Stella Trueblood stood on a platform above the corrals, her eyes quickly scanning through the dust as the wild horses were pushed through a chute toward a trailer.
The mustangs that reached the semi truck would ship out of the Sand Wash Basin forever. Trueblood and other volunteers from the Sand Wash Basin Wild Horse Advocate Team — called SWAT — could save only 50 of the nearly 700 horses that were rounded up by helicopter in the high desert rangeland in far northwest Colorado.
“Third one back is a save! Pull it!” she shouted.
One at a time, as the wild horse advocates spotted a mustang on their “save list,” the animals were pulled by cowboys to a separate corral. And at the close of the roundup, the horses were released, trotting off into the landscape of sagebrush, juniper trees and red and tan cliffs.
The wild horse group’s list of 50 mustangs — 25 mares and 25 stallions — was a concession allowed by the federal Bureau of Land Management after the local group failed to persuade the BLM to switch the roundup from a helicopter gather to a gentler bait-and-trap operation.
In the end, federal officials removed about 100 fewer horses than originally planned. An estimated 250 or more mustangs remain in Sand Wash Basin, northwest of Craig in Moffat County, near the Wyoming state line.
The BLM began the roundup with an aggressive goal of removing about 80% of the herd, which was estimated at nearly 900. Instead, a wrangling crew and helicopter pilot hired by the government removed about 70% of the mustangs before the roundup officially ended and the last of the makeshift corrals were dismantled this week.
In all, 684 horses were herded by a low-flying helicopter into holding pens during the two-week roundup. The local wild horse advocacy group, which has documented the horses since 2008 and knows all of their names, created a list of 25 stallions and 25 mares to return to the wild, based mostly on bloodlines and color.
“Part of the allure of our treasured herd was the color,” Trueblood said. “We know the lineage of every horse. It was very hard to determine who is going to live free and who is going to be hauled out. It was heartbreaking, but we had to do it.”
Among those saved were an old palomino mare named Irma, who has been on the range since before 2008, and a small, black mare named Em that for 15 years has partnered with Corona, a famous dunalino stallion that once again escaped capture during a roundup. This time, Corona jumped the fence after he was herded in by the helicopter.
“Hopefully they find each other again,” Trueblood said.
She could hardly speak about a stallion named P.J., the son of the most famous horse in the Sand Wash, a pinto named Picasso that is thought to have died of old age in the winter of 2019. After P.J., short for Picasso Junior, was herded by helicopter into a holding pen, a veterinarian discovered the old stallion has eye cancer. And although P.J. was on the save list, the BLM would not return him to the wild.
Trueblood broke down in tears as she explained why only 49 horses, not 50, were returned to the range. P.J. did not get to go home.
The stallion boarded the semi trailer headed for a holding facility in Cañon City, and the BLM said it was too late to save another stallion in his place as most of the horses had already been shipped. P.J. is too old and sick for adoption and instead is likely to be euthanized.
Going forward, the BLM intends to keep the herd size within its designed “appropriate management level” of 163 to 362 mustangs.
This will happen through bait-and-trap gathers, which involve luring the horses into corrals containing fresh water and hay and shutting the gates via remote-control switch. The federal agency also plans to continue funding a birth control program in which volunteers help dart mares each year with a vaccine called PZP, said BLM spokesman Chris Maestas.
“Overall it went extremely well,” he said. “We brought our numbers back into that appropriate management level and that was an important thing.”
Maestas, who spent every day of the roundup arranging a caravan and coordinating viewing locations for wild horse advocates and the media, said the number of horses taken during the roundup was flexible. He did not say whether outcry from mustang and animal rights groups across the nation, or a letter from Gov. Jared Polis to the BLM asking for a reprieve, led to more horses left on the range.
But the governor’s office told The Sun that the roundup’s early end was “related” to Polis’ plea to the federal agency. While the BLM is charged with managing wild horses on four designated rangelands in Colorado, the governor’s office is now exploring options to work with the federal agency.
Polis intends to engage experts, academics and advocates “to avoid further roundups and for better planning and a more humane management approach,” spokesperson Elizabeth Kosar said.
Colorado’s first gentleman, Marlon Reis, a long-time animal advocate, posted on social media that state engagement in the process was a “meaningful step toward a future in which states work hand in hand with the federal government.”
“I am relieved for the horses who have been spared … and determined to do everything I can to help ensure Colorado’s wild horses receive the dignity and respect they deserve going forward,” he said.
The BLM’s Maestas said the observing area for the roundup, which moved daily depending on where horses were spotted, grew tense as the days went on. Emotions ran high, horse advocacy groups got annoyed with each other over varying opinions, and most of the anger was directed at him, Maestas said.
Horse advocates reported seeing foals separated from their mothers, including a 6-month-old now alone in the wild and a foal that was shipped to Cañon City without its mother and is now in “foster care” with humans. Midway through the roundup, one foal that had been separated from its mother was later herded — along with a stallion — into the corrals by helicopter. The baby horse ran into the corral, while the stallion jumped a jute fence and eluded capture.
Two horses were euthanized for reasons the BLM said were not related to the roundup. One was a colt that had trouble walking and was diagnosed with a neurological issue. Three horses were taken to another BLM mustang area, Spring Creek Basin in southwest Colorado’s Disappointment Valley, instead of going to holding pens in Cañon City.
In Cañon City, the horses will receive vaccinations and medications and the stallions will be gelded. Those deemed fit for adoption will become available in February. Others will go to wild horse advocacy sanctuaries or 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. This week, members of Congress reintroduced the “Save America’s Forgotten Equines” Act, which is intended to stop the export of wild horses to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.
The BLM rounded up thousands of wild horses this year and last year, an attempt to thin herds across the West. The helicopter gathers included two in Colorado this summer. 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. At Sand Wash, the same land is home to deer, elk and sage grouse, as well as domestic sheep that graze the rangeland.
Nationwide, the agency estimates there are more than 86,000 mustangs and burros in the wild, after BLM roundups removed more than 10,000 last year in several Western states.