The Rio Grande is disappearing. Demand for water is growing as snow packs shrink, rain patterns shift and average temperatures rise faster than they ever have in the past 11,000 years.Read more
For the first time in local memory, bighorn sheep are being spotted in the southern end of the San Luis Valley.
The sheep are believed to be part of a growing herd that was reintroduced to the cliffs of the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico almost a decade ago.
For Brian Bechaver, the Colorado game warden who is assigned to this 1,000-square-mile area, it’s a big deal. The only records of the sheep in the area are pictures of them sketched into the rocks along the river.
But the sheep are not going to find much of a welcome if they continue to move north where the population of horses has exploded.
When Bechaver, 44, was growing and roaming these hills, seeing a horse was a rare sight.
Now, he estimates there are more than 500. Every small canyon and arroyo seems to have its own herd of about 25 horses.
These are not wild horses. These are animals that have been dumped by people unwilling to take care of them. They have then bred like rabbits. Bechaver said that in four years, a horse herd could double in size.
Unlike the nibbling done by elk and deer, which the horses have now mostly pushed out of the valley, horses can eat plants down to the root.
Bechaver said it’s not just that the horses are overgrazing, they are turning some of the hills into sand dunes.
Although from a biological standpoint, the horses are worse than feral pigs, which anyone can shoot, the politics and romantic notions about horses protect them.
“People think they are doing them a favor,” Bechaver said of the people who release the horses. “But they are not.”
Bechaver has seen horses limping on injured legs and others being choked by their halters. He shoots them when it is the most humane thing to do.
But the population grows and the horses expand their territory. The only living willows along the riverbanks now are the ones that are protected by strong fences.
Unfortunately, no one wants the horses and too many don’t want to see them killed.
“You can’t give them away,” Bechaver said.
He says bighorn sheep may fare better than the elk and the deer and be able to live on steep cliffs where the horses can’t. But the horses rule the grasslands along the river and the plains.
And then there are the rattlesnakes. They seem to be doing quite well and provide an excellent reminder to be careful where you step. There are much worse things to step on than a pile of horse dung.
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As they travel, Colin and Erich are taking water samples for the following periodic water quality tests. In partnership with The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment’s Texas Stream Team Program at Texas State University, the results will be added to a public database it helps maintain for research and monitoring water quality.
While making his way to the Gulf of Mexico, Colin will be periodically activating a device that uses satellite technology to share his current location. Use this map to see where he traveled on this day.
|Check-In||Time of Check-In (CST)||Latitude||Longitude|
To report on and understand the haphazard irrigation system the Rio Grande has become and the changes it is going through, Colin decided the best approach would be to travel the length of the Rio Grande by foot and small boat.
He knew it would give him a unique perspective on a river that few understand. It did require many long days of moving slowly and camping on muddy riverbanks, but Colin likes that sort of thing.
The benefit was it provided access to people who wanted to share their stories and experiences with the Rio Grande. Via Facebook and chance encounters, Colin made instant friends who opened their homes. They provided help from loaning their trucks to their cell phone contact lists to help tell the story of the Rio Grande.
The trip would not have been possible without their help, along with the dedicated assistance of David Lozano, Jason Jones and Daniel Dibona, who drove thousands of miles to get people and boats in place.