MOFFAT COUNTY, Colo. — They are untamed, unbridled, bold and beautiful, and without question, an icon of the American West.
“They are the American West,” said wild horse advocate Teri Hall.
“These horses are majestic animals,” said Jerad Iacovetto, owner of Saddleback Ranch near Steamboat Springs. “I mean, they’re absolutely unbelievable.”
“They’re such magnificent, beautiful creatures,” said Nadja Rider, who documents the wild horse movements through the Sand Wash Basin near Craig, Colorado.
And while few would argue about their beauty, there are plenty of arguments about their presence here in the Rocky Mountains.
“These animals are supposed to be protected,” said horse advocate Gail Bell, who has been a member of the National Wildlife and Endangered Species team of the Sierra Club for 20 years.
“It’s dry, it’s difficult terrain,” said Chris Maestes, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. “There’s limited water. How many horses can live in that area comfortably?”
“When they do a round-up, they don’t pay attention to genetics at all,” Rider said.
How wild horse roundups became a national topic of conversation
The roundups to control the population of wild horses made national headlines last month after several horses in captivity at a holding facility near Cañon City died.
The killer, according to the BLM, was an equine flu outbreak that spread through the facility. The outbreak has now killed more than 130 horses and counting.
The issue obviously struck a nerve. Denver7’s e-mail was flooded with messages.
“This is tragic evidence of a broken system,” said viewer Scott Wilson.
“This is taxpayer funded animal cruelty,” wrote Nicole Prothro.
“There’s way too many horses stuffed into those pens in Canon City,” said Hall.
Opinions vary widely.
“The (BLM) should be managing populations through birth control, like the ranchers do,” said one viewer who did not wish to be identified.
“Feral, invasive horses deserve no protection,” wrote a viewer, named Robert.
And a viewer named Jo added, “Wildlands should be reserved for native wildlife like pronghorn and desert bighorn sheep.”
Experts say: Consider the bigger picture
In an effort to fully understand what’s causing the illness and death in the horses, experts say you must first step back and consider the bigger picture.
There are multiple herds in 10 western states, including Colorado, with the vast majority of mustangs in Nevada.
And while populations are strong, the BLM says they must be managed or there’s a risk of overpopulation like what happened in the Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County in the fall of 2021.
“There were upwards of 1,000 horses in the area,” Maestes said.
Maestes says the area can only sustain about 160-360 wild horses.
“When we make decisions, we have to look at the entire picture,” he said. “You must maintain healthy populations.”
That’s where the roundups come in. Often, with the use of helicopters — a practice that's controversial, to say the least.
“They are totally inhumane,” Bell said. “I mean, they chase these beautiful animals to absolute exhaustion.”
“It’s horrible,” Hall said. “A horse is a flight animal. They’re helicopter cowboys.”
“It was – from my perspective – very humane,” Maestes said.
After the roundups, the BLM says it does its best to adopt them out, but sometimes, that’s easier said than done.
In many cases, there aren’t enough organizations or individuals willing to adopt, which is why they use holding facilities like the one in Cañon City.
What exactly happened to the horses is still a mystery of sorts, but Hall believes vaccinations certainly played a role.
“I’m disgusted with Cañon City because the horses have been there for months and not vaccinated,” she said.
Other factors at play too, advocates say
Iacovetto says drought conditions could also be weakening the horses.
“What’s happened with these horses is that Colorado’s in a major drought,” Iacovetto said. “And so, they’ve overgrazed these last couple years and the condition of these horses is going to be way down coming into winter.”
The BLM says many of the horses that died were, in fact, underweight and weak.
“They’ve been hauling water to the Sand Wash horses and there’s only so much water you can haul into a desert to keep those horses alive,” Iacovetto said.
At a recent town hall meeting in Craig near the Sand Wash Basin, horse advocates clashed with off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts.
Horse advocates blame OHV’s for pushing the horses out of certain areas.
“The OHV people are supposed to stay in the lower third of the basin, but they don’t,” Rider said. “They just move all over.”
Some comments online blame the BLM for expanding OHV trails into protected lands, but Maestes says that’s false and there is no expansion to the areas OHV’s are already permitted to use.
Maests says the BLM is simply adding signage, restrooms, new routes and camping to areas already zoned for off-highway recreation, they are not expanding it.
“It’s already there,” Maestes said. “We’re not looking to increase or add any new area, we’re just trying to make it better. The Sand Wash Basin is mandated as multi-use. We’re not catering to either side, we’re just making what already exists there, better.”
Iacovetto showed us video of the horses coming right up to his off-highway vehicle.
“In some cases, we’ve had wild horses come up the same trail that we’re driving on,” he said. “We’ll shut the vehicle off and they’ll just come up and just go around without even caring that we’re there. I see no problem with being able to run both wild horses and OHV’s.”
Wild horse advocates also argue the horses are a keystone species out in the vast Sand Wash Basin and horses graze selectively and do not disturb the vegetation. Plus, they say, horse manure is loaded with seeds and nutrients, helping to nourish future growth and vegetation.
Ranchers and advocates don't often see eye to eye
Hall argues the ranch livestock are overgrazing, but ranchers say that’s untrue.
“Ranchers are the best stewards of the land,” Iacovetto said. “And there’s no livestock in the Sand Wash in the summer months.”
“I went back after the sheep came through, there wasn’t a blade of grass left,” Rider said.
“It’s about these beautiful creatures in their natural habitats,” said Bell. “I do have empathy for the ranching community and the cattle and sheep industries. The people of the world are not going to give up meat anytime soon.”
But she believes the overgrazing is much more ranch-driven than anything else.
Iacovetto, for one, runs his livestock on his land and has about 115 horses of his own, including an adopted mustang.
“That’s probably one of most friendly horses because you give it the opportunity,” Iacovetto said.
Many nonprofits, like the Wild Rose Mustang Advocacy Group, are working as quickly as possible to adopt out wild horses.
“Personally, I’ve worked with close to 100 myself,” said Wild Rose co-founder and lead trainer Cayla Stone. “Where we can help is getting these horses adopted, so they’re not all sitting in holding facilities.”
Stone agrees with Iacovetto: Wild horses become some of the friendliest creatures on Earth once they are trained, or what’s known as ‘gentled.’
“If we can show people that these horses are just as good as others, that can be a way to kind of control this problem,” Stone said.
What needs to be done? Opinions vary
Meantime, the comments online continue to flood in.
“It is painfully obvious that at the heart of all of this is corruption,” said Denver7 viewer Renee Ivy.
“Betrayal and sin,” said viewer Susan Beck. “The Bureau of Land Management should be criminally charged.”
On the other hand, viewer Jan Ulmer wrote, “The BLM is trying to maintain safe and healthy wild horse and burro populations. People need to understand there is no easy solution.”
At the moment, the fight continues among all those with a stake in protecting and preserving this icon of the American West.
“This is so much a part of our history,” Bell said.
“It’s unbelievable just seeing them out there on their own,” Iacovetto said.
“I think most of the people at the Bureau of Land Management are good people and love horses,” Hall said. “But the upper echelon appears to be on the take from the ranching lobbies.”
“Will we ever know the truth about what’s happening down there?” Rider said. “I don’t know.”
Editor's Note: Denver7 360 | In-Depth explores multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 In-Depth stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com or use this form. See more 360 | In-Depth stories here.