Largest wild horse roundup in Colorado history underway
303 wild horses have been captured so far as BLM White River Field Office conducts emergency removal of animals from western Colorado
RANGELY — The largest wild horse roundup in state history is underway in western Colorado, with helicopters chasing the animals into a trap set on land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management’s White River field office.
As of Wednesday, Aug. 4, the roundup had removed 303 horses over the course of nine days, making it the biggest in Colorado history. The next closest was 10 years ago in a roundup east of Highway 139 in the Piceance East Douglas Herd Management Area, in which 276 horses were gathered, according to information provided the BLM.
In addition to BLM land, the horses currently being rounded up in western Colorado also range on state-owned and private property. The horse habitat is known as the West Douglas herd area, and has long been considered to be outside of the areas identified for the management of wild horses by the White River field office.
In other words, the wild horses don’t belong there in the eyes of the land managers who oversee the property. The small amount of range land that is available in the area has been impacted by drought in recent years, and 60% of that range was burned in the recent Oil Springs Fire, according to the BLM.
“This emergency gather will prevent further deteriorating body condition of the wild horses in the area due to limited food and water,” said White River Field Office Manager Bill Mills.
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A 2015 roundup of the same area removed 133 horses.
The West Douglas herd area was once favored by Native Americans, including the Ute people and the mysterious Fremont people, who placed pictographs and petroglyphs on sandstone walls in the area. The Fremont people vanished from the archaeological record some 800 years ago; many examples of the Utes tribes’ work featured horses after “the introduction of the horse by Spanish conquistadors in the 1600s enhanced Ute life beyond compare,” according to a BLM trail sign in the area.
Today, much of the ancient Fremont and Ute rock art in the area has been ruined by graffiti and even some bullet holes, part of a larger landscape also impacted by the extraction activities of the energy industry, which are numerous in the area. A vast network of improved dirt roads and 4×4 trails — some for off-highway vehicle recreation, some to service the energy leases, all allowing for public access to the BLM land — crisscross the areas where large boulders dislodged from cliffs or steep slopes and washes have not made vehicular travel impossible.
Wild horse footprints and manure are seemingly everywhere that is not covered in rocks, trees and sagebrush. The small clumps of grass making up the so-called rangeland exist only in dry shards, sharp to the touch. But the horses survive nonetheless, bred to be able to exist on little food and water.
Many of the horses snagged in the West Douglas roundup have arrived at a level 4 body condition on the BLM scale of 1 to 10, which is considered healthy. High numbers on the body condition scale are non-existent in the wild, a 10 would be “a pig on stilts,” the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro manager for Colorado, Steve Leonard, said Saturday.
The horses I saw captured in the roundup came into the trap quite fast, and while their body condition couldn’t be observed from the spectator viewpoint a mile away, the animals’ foot speed suggests they’ve maintained strength despite the small amount of available food in the area.
Water is the main problem for the wild horses in western Colorado, and they’ve adapted, like the many sagebrush lizards that also run at impressive speeds through the West Douglas herd area, to survive on little. But the horses require more water than the lizards, unfortunately, and much of the drink in the areas favored by wild horses in western Colorado is on private land, where private livestock can be converted into private capital. Having wild horses around doesn’t help to that end, especially during drought conditions.
The public lands of the West Douglas herd area, on which an estimated 450 wild horses (Leonard suspects more) have chosen their summer range, can’t sustain a single horse for much longer, according to the BLM.
“The area was zeroed out for a reason,” Leonard told me.
That means the BLM’s goal is to get the area to zero wild horses through helicopter roundups.
In the air
Removing all the horses won’t be easy or cheap. The helicopter is in the air for much of the day, starting at first light and going into the early evening. A single round through the West Douglas range can take an hour of flying, and sometimes the chopper will come back chasing only a few horses. Leonard said the animals had been running for about 4 miles when they reached the trap.
I was there on Day 6 of the roundup and saw several several helicopter rounds net five or six horses. But I also saw the chopper leave for an hour, only to come back chasing two horses. After each round, the machine refuels from a truck which is stationed next to the horse trap and heads out looking for more.
It takes skill from the pilot, Leonard tells me, as that person has to read the animals’ behavior and not be hurried. A government veterinarian checking the horses on scene will know if the pilot is running the animals too fast.
“When they come in, the goal is to keep them no faster than a trot, and just keep bumping them nice and slow until we get close to the trap,” Leonard said.
When the horses get close to the trap, that’s when it’s time for the pilot to increase the speed, because the horses will often realize that they’re trapped. The horses I saw headed for the trap appeared to be moving at a full gallop.
“All the pictures of the horses going fast and the helicopters close, it’s always right at the trap site,” Leonard said.
A private contracting group — a crew of eight horse people including the pilot — set and maintain the trap and separate the horses once inside so the government veterinarian can examine them. The crew then ushers the horses into a waiting trailer, which promptly takes them to a temporary holding facility on private property near Rangely. Another trailer awaits in rotation. The government veterinarian watches the process from the grounds of the trap, where no one else aside from the contract crew is allowed, and the veterinarian is tasked with ensuring standards are adhered to.
Foals which haven’t been separated from their mothers in the roundup must be returned to their mothers, the animals must receive water promptly, and they can only be handled in certain ways. Once at the temporary holding facility, the contractors are also responsible for feeding the animals and providing security before taking them to their final destination.
Once upon a time, the BLM conducted roundups using in-house employees, Leonard told me, but these days, contractors are used due to the specialized nature of the job.
