A wild stallion roams Sand Wash Basin in northwestern Colorado during a recent winter. The federal Bureau of Land Management plans to roundup 733 wild horses at Sand Wash during the next two weeks. (Scott Wilson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For the second time this summer, a helicopter hired by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will round up hundreds of wild horses roaming northwest Colorado in what the agency is calling an emergency operation to thin the herds.

The roundup in the Sand Wash Basin, in far northwestern Colorado near the Wyoming border, is scheduled to begin Wednesday and continue until the federal agency has removed 733 mustangs, which is about 80% of the population on the high-desert rangeland. This two- to three-week operation comes after the July-August emergency removal of 457 horses from the West Douglas herd, in nearby Rio Blanco County. 

The BLM’s aggressive goal — leaving 163 horses in the 156,000-acre Sand Wash Basin — has attracted protest from mustang advocates across the country, including Colorado’s first gentleman Marlon Reis, a long-time supporter of animal rights. 

Reis posted on social media that he and Gov. Jared Polis suggested to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland that Colorado take on a “more active, co-managerial role” in overseeing wild horses and burros. He urged Coloradans to call members of Congress to protest the roundup. 

Polis urged Haaland and BLM deputy director of policy Nada Wolff Culver in a letter Monday to “temporarily freeze any planned round-ups” for six months to allow for a “more thoughtful and inclusive process.”

“I remain extremely concerned with the historic scale and condensed period of the BLM’s proposed round-ups at Sand Wash Basin,” Polis wrote in the letter, which his office provided to The Sun. “I believe that, through Colorado’s unique position as a state with a long history of innovation and care for our public lands and wildlife, we can work more collaboratively with the BLM to effectuate more scientific and humane outcomes to herd management.” 

The governor said he had received an “outpouring” of letters from people opposed to the roundups. “There remain legitimate concerns about the fate of gathered horses, and I believe that better collaboration with the state and advocates could improve assurances about their long-term well-being and the avoidance of any potential slaughter,” he wrote.

Wild horses gather in a canyon in the Book Cliff range north of Grand Junction in this May, 1, 2006, file photo. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But the federal agency has not swayed from its plan, scoping out the rangeland Tuesday with a contracted helicopter that will use low-flying maneuvers when necessary to push the horses toward a corral for trapping. During the July-August roundup at West Douglas, nine horses were euthanized because of pre-existing fractures and injuries and one was put down because of a leg fracture that occurred during the roundup. 

The emergency gather is needed, according to the BLM, “due to exceptional drought and lack of forage.” The Sand Wash has suffered years of drought, causing the federal agency and volunteers to haul water to the mustangs several times in the past five to seven years, including earlier this summer, said Chris Maestas, with the BLM’s Little Snake Field Office in northwest Colorado. 

The land, shared with mule deer, elk and sage grouse, has in some areas turned to “moon dust” because of drought and overgrazing, he said. The grouse population in the basin has decreased 26% this year, Maestas said.

“With that many horses, it’s become decimated,” he said. “About 60% of the range has been destroyed. People are saying, ‘It’s not an emergency. Look at the horses today. They’re fat and there is water.’ We are concerned about what is going to happen this winter.”

Maestas estimated it will take several years, with what the BLM considers an appropriate number of mustangs, for the range to recover. An estimated 150 horses have left the designated management area, jumping fences and slipping through open gates, to literally find greener pastures near farmland along the Little Snake River, he said. 

After removing several hundred horses by helicopter roundup this month, the plan is to regularly thin the herd by a small number of mustangs at a time using a bait-and-trap method — luring the animals into corrals stocked with water and hay. Earlier this year, the BLM removed 10 horses from Sand Wash by bait and trap.

Wild horse advocates, however, say the federal agency’s emergency declaration due to drought is an overreaction. Since calling the emergency earlier this summer, the area has experienced monsoon rains, and mustang groups say they’ve seen horses standing shoulder-deep in brimming ponds. 

The Sand Wash Basin Wild Horse Advocacy Team, called SWAT, for years has hauled water to the mustangs and darted mares with a birth control vaccine called PZP. The group is opposed to the helicopter gather and instead has asked for more funding for birth control and a slower, more gentle bait-and-trap gather. They also want the BLM to remove fewer horses so the herd is on the high end of what the federal agency has determined is the appropriate herd size — from 163 to 362 animals. 

Horse advocates say that by removing 733 horses, bloodlines that have persisted for generations will be lost. Mustangs live in families, called bands, typically with one stallion and a handful of mares and their foals. Younger, bachelor stallions sometimes pair up and live together until they get their own band. 

