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Mustangs in the Piceance-East Doulgas rangeland in western Colorado. (Provided by WilsonAxpe Photography via the American Wild Horse Campaign)

The third large-scale helicopter roundup of Colorado mustangs within a year ended Tuesday in dusty sagebrush country on the far western edge of the state, part of a massive effort by federal land managers to thin the wild horse population across the West.

Wranglers and a helicopter pilot herded and trapped 864 stallions, mares and foals during the past few weeks, with a plan to permanently remove about 750 horses from the rangeland near the Utah border. 

That will bring the number of wild horses removed from Colorado since last summer to about 2,000. 

The end of the roundup closes the latest tumultuous chapter of a decades-old battle between wild horse lovers and federal land managers. This one included attempted interventions by the governor and a Colorado congressman, as well as accusations that young fillies and colts were stampeded in the heat, and that wranglers accidentally ran horses into a dilapidated barbed wire fence hidden in thick sagebrush.

A mustang advocacy group’s photography captured a horse, hooves up, tumbling over the fence. A BLM spokesman told The Colorado Sun that while those hazards are typically found and flagged before the helicopter flies, this 40-foot section of fence was missed in the brush. A veterinarian treated the horse’s cuts, but the animal was not seriously injured. 

A horse flipped over an old fence that was hidden in thick brush during the Piceance-East Douglas roundup in western Colorado. The horse was treated for cuts but not seriously injured, according to federal officials. (Provided by WilsonAxpe Photography via the American Wild Horse Campaign)

Six horses were euthanized during the roundup, all because of chronic conditions and not from the helicopter chase, according to federal officials. 

The event was the largest wild horse gather in Colorado history and there were “no critical incidents,” said Eric Coulter, a BLM public affairs specialist. 

Of the 864 horses captured, federal officials and a local horse volunteer group called the Piceance Mustangs selected 41 stallions to return to the wild. They were selected based on bloodlines, color and markings, and body shape. 

Wranglers also kept 53 mares corralled in a temporary holding pen on the Piceance-East Douglas range. They will receive a fertility-control vaccine injection, and a followup shot in about 30 days, before they are released back to the rugged hills and valleys west of Meeker. 

Federal officials plan to keep the herd, which had grown to about 1,400, to about 250 or fewer horses with continued fertility-control treatments. They hope to avoid future helicopter roundups, Coulter said.

“This gather is a big step to the future,” he said. “Our goal is to get to the point where it’s manageable.”

The last time the BLM captured horses via helicopter roundup in Piceance was in 2011, and the herd has grown by hundreds since then. Typically, population increases about 20% each year when there is no fertility management. 

Wild horse advocacy groups have repeatedly called for an end to the gather, citing extreme heat and its proximity to the spring foaling season. For years, they have tried to persuade the federal agency to stop helicopter roundups and instead control the horse population by making bigger investments in fertility vaccine operations. The American Wild Horse Campaign even ran television ads in the Denver market opposing the roundup.

Gov. Jared Polis and his husband, Marlon Reis, who is an animal rights advocate, also called for an end to the roundup, as did U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, from Lafayette. At the governor’s request, a state veterinarian was allowed to attend the gather and check in on horses’ well-being throughout the operation. 

A helicopter rounds up horses in the Piceance-East Douglas herd management area in western Colorado. (Provided by WilsonAxpe Photography via the American Wild Horse Campaign)

The governor’s office called some of the incidents, including photos of a pregnant mare running across the prairie and two horses running into the hidden fence, “troubling” and an example of why Polis is “motivated to work toward better longer-term systems that avoid these types of roundups in the future.”

While horse groups accused the BLM of stampeding horses in extreme heat, federal officials said they stayed within their temperature policy, which allows operations up to 95 degrees. The hottest temperature recorded by the BLM during the roundup was 92, Coulter said, and federal officials on site took the temperature every hour with a Kestrel weather device

Kathy DeGonia, who is president of the Piceance Mustangs, helped federal officials choose which stallions to release back to the wild. One of the goals of the group, which is a “friends of the BLM” group and often not on the same side as national mustang advocacy organizations, was to keep as much color in the herd as possible — stallions that are gray, sorrel, bay and black. 

“I’m sad our horses had to go but I know that it’s the best thing for them and for the range,” she said. “Our goal is healthy horses on a healthy range.” 

DeGonia and many of the other 55 members of the group, which was founded in 2018, have for years been hauling water tanks on trucks and installing solar-powered water wells to draw water from natural springs to help the thirsty horses. The latest accomplishment was converting a well to solar on the brutally named Dead Horse Ridge. 

The group also repairs and removes old fences, using the barbed wire to make wreaths that the Piceance Mustangs sell at fundraising events. Some in the group are trained to shoot darts with the fertility vaccine, which requires good aim and getting within about 50 yards of a wild mare. 

During last summer’s heat and drought, the group hauled water from July 4 through November, DeGonia said. The winter was harsh, too, she said, noting that some of the horses “looked the worst I’ve ever seen” in the spring. 

DeGonia noted that there were far fewer yearlings rounded up during the helicopter gather than she was expecting, making her wonder how many didn’t survive the winter. 

Her favorite animal of all, a palomino stud named Buttermilk Biscuit, is among the horses that have wandered off the designated rangeland. He escaped the roundup, and she hopes he will return to the range, especially if the reduction in horses greens up the land. 

During the roundup, DeGonia worried about the new foals and the pregnant mares, and about making sure the mares and their babies stayed together. But she was ready.

Wild horses at the East Cañon Correctional Complex on October 13, 2021, in Cañon City. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“We knew it had to be done,” she said. “We knew it was coming and we knew it was for the best.”

The Piceance roundup comes after two large roundups last summer and fall — in the Sand Wash Basin and in West Douglas, both in western Colorado. 

This spring, 145 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 horses from East Douglas were sent to a holding facility in Utah but many are expected to return to Colorado when they are put up for adoption this fall.

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...