GRAND JUNCTION — The trap is set. Jim Dollerschell hides up the pink-dirt hill behind the sagebrush and the pinyon pine, not visible from the corral.
A trough of fresh water and piles of grass-hay strewn along the ground will lure the wild horses he is capturing into a ring of metal fencing.
And when the animals enter the corral, a handful at a time from the canyons and layered bluffs of western Colorado, Dollerschell will hit the button on his remote control.
The gate will slam shut.
By the end of the roundup this fall at the Little Book Cliffs, the federal Bureau of Land Management hopes to have captured 60 horses from the wild herd of about 190. Dollerschell, rangeland management specialist for the BLM’s Grand Junction field office, will push the horses from the corral to a stock trailer. From there, they will go to a holding pasture in Cañon City, and later, be put up for adoption.
The gather is one of 56 roundups planned this year, with a goal of removing 12,061 wild horses and burros from rangeland across the West. That’s about three times as many animals as last year and the year before.
In Wyoming last month, the bureau removed hundreds of horses from the Red Desert Complex — often more than 100 per day — by chasing them with a helicopter. Five died or were euthanized after they were injured in the roundup, including a colt with a broken leg and a stallion blinded by another stallion while in a trailer. Two colts were treated for “capture shock,” and one died, according to BLM reports.
The federal agency’s efforts to capture wild horses and burros have ramped up this year as the herds have reached the highest levels since the BLM began managing the animals in 1971. Federal regulators also just approved plans, despite public outcry from wild horse advocates, to corral mares in Oregon and remove their ovaries as a means of birth control.
There are nearly 82,000 wild horses and burros roaming on public land, plus an additional 47,000 that were already captured and put into holding pens. The available public land can sustain only 26,600 horses and burros, according to the agency’s environmental studies, which is to say the country has 55,000 too many.
As the agency’s proposals to curb the population become more aggressive, the decades-long hostility between the federal government and wild horse lovers is escalating.
Federal officials say the horses are at risk of starvation and dehydration, that the 26.9 million acres in 10 Western states is not enough to sustain them. Volunteers and BLM staff have trucked in water this summer to prevent horses from dying of dehydration, including in the Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County.
When the herds grow too large, public lands are trampled and the forage available for wildlife and livestock is threatened, agency officials said. The federal agency is responsible for managing public land for use by all, including ranchers who buy grazing permits, mostly for cattle and sheep. On some ranges, habitat for greater sage grouse — which are found only in the sagebrush regions on the West — is jeopardized, the BLM said.
Mustang advocates, though, say the agency’s numbers are arbitrary. They claim the crisis is one manufactured by the BLM, and that years of mismanagement by the agency have led federal officials to destructive and inhumane tactics.
Besides increasing the number of mustang roundups, the BLM plans to remove the ovaries of wild horses in Oregon and study the health and social effects of permanent birth control.
Two research partners — first Oregon State University in 2016 and then Colorado State University this summer — pulled out of the controversial project before it was finalized and amid emotional protest. Now the federal agency plans to complete the work without a veterinary school, instead by hiring veterinary surgeons who would remove the ovaries vaginally with a looped metal hook similar to a bicycle chain. A public comment phase ended this month, and the BLM’s field office in Hines, Ore., has announced the research will start in October.
Wild horse groups, including the American Wild Horse Campaign, filed legal action last week to stop the agency’s plans.
“The fact that the BLM has chosen to move forward with these archaic, dangerous and inhumane procedures demonstrates how far removed the agency is from sound, scientific, evidence-based decision-making,” said Brieanah Schwartz, government relations and policy counsel for the group.
The Cloud Foundation’s Kathrens called the plans “too gruesome to even contemplate.”
Instead of spaying mares, horse advocates want the BLM to increase its use of a birth-control vaccine, called PZP, as well as invest more in researching vaccines that last longer than one year. The Cloud Foundation has asked to manage 150 wild horses on the Stewart Creek range in Wyoming, offering to administer birth control to the mares and record population growth by keeping a photographic record of every horse.
In addition to the controversy over spaying wild mares, the federal agency also enraged wild horse groups this summer by changing rules of sale regarding mustangs.
Under the old policy, people were limited to buying four mustangs every six months unless an exception was granted by the assistant director of the agency — an effort to prevent sales to buyers who wanted to take the horses for slaughter. Now, under a July rule change, people can buy up to 25 wild horses per sale, as often as they want.
Horse advocates accused the BLM of going behind their backs as they were sitting on an advisory board brainstorming solutions to the horses’ swelling population. The policy change means horses are more vulnerable to ending up in slaughterhouses because it makes it more profitable to buy them by the truckload and ship them across the border to Mexico, they said.
Few people are “suddenly in the market” for 25 mustangs per day, said Cory Golden, advocacy coordinator for Return to Freedom, a wild horse sanctuary in California.