Scott Wilson, a mustang advocate and Denver photographer who began taking pictures of Sand Wash Basin mustangs in 2018, photographed the most famous stallion in the herd, Picasso, before the mustang was presumed to die of old age during the winter of 2019. “His grandson is still running around Sand Wash Basin right now,” Wilson said. “These bloodlines will be decimated.” 

A stallion named Picasso, captured on camera in 2018, is among the most well-known mustangs of the Sand Wash Basin herd. He has not been seen since winter of 2019 and is presumed to have died of old age. (Scott Wilson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Wilson intends to watch some of the helicopter roundup from the public viewing area set up by the BLM this week. “I’m dreading it,” he said. 

He and others are “campaigning for a delay,” calling the drought emergency “completely out of proportion” for the situation. 

The federal agency plans to gather 783 horses — an extra 50 than the 733 that will be removed — and allow horse advocates from SWAT to help choose, based on bloodlines and family bands, 25 mares and 25 stallions to return to the herd. 

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper said he has received enough feedback from Coloradans that his office is drafting a letter in response. “I’m not sure how inhumane this is going to be,” he told The Sun. “That’s the argument that’s going back and forth.”

Managing wild horses is perhaps the most controversial job of the BLM, which often pits horse lovers against cattle, sheep and other ranchers who lease federal land for grazing. Ranchers on the Western Slope, who have suffered years of drought, have sold off cattle in recent years because of a lack of grazing land. “You’ve got farmers and ranchers who are looking at losing their ranches,” Hickenlooper said. “There’s got to be a balance. That’s me in the middle trying to find out how do you balance these two competing issues.” 

The Colorado chapter of the Sierra Club accused the BLM of siding with ranchers over mustangs. The basin, which overlaps with three livestock areas, is overgrazed because of livestock — not mustangs, wildlife chair Delia Malone said in a written statement. She called for removing livestock from the area for a minimum of five to 10 years.

“After this period of rest and recovery from livestock, the condition of the range should then be re-evaluated to determine an appropriate management level for wild horses,” Malone said. “No wild horses should be removed from Sand Wash Basin until livestock have been removed and the range is recovered.” 

Mustangs gathered from Sand Wash will go to holding pens in Cañon City and become available for adoption. The agency’s “adoption incentive program” pays people $1,000 to adopt a wild horse or burro, and they must agree not to sell the animals for slaughter. The bureau also has a new online auction where people can sign up for mustangs and have them delivered to a nearby pick-up location. 

wild horses on a hill
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)

But wild horse advocates said they have tracked multiple animals going to slaughter and a New York Times investigation uncovered a pipeline from BLM adoptions to slaughterhouses. Under the agency’s rules, a person is allowed to adopt only four horses or burros at once. 

The American Wild Horse Campaign, based in Northern California, has discovered adopted horses and burros — often in groups of four — ending up at auctions where they are sold for slaughter. In one case, the advocacy group found that 12 members of the same family each adopted four burros, receiving $48,000 from the BLM through the adoption incentive program. A year later, they sold all the burros at auction, garnering an additional $15,000. 

“The BLM is laundering horses to slaughter,” said Ellie Phipps Price, president of the board of the American Wild Horse Campaign. Phipps Price has rescued 250 mustangs that live on a sanctuary in Northern California, many of them from people who adopted the wild animals and then couldn’t handle them. “People call me and say, ‘I just can’t handle this horse. I have to go to college. It already broke my arm.’ I get that call all day long.”

Advocates are extremely skeptical that the BLM could find happy homes for the nearly 1,200 mustangs being removed from Colorado rangeland from July-September. 

“This is the tragedy,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign. “The long-term capacity to maintain these horses in holding facilities is just not there. Adoption is not a solution. The roundups lead to slaughter — there is just no other way around it.”

The Sand Wash Basin is one of four mustang rangelands in Colorado managed by the federal agency. The bureau counts 2,412 roaming wild horses in Colorado, but says the appropriate number for the land is 827. 

The roundups in Colorado are part of an aggressive push by the BLM, approved during the administration of former President Donald Trump, to remove thousands of mustangs from the Western landscape. The agency estimated there are 86,189 animals in 10 Western states in 2021, after the removal of 10,824 horses and burros last year. 

Roundups of thousands more horses are taking place in several Western states this summer, including Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and California. 

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues.

Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting jobs in Texas and Oklahoma. She worked for 13 years at The Denver Post, including several years on the investigative projects team, before helping create The Sun in 2018.

Jen is a graduate of the University of Montana and loves hiking, skiing and watching her kids' sports.

Email: jennifer@coloradosun.com Twitter: @jenbrowncolo