Colorado’s first scheduled wild horse roundup this year is set to begin Friday, when federal land managers plan to start removing the entire West Douglas herd in Rio Blanco County along the Utah border.
A low-flying helicopter will try to push all 122 horses, which are on public and private land, into temporary corrals before hauling them to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s holding pens in Cañon City.
The last roundup of West Douglas horses, in 2021, resulted in the removal of nearly 450 animals from rugged land the BLM has deemed unsuitable for mustangs. About one-third of those horses — 145 of them — died in Cañon City seven months later in an equine flu outbreak.
Investigators determined that many of the horses, whose lungs were likely damaged by a wildfire when they were living on the rangeland, were not vaccinated against the flu after they were captured, in violation of federal policy.
Mustang advocates in Colorado and nationally are protesting the latest roundup.
“The Bureau of Land Management appears to have learned nothing from last year’s horrific disease outbreak at the Cañon City holding facility,” Joanna Grossman, equine program director for the Animal Welfare Institute, said in an emailed statement.
She called the federal plan “especially troubling” since Gov. Jared Polis signed a law this year that attempts to give the state greater authority over wild horse management, including by supporting fertility control programs and possibly a wild horse sanctuary. The governor, who tried but failed to stop a federal roundup in the Sand Wash Basin in 2021, has said he wants more humane options than helicopter roundups.
Federal land managers plan to remove 20 horses from the Sand Wash Basin, in northwestern Colorado along the Wyoming border, at the end of September.
Across the highway from West Douglas, in what’s called the Piceance-East Douglas herd management area, the federal government has enlisted volunteers to shoot birth control darts into wild mares. The BLM this month announced it was awarding the volunteer group running the birth control program, the Piceance Mustangs in Meeker, a $120,620 grant to keep darting horses, and to buy water tanks to keep horses alive when creeks in the basin are dry.
Last summer, the federal agency used a helicopter to remove 761 horses from the Piceance, which is dotted with sagebrush and oil pumps and has cliffs and canyons where vehicles cannot go. The rangeland still has about 750 horses, and it’s likely to see another roundup in the near future because federal land managers say the appropriate number for the 200,000 acres is 235 wild horses.
The appropriate number for West Douglas, the BLM says, is zero.
“The West Douglas herd area is not managed for wild horses due to limited food and water, which causes the horses to stray into private lands,” the agency’s White River field office manager Bill Mills said in announcing the roundup.
The West Douglas rangeland is not one of Colorado’s four official herd management areas and was deemed inappropriate as a mustang habitat in 1975. The area has limited water and grasses, and removal of the mustangs will “restore a thriving natural ecological balance,” the agency said. Mustangs in the area are impacting the habitat of other animals and have spread onto private property, Mills said.
The public lands where wild horses graze in Colorado are shared not only by deer, elk and other natural habitat, but cattle and sheep whose owners lease the land from the federal government.
After arriving in Cañon City, the horses will receive vaccinations and other veterinary care and, after a few months, will be available for adoption. Those not adopted will go to the BLM’s long-term pastures, which the agency leases from ranchers and other landowners in various parts of the country.
The BLM removed more than 30,000 horses in 2021 and 2022 from rangeland across the West, including about 1,500 in Colorado. This year, the agency plans to remove about 6,000 horses nationwide.