letourlandrest.wordpress.com/
Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras .
© Coast Reporter