DENVER (AP) — The federal government is launching an emergency roundup of more than 780 wild horses in a drought-stricken area of Colorado despite a last-minute appeal by Gov. Jared Polis to pause the operation so that what he called more humane options to control the size of the herd can be considered.
The Democratic governor urged Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday to postpone the roundup, scheduled to begin Wednesday, for at least six months. Polis cited concern over the fate of captured horses and questioned the Bureau of Land Management’s argument that the drought afflicting the U.S. West has dramatically reduced water and food to the extent that the survival of the 900-horse herd and other wildlife are in jeopardy.
“There remain legitimate concerns about the fate of gathered horses, and I believe that better cooperation with the state and advocates could improve assurances about their long-term well-being and the avoidance of any potential slaughter,” Polis wrote.
An Interior Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was unauthorized to speak publicly said the roundup in the barren, 250-square-mile (648-square-kilometer) Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area in northwestern Colorado will proceed as planned.
The BLM has escalated its roundups of mustangs throughout the U.S. West, citing the megadrought worsened by climate change and devastation to the lands on which the horses roam. Critics contend the roundups favor cattle grazing on the same vast public lands managed by the BLM.
California Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others have called for an investigation to determine how many of the captured wild horses end up at slaughterhouses. Feinstein has asked the BLM to reconsider $1,000 cash payments it offers those who adopt the mustangs, which horse advocates say provides an unintended incentive to obtain the mustangs then illegally sell them for slaughter.
Announced on Friday, the helicopter-driven emergency gather about 45 miles (80 kilometers) west of Craig will be one of the largest in recent memory in Colorado. It aims to remove 783 horses in the coming weeks. About 50 will be returned to the range after 25 mares are treated with fertility control. The rest will be put up for adoption and sale.
The BLM estimates a sustainable population for the herd at between 163 and 362 horses.
Polis asked Haaland to give the state and advocacy groups a role in herd management. He called for further study of the drought’s impacts on the local ecosystem, citing the BLM’s different figures for a sustainable population of Sand Wash Basin mustangs. And he urged a slowing of roundups to make them more humane; 10 horses were euthanized during a just-concluded roundup of 457 horses in a nearby range.
Polis also pledged his support of Interior funding requests before Congress to accelerate research into long-lasting fertility control that could reduce the need for future roundups.
Steven Hall, spokesman for the BLM’s Colorado office, said consumption of forage by Sand Wash mustangs threatens not only the herd but other wildlife, including the greater sage grouse, a struggling bird species that once flourished across the West. The bird’s numbers are declining inside the range but growing outside of it, Hall said.
“Current forage availability could lead to die-offs of wild horses and wildlife depending on winter conditions,” Hall said. “Removal now ensures that all animals that rely on the basin have the resources they need over this upcoming winter and into future years.”
Hall added that sheep grazing permit-holders in the basin have reduced their activity because of drought and overgrazing by mustangs.