Wild horses graze on public lands Sept. 1, 2021, near the Sand Wash Basin outside Craig. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

SAND WASH BASIN — The silvery-gray wild stallion scaled the metal corral as if it were a ladder, then thrust himself over the top rail and back to freedom. 

The stud was one of 65 mustangs rounded up by helicopter and herded into a holding pen on the first day of the federal Bureau of Land Management roundup in Sand Wash Basin in far northwest Colorado. The stallion trotted away, his tail raised in an arch, and disappeared into the vast landscape of layered canyons, juniper trees and sagebrush that smelled earthy and minty in a light rain.

The remaining horses in the corral, including 11 foals, spent the night there, the stallions separated from the mares, colts and fillies, and were eventually destined for a holding facility in Cañon City. The 22 studs occasionally squealed, kicking each other with one or both back legs, as they sorted out their dominance in close quarters. 

By the time the roundup concludes in two or three weeks, the BLM hopes to have removed 733 mustangs from the Sand Wash Basin herd, thinning the wild horses by more than 80%. Federal officials say the emergency operation is necessary because of years of drought that has decimated the bunch grasses and shrubs that horses and other wildlife need to survive the winter. The swiftness of the plan and the aggressive removal goal have elicited outcry from numerous wild horse groups, as well as Gov. Jared Polis, who called last week for a six-month moratorium on roundups but failed to stop the gather.

The roundup began Wednesday on the northern outskirts of Sand Wash Basin, on federal land leased several months of the year to sheep ranchers, and where an estimated 150 mustangs have escaped the basin, slipping around cattle guards and hopping fences for better food and water. To witness the gather, a caravan of 14 vehicles sloshed down slick and muddy roads in the rain, following BLM officials to the corral set up about a half a mile across the state line into Wyoming. 

A wild horse peers from the fencing shortly after being captured during the roundup Sept. 1, 2021, in Sand Wash Basin outside Craig. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The group of spectators stood about one-third of a mile from the holding pen as a helicopter swirled the cloudy sky. Among them were a wild horse advocate making a documentary, a woman who says she’s found spiritual healing by observing the horses, and a wildlife photographer whose other job is to travel the West bearing witness to the federal government’s roundups.

The pilot pushed the horses across the hills, then toward a wide, winged, jute fence that narrowed into sturdier fencing and the metal pen. As the horses, in groups of 10 or 15, galloped over the final crest toward the pen, contracted cowboys released their “Prada horse,” a domestic horse trained to take off into the pen, leading the way. 

Mustang advocates call that horse, in this case a spunky bay who kicked up its heels as it ran 30 feet in front of the wild band, the “Judas horse” — a Biblical reference to the disciple who betrayed Jesus. 

Those who traveled hours into a remote sagebrush sea along the stateline were relieved at the way the horses loped or trotted into the pasture and by the distance the helicopter — which some called a “giant monster” — stayed from the animals. There were questions, though, about a foal that ran into the pen with blood on its side. The baby horse had a superficial cut a few inches long, a BLM official explained later.

The day was tense. A Colorado Sun reporter and photographer were the only journalists in the collection of people watching the roundup, and the rest committed to spending a day on the rangeland were either federal officials who planned the helicopter gather or those who passionately opposed it.

Conflict erupted regularly, including when BLM’s Chris Maestas, from the Little Snake Field Office in Craig, insisted that filmmakers and photographers move away from a juniper tree and closer to a ridge that would shield them from view as the horses crested a hill toward the pen. Maestas, connected via radio with the cowboys at the pen, told photographers they could spook the horses. An argument erupted as cameras rolled. 

Wild horses stand inside a pen soon after after being captured during a roundup on north of Sand Wash Basin outside Craig. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“I am cordial to everyone,” said Maestas, who used a calm, practiced tone the entire day responding to accusations from those who claimed the roundup’s fast-tracked “emergency” status was false, that the horses were not starving or dehydrated.  

Monsoon rains came to the Sand Wash during the past month, filling ponds and improving vegetation, and, the advocates pointed out, it was raining even as the roundup began. 

Federal officials agreed the horses, at least those captured outside of the basin, were healthy. But that did not change their opinion about what could happen come winter and even next spring, when the short-rooted shrubs and grasses weakened by drought will not produce as much to eat. One rainy day, a BLM official said, does not change years of dry ground, noting that there are layers of plant and soil science that “emotional” horse lovers do not take into account.

“The rains came, but what didn’t come is more food,” said Bruce Sillitoe, manager of the Little Snake Field Office. “The roots become smaller and smaller. There are details that those that only feel the emotional part don’t understand.” 