The four-horse limit was put in place in December 2012. Three years later, an investigation from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General revealed that 1,800 of the federally protected animals went to slaughter from 2008 to 2012. The horses were sold to a La Jara rancher who later told investigators he brought them close to the Mexican border. He paid the BLM $10 apiece.
Despite the change in sale rules, it remains illegal to buy wild horses for the purpose of selling them to a slaughterhouse.
The BLM expanded the sale limit to 25 horses to encourage sales to “good homes,” said Jason Lutterman, a BLM public affairs specialist for the Wild Horse and Burro Program, based in Reno. Mustangs up for sale already have been passed over for adoption three times. Without adoption or sale, they remain in the BLM’s holding pastures.
Until the early 2000s, the bureau was placing about 8,000 wild horses and burros in private homes every year, enough to keep up with population growth. But a “huge drop-off” in adoptions, coinciding with an economic downturn, meant the captured animals were staying in holding facilities instead of going to homes, Lutterman said. Horse roundups slowed.
Adoptions began to pick up in 2015 but have not fully rebounded. This year, the federal agency expects to place only about 4,300 horses and burros, the most since 2007.
The cost of the wild horse management program, meanwhile, has swelled to $82 million, making it a target for members of Congress. Nearly 60 percent of the spending — $49 million in 2017 — goes toward keeping horses in holding facilities after they have been removed from the range.
Congressman Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican, proposed last year to allow the BLM to euthanize healthy horses it captures. The millions of dollars it is costing the federal government to keep them in pastures could go toward “defense, education, job training or any other worthy cause,” he wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times.
Gayle Hunt, founder of the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition, said that although the “current administration just really seems to despise every living thing,” previous administrations were not much different in their treatment of wild horses.
“Industry, ranching, extracting — they have managed to paint the picture of wild horses and the wild West as something that is very simplistic,” she said. “It’s been, ‘We’ve got to preserve rural communities and rural America, and wild horses destroy the range.’ Nothing more than that. We’ve always had an uphill climb.”
In the Little Book Cliffs, the grass dried up this summer in the midst of another Colorado drought. The horses, roaming on 36,000 acres etched with deep canyons and steep cliffs, still look healthy, not too skinny.
“If your horses start looking poorly, you’re waiting too long,” Dollerschell said, after helping haul a flatbed full of hay and water tanks to set up the bait-and-trap operation. “You see what they live in up here? It’s no easy picnic, getting from point A to point B.”
The horses share the rangeland with mountain lions, bears, bobcats and deer. When the bunchgrass and cheatgrass get short, they eat sagebrush and rabbitbrush. There is no sign of them for miles, at times, save for piles of manure on dusty ground.
The last roundup in the bluffs outside of Grand Junction was in 2013, and then only 13 horses were removed.
Now the herd totals 190, spread across the purple and beige landscape into bands, or families, that typically include one stallion, a few mares and foals. The limit set for Little Book by the BLM is from 90 to 150 horses.
The bureau began a fertility control program on the range north of Grand Junction in 2002, injecting mares via dart with a vaccine that causes antibodies to surround eggs, preventing the horses from becoming pregnant for one year. The program reduced the number of new foals each year to between 11 and 26, compared to up to 41 foals in prior years, Dollerschell said. Annual population growth dropped from 20 to 25 percent to 9 to 15 percent.
Four mares captured in the latest roundup have been injected with the fertility vaccine and released back to the range.
A few days before the start of the September gather, BLM officials and volunteers from a group called Friends of the Mustangs were on the range setting out water and hay. At the start, only a couple of metal panels of fencing guard the food and water, not an entire circle. Horses show up to eat and drink, sometimes within 30 minutes or so of the BLM pickup truck pulling away.
Each day, more panels of the corral are added until it’s an enclosure with a gate. That’s when Dollerschell hides in the bushes with his remote control.
Within the first 10 days of the gather, which could continue for weeks, Dollerschell had removed 23 horses from the range.
The horses are hard to find, especially in the heat of the August sun. But on a recent trip, Peggy Elsmore and Beckie Diehl, volunteers with Friends of the Mustangs, easily spotted two bachelor stallions foraging for grass and shrubs on a distant slopeside. The women quickly determined it was Sparks, a dark bay, and Crescent, a sorrel. The stallions hang together because neither has a herd of mares.
The Friends of the Mustangs group, which Dollerschell described as a buffer between the federal agency and critics who don’t spend as much time on the range, has documented every horse at Little Book Cliffs through their markings. Members meet regularly to nominate and vote on the horses’ names. They also work to promote mustang adoptions.
“Animals need to be managed,” said Elsmore, who has adopted a handful of the wild horses. “Like the deer and the elk, you need to thin them out. The focus is not letting them all starve to death but not taking them all off the range.”