Delta » When the Spanish conquistadors began exploring the southwest 400 years ago, it was on the backs of horses.
The animals they brought were smaller than horses today with distinct brownish colors, stripes on their legs and chest, black-framed ears, and two-colored tail and manes.
Some of the horses escaped from the conquistadors and became wild, eventually forming what has been named the Sulphur Herd that roams the valleys and mountain slopes of the Great Basin in southwestern Utah.
On Saturday, several people showed up at the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Facility in Delta to purchase some of the rare horses rounded up in November by the BLM. When the auction was complete, however, only eight horses had sold.
Chad Hunter, a wild horse specialist with the agency, said the 362 horses brought to the Delta facility are part of management efforts to keep the herds in balance with their available forage and water.
"It also helps to maintain their Spanish characteristics and maintain a genetically viable herd," said Hunter, who wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat against the drizzle of rain that fell Saturday and hip waders for tramping around in the thick mud it produced.
Hunter said the horses come from a 142,000-acre wild horse management area established in parts of western Iron, Beaver and Millard counties by the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 created to protect the wild animals.
Hunter said ideally the Sulphur Herd contains between 165 and 250 horses. Of the 23 herds of wild horses scattered across Utah, he said, the Sulphur Herd is the only one having the genetically distinct characteristics of the Spanish horse.
There are only two other such herds in the West with one roaming in Montana and another in Oregon, he said.
Part of the 1971 legislation also allows for the public to adopt the horses for a minimal amount of money.
Hunter said people usually look over the horses, pick the one they want then bid on the animal in a silent auction process. Leftover horses are then up for adoption at $125 apiece with a second "buddy" horse available for only $25.
Hunter said the person who adopts needs to have a proper trailer for transportation and facilities to care for the horses. After a year, the adopted horses are checked on and if they have been kept healthy and have adequate care, title to the animal is transferred to the person who adopted the horse.
If the conditions are not up to standards, Hunter said, the BLM takes back the horse, which is a rare occurrence.
Santaquin resident Glenn Pearmain who makes saddles, was one of the people adopting a horse on Saturday.
"I've had 54 mustangs before," said Pearmain. "I just love their qualities and they are easy to take care of."
Pearmain said he plans to train the horse for riding, using techniques he learned from his grandfather.
"He [grandfather] has broken about 40 of them for riding," he said.
Kathleen Hayden traveled from San Diego to pick up some mares she plans on mating with four Spanish stallions she acquired earlier in an attempt to reestablish a herd of the horses in Southern California.
She said California's only herd of wild horses were removed from the Anza Borrego Desert State Park when it became a biosphere reserve established by the United Nations.
She said the horses were considered an invasive species in the park and needed to be removed.
Hayden said she hopes her efforts are successful in creating a new herd of the rare horses on BLM lands adjacent to the park.
"I've had wonderful support from the BLM and members of Congress," said Hayden, adding that legislation to create the management area is still pending.
"I hope it happens sooner than later," she said.
Gus Warr, who heads the BLM's wild horse projects in Utah, said because Hayden obtained the horses as part of a nonprofit organization she created, the agency will help transport the horses to California at no cost.
Warr said the public can get a good deal on wild horses because the market for the animals is so depressed due to a sour economy.
He said in 2004 and 2006, auctions would fetch up to $3,500 for a horse.
Things were different Saturday.
BLM spokeswoman Lisa Reid said the eight horses sold Saturday raised only $725.
She said the horses not sold Saturday are still available online at wildhorseandburro.blm.gov.
Some of the horses will also be shipped east to other BLM facilities to be adopted.
"People just did not have the interest this year," Reid said. "I've never seen it [turn out] this low."
Tips for viewing wild horses in the Sulphur Herd Management Area of southwestern Utah:
Take topographic maps that show roads in the remote area.
Four-wheel drive and high clearance vehicles recommended.
Make sure vehicle is properly equipped including extra fuel, chains, tools for repairs, first-aid kit and water.
Always let someone know where you are going and when you will return.
Look in certain areas: reseeding projects where wildfires have burned or prescribed burns have been conducted to provide good forage.
Look in higher elevations. Mountain Home Peak in northwestern Beaver County provides an excellent vantage point for viewing wild horses. The animals migrate to higher elevations in the summer and lower benches in late fall and spring.
Take binoculars. Wild horses are best viewed at a distance. When approached they spook and run for cover.
Source: Bureau of Land Management
For more information on the BLM's wild horse and burro adoption program visit wildhorseandburro.blm.gov or call 1-866-468-7826.