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Starving, dehydrated Nevada mustangs find refuge in Utah

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AXTELL, Sanpete County — Two hundred starving and dehydrated wild horses from the Cold Creek herd in Nevada have found respite in the temperate farmland of central Utah, where they are being nursed back to health before possible adoption.

"They were in pretty rough shape," said Gus Warr, director of the Utah Wild Horse and Burro program for the Bureau of Land Management. "They came from 110-degree weather and having no food to this. They think they're in heaven."

"This" is an off-range holding facility south of Gunnison operated by Kerry Despain and his wife, Nannette.

The Despains used to run certified Angus beef cattle and now run mustangs as private contractors for the federal agency.

They have 650 head of wild horses from Wyoming, Utah and now Nevada, with a capacity for 1,000. They also house several hundred wild burros in a separate facility to the north.

Warr said consecutive years of drought have left the range a barren and inhospitable place.

The Cold Creek herd, named after the subdivision they frequent north of Las Vegas, are fairly tame as wild horses go. They look at visitors with curiosity, but don't spook that easily.

Warr said the horses were so hungry they simply followed a truck loaded with hay to be captured.

"It's really unfortunate they had to get in that condition," he said.

Thirty horses, including some nursing mares, were in such bad shape they had to euthanized. Four orphan foals are being fostered in Nevada.

The survivors were trucked to Utah.

Protect Mustangs, a wild horse advocacy organization, criticized the BLM on Monday for moving the Cold Creek herd out of state and what the group says is out of public view to a private facility with limited access.

"It’s outrageous for the BLM to move the Cold Creek wild horses out of Nevada to a private facility — in the boondocks of Utah — without public accessibility six days a week," said Anne Novak, executive director of the organization. “We need to be able to watchdog the mustangs and help them get adopted.”

Novak added that the horses would have been better suited to stay at the Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Center outside of Reno, but Warr stressed that the Despains' Axtell ranch is actually closer and better for the horses.

"One of the main reasons we made the decision to bring them to Axtell was the condition of the animals," he said. "This was a shorter distance and easier on them."

Warr conceded that public access and oversight of the animals is an issue at a private facility, prompting Monday's media tour of the Axtell ranch to try to alleviate concerns.

"We wanted to be able to show people that yes, the horses are here, they are being cared for and they are improving," he said. "We will do another tour in a few months."

Kerry Despain is a lifelong horseman with a strong background of handling wild horses.

He worked for the Utah Department of Corrections and ran the state's first and only inmate wild horse gentling program at the Gunnison State Prison.

Despain retired in 2012 and the gentling program ended not long afterward. When it shut down, he was paid by the BLM to take on 150 horses because the state's holding facilities were full.

"I love taking care of these horses," Despain said. "It is a real challenge, but I love it."

Wild horse populations have reached crisis levels across the country, with too many horses and not enough people willing to adopt them.

In Utah, there should be just under 2,000 wild horses on the range. Warr said there are about 5,000 wild horses, not counting this year's crop of foals.

"We are 2 ½ times where we should be," Warr said.

Ranchers have filed a lawsuit against the BLM, and a few years ago, Iron and Beaver county officials threatened to conduct their own roundups.

Nationwide, wild horses should number 26,000. There are nearly 60,000 of the animals.

The Despain ranch is Utah's first private holding facility, barely opening its doors in June. Warr said it was among three in the West the federal agency awarded contracts to for the housing of excess wild horses.

On Saturday, the last of the Cold Creek herd arrived after an emergency gather, all skin and bones, weary and hot.

Dr. Summer Peterson is the vet on site administering the wild horses' care. She was really worried some might not survive, but the hardy animals have surprised her.

"They have done amazingly well," Peterson said, adding that their tame nature has helped reduce their stress levels and accelerated their overall adjustment to their new living conditions.

At the ranch, the animals are sorted into different pens depending on their gender and age.

When the Cold Creek herd gets strong enough, the horses will receive vaccinations, a freeze brand that allows the agency to track the animal for the rest of its life, and an overall medical checkup.

Months from now, many will be offered for adoption.

BLM contractors receive, on average, $5 per head per day. At the Despain ranch, the small crew of six was throwing up pens as fast as they could to accommodate their new arrivals.

Nannette Despain said her husband is "supposed" to be retired, but she's never seen him work harder — or have more fun.

"We bought this farm 20 years ago, and it is like a dream come true," she said. "What better scenario than to have your kids working alongside you every day and have the grandkids with you. It has been awesome to be able to put this together and work together on this."

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