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A pair of wild horses graze on a hill at Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range on Aug. 28, 2018 in Grand Junction. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

A low-key effort to lure wild horses with hay near Grand Junction will transition to a more forceful attempt to round them up by helicopter this weekend.

The federal Bureau of Land Management, already at odds with mustang advocacy groups, plans to begin herding the horses by helicopter on Sunday, an agency spokeswoman said.

The BLM wants to remove 60 horses from Little Book Cliffs and has managed to capture and remove only 27 after about a month of trying to lure them into a corral baited with fresh water and hay. Horses have stopped coming to the trap, said Emily Davis with the BLM.

The rangeland is remote, with deep canyons and bluffs, making it hard for federal officials to place bait-and-trap corrals close enough to some sections of the herd, particularly in an area called Monument Rock.

The helicopter portion of the roundup is expected to start Sunday and continue for seven to 10 days, Davis said.

The 27 horses already removed from the public land were transported to a holding pasture in Canon City, where they are being vaccinated and trained. They will go up for adoption in the Grand Junction area in early November.

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The roundup north of Grand Junction is one of 56 planned this year, with a goal of removing more than 12,000 wild horses and burros from rangeland in several Western states. It’s the most aggressive roundup schedule in years and targets three times as many animals as last year.

A helicopter roundup in Wyoming this summer caused uproar among wild horse advocates after five horses died or were euthanized due to their injuries. One colt at the Red Desert Complex broke its leg and a stallion was put down after being blinded by another stallion in a trailer. Two colts were treated for “capture shock,” and one died, according to BLM reports.

The Cloud Foundation, a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit that works to protect wild horses, said the move to a helicopter roundup in Grand Junction was “unfortunate.”

“The horses are pushed extremely hard, are frightened, and have a much greater chance of injury or death,” said the foundation’s Lisa Friday. “If horses must be removed, it is much more humane to gather them via bait and/or water trapping.”

The nonprofit CANA Foundation’s Manda Kalimian also was disappointed. “Helicopter roundups are the worst form of roundups,” she said. “They are not only inhumane and traumatic to our wild horse populations, but incredibly expensive to the American taxpayer.”

The federal agency plans to remove 33 additional horses near Grand Junction with the helicopter. The rangeland can sustain only about 130 horses and had 190 when the roundup began this summer, according to BLM environmental assessments.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...