Wild horses run as they are funneled into a trap led by a helicopter north of the Sand Wash Basin. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“Like a funeral procession”

The caravan began from the tiny Moffat County town of Maybell, where one by one, pickups, SUVs and a Prius pulled into the city park to line up behind a federal vehicle.

Members of the public are allowed to watch each day of the gather, but must call a phone line to hear a recorded message the night before to learn the meeting location and time, which changes as the contractors running the operation move their corrals across the rangeland. Witnessing the day’s gather, which is sometimes called off at a moment’s notice, takes stamina, as well as water and food, a full tank of gas and a paper map because there is no cell service where the horses roam. 

The first morning included hours of waiting until eventually the rain let up and the fog lifted to reveal the layers of cliffs on the horizon. The Prius turned back as the roads became more rural and full of muck.

Meg Frederick, who has a home in St. Louis but spends seven months a year living with the horses, often camping among them in the basin, was in tears as the caravan paused alongside a county road, windshield wipers wiping away rain as she wiped away tears.

“I feel like I’m at a funeral procession,” she said. The day before, Frederick watched bands of wild horses in the basin, crying as the stallions nuzzled their mares, and foals hopped and ran with each other around a watering hole. 

Wild horses graze on public lands on Sept. 1, 2021, north of the Sand Wash Basin outside Craig. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“A lot of these guys, I consider friends,” said Frederick, who is helping adopt a family of horses rounded up this summer from the Red Desert Complex in Wyoming. “They’ve got me through the hardest times of my life. I’ve spent the last months saying goodbye.” 

Frederick, who was hit by a drunk driver in 2011 and had surgery to rebuild her rib cage, is among those who believe the wild horses bring spiritual healing. She’s met others of similar mind as she travels to her favorite mustang ranges around the West, including two people who have lost children and named wild horses after them. 

“When I’m with the wild horses, I don’t feel pain,” said Frederick, who travels in a dusty SUV with a camper. “Their energy is so healing. And they’re taking it all away from us. I haven’t slept in a month or eaten in several days. All my horses that I love will be gone. If they were really starving, I’d want them to be saved, but they’re not.” 

Ashley Avis, a filmmaker from Los Angeles who wrote and directed the 2020 film “Black Beauty” for Disney, was traveling with her small crew, which included her husband and her father. She grew up with horses but didn’t realize what was happening to the nation’s wild horses until doing research for “Black Beauty. “

The public take photos of a wild horse roundup from a viewing area with the BLM officials in the background north of the Sand Wash Basin outside Craig. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

She wants to write a film that does for mustangs what “Blackfish” did to raise awareness about orcas in captivity or “The Cove” did for dolphins. 

“I hope people will be crying at the end, versus having to shut it off halfway through because it’s too violent,” said Avis, who has filmed four helicopter roundups so far. “It’s really errant of the BLM to be massively targeting these herds. These horses have families. They will be almost wiping out these beloved herds that people come out to see.” 

Concern about food to last the winter

Even among the wild horse groups, there is friction. 

Some want none of the horses removed from the landscape and instead push for the BLM to step up spending on a birth control program in which mares are darted with a vaccine called PZP. Federal officials say the number of horses on the land now is far too many for an effective birth control regime — a mare typically has a foal every year, and the herd population generally increases by 20% each year. To control it, they would have to dart about 80% of the mares, a challenging task in hilly, rocky terrain with nearly 900 horses. 

Volunteer groups that have agreements with the BLM to help care for the horses and the land are also often at odds with other wild horse groups. 

At the Sand Wash roundup, wild horse activists kept their distance from Cindy Wright, co-founder of Wild Horse Warriors, which has an agreement with the bureau’s Little Snake Field Office. The group hauled water to the horses in 2018, 2019 and earlier this summer when ponds dried up. It also raised funds to line ponds in an attempt to keep them full and put up fencing along Colorado 318 to prevent horses from getting hit by cars. 

Wright, who lives in Hayden and raises funds for Wild Horse Warriors by giving tours in the basin, has advocated for a compromise. She wanted a bait-and-trap gather instead of a helicopter roundup and urged the BLM to leave more horses on the range than just 163. But she agrees that the land has been ravaged by drought and that nearly 900 horses is too many. 

“Just because you walk out there and it looks green, that doesn’t mean that is vegetation that the horses will eat,” she said. “Is there truly enough vegetation in the basin to get 900 horses through the winter? That’s a legitimate concern.” 

“What the wild horse community, nationwide, needs to come to grips with is that the Wild Horse and Burro Program is not sustainable the way it’s operating right now,” she said. “If all of us don’t put our egos aside and come together, we’re causing more damage to the wild horses than good.” 

BLM officials say some parts of the basin, which is ringed by ridges and where runoff empties into a sandy creek bed called a wash, are so decimated they look like “moon dust.” 

