MEEKER, Colo. — A wild horse roundup in northwestern Colorado wrapped up this week with hundreds of horses captured.
The roundup in Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area was originally scheduled for September, but the Bureau of Land Management made the decision to move the roundup to begin in June because it said there was concern about the conditions of the wild horses in the area when they were observed in March and April.
In total, 867 horses were gathered of the roughly 1,350 wild horses estimated to be on the range, though the BLM was authorized to gather up to 1,050.
“A lot of the horses were in really poor condition coming out of spring, so we definitely had concerns about the horses making it through the year. Going into the next winter would be very difficult for them,” said Eric Coulter, a public affairs specialist for BLM Colorado.
However, by the time the roundup began, conditions had improved on the range land.
“The ground was far greener than we had been led to believe at the beginning, and the horses were far healthier,” said Scott Wilson, a wildlife photographer who captured images of the roundup and a spokesperson for the American Wild Horse Campaign. “We were seeing healthy horses on a healthy range, which is arguably the BLM ambition around this. So to actually take them off at that point, it certainly brings that whole process into question.”
Coulter admitted the monsoonal rains helped provide supplemental feed to improve the horses' health, but he said it will not be enough in the long term.
“We were able to actually gather when the horses were at probably the best condition they'd be all year because after those rains, the range dries out real fast again, and they don't have adequate feed,” Coulter said.
The BLM has had third-party assessments happening over four years, and Coulter said those assessments have found that while there appears to be a lot of greenery, it’s not the kind of greenery horses eat. He said the third-party assessments have determined the range health is in “really poor condition,” Coulter said, though one independent scientific assessment suggested otherwise.
The roundup began on June 16 with bait trap operations, which is where horses are drawn in by food and water, in an effort to gather horses that are malnourished. Coulter said they were able to catch 18 horses using that method over the course of two weeks before switching to helicopter operations. The bait trap method is one advocates like Wilson believe would be a better, more humane option.
“I would have argued you could have run that process through to September and gathered way, way more horses up in a way that would have been acceptable to far more people,” Scott said.
But Coulter said the BLM would not be able to keep up with the herd management area only using the bait trap method.
“In reality, the efficiency of drive trap operations is the best way to do it,” Coulter said. “It's a lot of horses, and we wouldn't be able to keep up with that herd by just doing bait trap and fertility. So that's when the helicopter operations come into play.”
Using a helicopter to drive the horses into holding pens has been a controversial topic, with wild horse advocates calling the method inhumane. Gov. Jared Polis has previously called for future roundups to be delayed “to consider more humane options.” Rep. Joe Neguse also called for a delay in future roundups on June 13.
“I would prefer not to see helicopter roundups at all,” Wilson said. “It's, for us, an inhumane way. It terrorizes the horses. It scares them.”
Wilson also pointed to an incident that occurred during the roundup this year when a mare ran into old barbed wire “right in front of the trap,” he said, and flipped over it. He said the wire should have been flagged by BLM.
“We assess areas when we set up a trap, and we look for any hazards to flag or remove. On that incident, there was an old fence that was kind of fallen down in the sagebrush, and it was really hard to see, so we didn't know it was there,” Coulter said. “Right after that, we were able to go in, remove that fence and flag it so it wouldn't happen again.”
Coulter confirmed the horse that hit the barbed wire was treated by a vet for “a couple of small lacerations” and that the horse is OK.
Wilson also raised the concern that pregnant mares and young foals were running over long distances in very hot temperatures, but Coulter said the BLM did wait until after peak foaling season to begin using the helicopters.
Coulter said no horses died as a result of the gather operations, but six horses had to be euthanized for what he said were unrelated injuries or poor health. Wilson has concerns that the use of helicopter operations may have still played a role in those deaths.
“They're all put down to preexisting or chronic conditions, but again, that still manifests in a roundup, and these horses have lost their lives as a consequence of a helicopter roundup,” Wilson said. “You're talking about avoidable deaths, an unnecessary number of horses rounded up, a range that was in far better condition that we were led to believe.”
Now that the horses have been rounded up, they will be taken to the BLM wild horse holding facility in Utah to be adopted, sold or provided long-term care in off-range pastures.
Keeping the horses in holding facilities has recently been called into question after 145 horses died at the Cañon City Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Facility due to a strain of equine influenza and streptococcus. A report obtained by Denver7 in May indicated BLM violated at least a dozen policies, including not vaccinating the horses that died from the illness even though it could have been done when the horses were initially microchipped. BLM blamed staffing issues for inconsistencies in following its own policies.
A team with staff from the Colorado State Veterinarian’s Office, the Colorado Department of Corrections and the BLM is reviewing the events surrounding the outbreak.
“We don't want to see anything like that ever happen again. Cañon City's currently under quarantine, and so that is why we shipped to Utah,” Coulter said. "Measures are in place to prevent anything like that.”
Coulter said some of the horses will be put up for auction soon, while others will be part of their Mustang Makeover program where they’re trained before they go up for auction. He said once the horses are adopted, the BLM conducts compliance checks to inspect the land and the conditions for the horses.
While most of the horses will go to the holding facility, the BLM has already released 40 stallions back to the herd management area. An additional 56 mares are currently in holding for fertility treatment. They’ll be released back to the herd management area after getting a fertility booster in 30 days.
Altogether, Wilson feels much of the concerns about the roundups could be mitigated with more transparency and by adding cameras onto the helicopters so the public could watch what was happening during roundups. Coulter said he is not involved in the contracts used for the helicopters and that having cameras on them would be related to the contracts.
“We do try and be as transparent as possible. We provide public viewing, and we work really hard to be able to provide it in a safe manner, but still be able to view all the gather operations,” Coulter said.
Daily reports are available that provide specific information on the gather operations. The BLM held a public meeting prior to the most recent gather that allowed for public comment, though Wilson did not feel they were open to altering the plan on the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area. There are no other public meetings scheduled for the future related to gather operations as of now.
The BLM will continue to monitor the area for the health of the horses and the land. They’re also hoping to conduct a census flight for the fall or winter to get a better idea on the number of horses that remain in the area.
Maintaining the herd management area land is a balancing act, Coulter said, because the land is for multiple uses, including for the wild horses, livestock, oil and gas, and recreation.
“That's one of our big challenges as an agency. We have a multiple-use mission. You know, herd management area is a multiple use area, it's not managed primarily for horses,” Coulter said.
He also said “a bunch of livestock” are not going to be released in the area now that the horses have been gathered because the land can’t sustain it. He said that as part of oil and gas projects, companies will do reclamation where they seed the area — something he said the wild horses actually like.
Wilson just hopes the wild horses’ needs are being fully managed and considered.