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Mustangs captured in the Piceance-East Douglas range this week. (Provided by WilsonAxpe Photography/American Wild Horse Campaign)

It took federal land managers about a month to capture 18 wild horses by hiding in the sagebrush not far from a corral baited with food and fresh water. In a week, a helicopter buzzing across the rugged prairie of western Colorado has captured more than 400.

The efficiency of a helicopter roundup is the reason the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has hired cowboys and pilots to round up thousands of horses across the West in the past few years, a massive effort to thin a mustang population that federal officials say is degrading public lands and wildlife habitat.

Since the helicopter took flight last Friday, searching for bands of horses on the Piceance-East Douglas rangeland near the Utah border, wranglers have corralled 412 horses, for a June-July total of 195 mares, 158 stallions and 82 foals. They euthanized two horses — a 2-month-old foal with a chronic leg issue called dropped pasterns, and a 16-year-old mustang with severe arthritis in its front legs.

The roundup is elevating the national debate about how to deal with the mustang population in the West, which is estimated at about 82,000. Wild horse groups, along with Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, of Lafayette, have called for an end to helicopter roundups and asked instead for more bait-and-trap gathers and investment in a fertility vaccine that’s shot through a dart.

Neguse introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill this week that would eliminate funding for mustang roundups that use helicopters or planes. The congressman, along with the governor, objected to the roundup of the Piceance-East Douglas herd, but his request to the BLM for a delay was ignored. 

“I am deeply concerned about BLM moving forward with these roundups,” Neguse said in a news release.

A foal captured during the Piceance-East Douglas roundup this week. (Provided by WilsonAxpe Photography/American Wild Horse Campaign)

The American Wild Horse Campaign, meanwhile, began airing TV ads in the Denver market showing wild horses chased down by a low-flying helicopter. The group was incensed by this month’s helicopter roundup and the deaths of two horses, which comes a few weeks after 145 mustangs in captivity in Cañon City died in an equine flu outbreak. The mustangs were among more than 60,000 in holding pens across the country.

“Given that the Bureau of Land Management has still not been fully transparent as to how over 140 federally protected animals died in its care and how it will prevent a tragedy like this from happening again, we believe the situation is dire and time is of the essence,” the campaign’s Grace Kuhn said. 

The new ad, she said, is an attempt to show Coloradans what’s happening to wild horses, which live on some of the West’s remote lands. The commercial was set to begin airing Wednesday and for the next two weeks, about the expected length of the roundup. 

As horses gallop across a dusty landscape, and stand together in pens after their capture, a narrator says they are “rounded up by the federal government, confined for life … even pregnant mares and newborn foals, chased to exhaustion in peak summer heat, at taxpayers’ expense.”

BLM officials, however, say the horses in East Douglas are at risk of starvation, with little water and not enough grass for all of them to last the winter. The area is suitable for no more than 235 horses, but there were an estimated 1,400 living there, some that have wandered onto private land. 

The agency plans to remove 750 with this roundup, then further decrease the remaining herd in the coming months and years through bait-and-trap operations and fertility control.

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

While wild horse advocates have shared photos of foals falling behind as family bands of horses are herded into corrals by the helicopter, BLM officials say the roundup is going smoothly and safely. An average of three to five spectators have watched the roundup each day the past week, BLM spokesman Chris Maestas said. 

“Public viewing has been nice and calm,” said Maestas, who travels to the remote roundup site each day in a small caravan of vehicles. The federal agency updates viewing information each night because operations are moved across the 190,000-acre rangeland based on the location of bands of horses. 

Officials are monitoring the temperature, Maestas said, and staying within an upper limit of 95 degrees. Most days, they’ve stopped operations before 3 p.m., typically the hottest time of day.

The high number of horses captured in the first few days of the roundup supports aerial surveys that counted nearly 1,400 horses in the East Douglas area, he said. 

The roundup was initially planned for September, but the BLM expedited plans in June after land managers saw skinny horses when they visited in March. Besides the horses’ poor condition, their growing population is wrecking habitat for other wildlife, officials said. 

Cattle ranchers also use the East Douglas rangeland for portions of the year, and the area is home to deer, sage grouse and other birds, including vesper sparrows, brewer sparrows and bluebirds

Since 1971, the BLM has removed about 4,000 wild horses from its four “herd management” areas in the state — Sand Wash Basin, Little Book Cliffs, West Douglas and East Douglas. About 2,000 were removed in just the last three years.

A mustang tries to escape a corral after being captured in the Piceance-East Douglas range this week. (Provided by WilsonAxpe Photography/American Wild Horse Campaign)

The appropriate number of horses for all four areas combined, according to the federal agency, is 812.

The BLM plan calls for removing 20,523 horses from rangeland in 10 states across the West in 2021 and 2022. After months in a holding facility, some horses are put up for adoption and others go to long-term pastures.  

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. The agency has yet to release its investigative report regarding why the horses were not vaccinated.