Another local group, Sand Wash Basin Wild Horse Advocacy Team or SWAT, has a database documenting all the basin’s horses by name and their lineage. The group will help the BLM decide which 50 horses to release back into the wild at the end of the roundup, hoping to prevent entire bloodlines from dying out as the basin drops to 163 horses from 896. 

The federal Bureau of Land Management’s Little Snake Field Manager, Bruce Sillitoe, discusses wild horse management north of the Sand Wash Basin outside Craig. Sillitoe oversees 1.3 million acres of public lands in several counties in northwest Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The federal agency plans to gather 783 horses in the next two or three weeks, then return 25 mares and 25 stallions to the range. The BLM will not release any of the captured foals back to the wild, a major point of contention between the government and wild horse advocates.

Releasing foals back to the range is dangerous, said Steve Leonard, who is the BLM’s state wild horse and burro specialist and the manager of the Cañon City holding facility. Family bands are disrupted during the roundup and a mare could join a new stallion upon release, and a stallion that isn’t the foal’s sire could kill that baby. Also, mares released from captivity sometimes will take off and abandon their foal, leaving it to starve. 

From their pens in the Sand Wash, wranglers will load about 30 horses at a time into a semi, headed to Cañon City, where cowboys will run blood tests and worm and vaccinate the mustangs and geld the stallions. 

The Cañon City facility now has about 1,750 horses, Leonard said. Those gathered from Sand Wash likely will go up for adoption in February. And those deemed unfit for adoption, typically the older horses like a recently captured stallion that was older than 20 and blind in one eye, are sent to pasture for the rest of their lives at ranches in the West and Midwest that the BLM contracts to house them. 

The agency’s “adoption incentive program” pays people $1,000 to adopt a wild horse or burro, and they must agree to care for the animals for a year, when they will receive title to the horses. 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. 

When that year is up, say horse advocates, some horses and burros end up sold in auctions for slaughter. 

The BLM is paying the crew of cowboys and pilot running the Sand Wash roundup $300,000. The federal agency also will spend a not-yet-tallied amount to feed many of the horses put out to pasture for the rest of their lives.

Sheep, deer, elk and sage grouse share the land

The aggressive push by the BLM this summer to thin wild horse herds across the West has included two helicopter gathers in Colorado. More than 450 horses were removed in July and August from the West Douglas range, in Rio Blanco County. 

Colorado has four mustang rangelands managed by the federal agency and, before this summer, counted 2,412 wild mustangs. The appropriate number for the land, according to the BLM, is just 827. 

Nationwide, the agency estimates there are more than 86,000 mustangs and burros in the wild, after rounding up more than 10,000 last year in several Western states. 

The BLM’s Hunter Seim said the Sand Wash herd has grown too large because the federal agency got off track on needed roundups. Sand Wash horses were rounded up in 1996, 2003 and 2008, reducing their number to the appropriate 163, he said. But officials in Washington did not approve a roundup in 2013, and “every year, that population has continued to grow.” 

Hunter Seim, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Little Snake River field office, describes how the bunch grasses and shrubs of the “cold desert” have been affected by drought, north of the Sand Wash Basin on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

After this roundup, the goal is to hold regular bait-and-trap gathers, and continue the birth control program for the mares, in order to keep the herd at a manageable level, he said. “We’re trying to get back to where we began.”

The horses share the rangeland with mule deer, elk and sage grouse, plus thousands of domestic sheep that graze from November through May. Sheep ranchers lease the land from the federal government. Three to five bands of sheep — around 2,000 sheep make up a band — use the area around Sand Wash each winter and spring, Seim said. 

While the sheep are eating salt brush and shrubs, the horses are looking for dormant grasses, he said. 

After the BLM’s contracted cowboys and helicopter pilot capture the horses that have escaped the herd management area, they will move into the basin for the remaining weeks of the roundup. Horse advocates from around the nation have plans to watch the gather for multiple days, documenting what they say is the loss of history. 

American mustangs are thought to be descendants of the work horses brought by Spanish and Portuguese explorers when they came to the New World in the 1600s, as well as descendants of horses that were already wild and those living with Native Americans. Since 1971, they’ve been managed by the federal government under a law that acknowledges them as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” 

The horse advocates will watch for the descendants of Picasso, an old pinto stallion not seen since the winter of 2019. Frederick has her sights set for Corona, a golden palomino stallion that has survived three roundups, one time, she said, screaming at the trailer as his mares and foals were hauled away.

Federal officials say they will not go after the captured stallion that sprung free somewhere near the stateline. 

Wild horses run as they are funneled into a trap led by a helicopter, not pictured, north of the Sand Wash Basin. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

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...