A low-flying helicopter is set to begin rounding up wild horses on rugged, parched rangeland in western Colorado on Friday despite weeks of protest from national mustang groups as well as Gov. Jared Polis.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management intends to thin the Piceance East Douglas herd by 750 animals, leaving about 630 wild horses and burros to roam the sagebrush country along the border with Utah.
For the last month, federal land managers have tried to capture mustangs by luring them into a makeshift corral baited with food and water, but this more gentle version of the roundup netted only 18 horses and burros. Rounding up the rest of the 750 horses by helicopter is likely to take three or four weeks.
The buzzing of the helicopter, which will push mustangs between wide, jute fencing that narrows as it reaches a holding pen, will mark the end of weeks of pleading from wild horse groups to call off the roundup.
Polis and Colorado’s first gentleman, Marlon Reis, visited the East Douglas rangeland west of Meeker last week and the governor wrote another letter to BLM officials this week asking them to collaborate with Colorado to create a “cost-effective, humane and stable” way to manage the wild horse population. Polis was particularly concerned that the helicopter roundup is happening in near 100-degree weather and so soon after the foaling season.
He asked federal officials to allow a state veterinarian to attend the roundup and requested they take special precautions to keep mares and foals together.
BLM spokesman Chris Maestas said the agency and its contracted wranglers follow a comprehensive animal welfare policy that includes protecting mares and foals, which are put in different holding pens from stallions. A veterinarian from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was invited to attend the roundup and federal officials were still in talks with the governor’s office this week about Polis’ request to add a state veterinarian, Maestas said.
The roundup caused outcry from wild horse advocates when the BLM announced last month that it would start gathering East Douglas horses in June instead of waiting until September, as initially planned. Federal land managers who visited the rangeland in March said they found skinny horses in poor condition after the winter. The animals fattened up after spring rains brought green grasses, but BLM officials said the sagebrush land cannot support the 1,385 horses living there through another winter.
“It’s just extremely dry, with very little of the grasses that wild horses eat,” Maestas said. “It’s dry, it’s dusty, it’s hot. The horses are actually at their peak condition right now. Their body condition gets worse as it moves into winter.”
The appropriate number of horses on the 190,000-acre range is no more than 235, according to the BLM, but the agency does not plan to get to that number during this roundup. Instead, land managers intend to further reduce the herd in the coming months and years by capturing horses in corrals and removing them from the range, as well as using fertility vaccinations.
Not only are the horses in danger of starvation, they have grazed the land to the point they’re ruining the habitat for other wildlife and birds, according to the BLM.
Maestas pointed to the Sand Wash Basin in northwest Colorado, near the Wyoming state line, where the BLM rounded up almost 700 horses last September. Nearly a year later, the sagebrush country has begun to recover.
“Sand Wash this year is looking completely different than it has in many years,” he said. “We allowed the range to heal. There are meadows. The horses that remain are going to be that much healthier.”
But mustang groups, bolstered by a report from an ecologist, have argued that the East Douglas horses are not in bad shape. Delia Malone, an ecologist and chair of the wildlife committee for the Colorado Sierra Club, visited the Piceance East Douglas area the first week of July and reported that there was “no evidence” to support the federal government’s claims of horse malnourishment. Instead, she wrote, “field reconnaissance also identified domestic livestock as a primary cause” of habitat degradation.
Mustang advocates, including the American Wild Horse Campaign, are calling for an end to helicopter roundups, which they say are aggressive and cause the animals to get injured as they’re chased across the prairie.
“The system is broken, and wild horses must be managed where they are safest — in the wild,” said Scott Wilson, a member of the campaign. “Young foals and pregnant mares should not be chased by helicopters, particularly in the summer heat.”
Cattle ranchers also use the East Douglas rangeland for portions of the year, and the area is home to deer, sage grouse and birds, including vesper sparrows, brewer sparrows and bluebirds.
The nonprofit Audubon Rockies is among those in favor of the roundup, saying the horses have destroyed natural habitat for several species of birds. “The horses denude the land,” executive director Alison Holloran said. “They are eating everything. No grasses. No flowers. No forbes. They strip that all down.”
Grouse and birds survive on insects that are present only when there are healthy grasses and shrubs on the land, Holloran said. “Feral horses are very hard on our rangeland,” she said. “This is extremely important that we keep them in check. When you have cattle, you move them, you manage them. There is no management of these horses.”
It’s been a tumultuous year for the BLM, particularly in Colorado, as the federal agency has stepped up roundups across the nation in an effort to reduce the wild horse population by tens of thousands.
This spring, 145 of about 435 horses captured from the West Douglas range died from equine flu in holding pens at a state prison complex in Cañon City. The horses had not been vaccinated against the flu despite arriving at the holding pens seven months earlier.
After the horse deaths, the governor asked the BLM to put off any future roundups and re-evaluate its policies. A month later, the federal agency expedited the East Douglas roundup. The horses from East Douglas captured during the next month will go to a holding facility in Utah.
Update: This story was updated July 15 to correct the number of horses that died in Cañon City holding pens.