Readying for the next round
Leonard is also there to ensure standards are adhered to, namely the standard of answering the public’s questions while they’re watching the horses sprint toward the trap. No other members of the public joined us Day 6, but BLM Public Affairs Specialist Chris Maestas said he did have some horse advocates viewing the roundup earlier in the week.
Leonard and the veterinarian also keep their eyes on the thermometer. It had been in the 90s earlier in the week, and if it were to get to 100, the BLM will have a conversation about whether they want to continue. In the unlikely event that temperatures were to get to 105 at the trap site, which sits at an elevation a little higher than 6,000 feet, the roundup would be automatically called off for the day, Leonard said.
Leonard is direct and friendly. He doesn’t dodge questions and gives honest answers, and there’s sincerity in the subtle ways in which he conveys the message that he doesn’t enjoy what he feels he has to do in capturing the animals. Leonard is himself an owner of many horses and has been for much of his life, and he acknowledges it’s not easy to see them taken into captivity.
While the practice is common in Utah and Nevada, it’s the first wild horse roundup in Colorado in years, and it’s considerably larger than any seen in the past decade. In 2012, the BLM rounded up 20 horses from the West Douglas area, 167 horses were rounded up in 2015, and 86 horses were removed from private land in the Cathedral Creek area of western Colorado in 2017.
The West Douglas event might not be the last roundup in Colorado this year as the BLM is hoping to conduct another horse roundup in the Sand Wash Basin herd management area near Craig this fall. That one will be tough, Leonard said.
“The advocates are not going to be happy when we gather those horses, but we absolutely have to,” he told me.
Thanks to those advocates, “Each (Sand Wash Basin horse) has a name, and a following,” Leonard said. “They’re famous horses.”
In the lead-up to the last big BLM horse roundup in the U.S. — the Onaqui roundup in Utah in July — demonstrators marched on the capitol in Salt Lake City and “Grey’s Anatomy” actress Katherine Heigl urged President Joe Biden to put an emergency stop to the helicopter trapping event. The Onaqui horses are also famous and named, one called “Old Man” is a near 30-year-old grey stallion described as “an icon and a national treasure” by eight-time world champion equestrian rider Marty Irby.
“In April, more than 70 groups sent a letter to Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, who oversees the BLM, asking for a freeze on grazing permits to prevent beef cattle ranchers from taking over dedicated wild horse lands and received no response,” Irby said of the Onaqui roundup. “We followed in May with a letter from more than 90 groups directly to Biden with no response.”
The roundup went forward despite the protests, removing 435 horses from public lands in Tooele County, Utah.
Irby acknowledges that the animals numbers need to be controlled but says helicopter roundups can lead to stampeding and life-threatening injuries.
“Horses are often euthanized after suffering from fractures or lacerations during the herding process,” Irby says.
While the Onaqui roundup resulted in one death of the 435 horses gathered, the Colorado roundup has already resulted in the death of four horses of the 287 rounded up after Day 9. On Tuesday, a stud was euthanized for leg fracture that occurred during the roundup. One foal captured while I was there Saturday was discovered to have a chronic pre-existing injury to its lower chest and was euthanized. On July 29, one stud came into the trap with a large laceration on his back, which Maestas said was already infected with maggots. Another had a pre-existing injury to a lower limb; both were euthanized.
Irby says a better method involves the use of a contraceptive vaccine known as PZP.
“It’s a humane solution that can be administered to female horses via a dart injection,” Irby said.
Leonard said there’s hope in PZP, but in the areas with a lot of horses it’s not working as well because the horses need to be darted twice for the PZP to take effect. Trying to dart every horse in West Douglas twice would be “nearly impossible,” Leonard said, due to the fact that many of the horses look the same.
A PZP darting program is underway in the Sand Wash Basin near Craig, but the wild horse population in that area is still increasing by 13% every year.
Other, smaller herds in Colorado have been able to be controlled using PZP. In the Spring Creek Basin herd management area in southwest Colorado, the PZP population control program is working well, Leonard said.
“We manage that herd pretty much 100 percent with PZP,” Leonard said.
The West Douglas gather is expected to last approximately 19-25 days, but numbers are on the decline. After netting 41 animals on Day 2, and 55 on Day 3, by Day 8 only 11 horses were captured.
“Problem is, they get under these trees and they’re just hard to find,” Leonard said.
The statement reminded me of old Moon-Eye from “Desert Solitaire,” the horse who escaped a rancher and roamed Arches National Monument for more than a decade in the 1950s. Author Edward Abbey wrote about Moon-Eye after spotting “through the obscurity of the branches and foliage, the outline of a tall horse,” hiding under “a giant old juniper with massive twisted trunk.”
Tress like that are part of the reason Leonard suspects there was more than 450 wild horses in the West Douglas area prior to the roundup, despite a recent flyover count coming in at 450.
“In this country, you’re not counting them all,” Leonard said of the horses in the pinon-juniper landscape of western Colorado. “They get up under the trees.”
Finding a new home
The farther the horses venture from water to find vegetation, the more their bodies will deteriorate in the coming months, Leonard said. When they run out of grass, they’ll start eating sagebrush, which is toxic to the animals, causing their body condition to crash. If the horses reach a level 2 or 1 on the body condition scale, they become hard to find homes for after they’re rounded up. That’s why the BLM wanted to conduct the West Douglas roundup immediately following the Oil Springs Fire, Leonard said.
If the roundup sounds a bit like the authorities sending the animals to horse jail, what happens after the capture shouldn’t come as a surprise. Following their stint in the temporary holding facility in Rangely, the animals will be transported to the BLM’s wild horse and burro holding facility in Canon City, located at the Colorado Department of Corrections.
“As part of a cooperative agreement between the BLM and the Colorado Department of Corrections, inmates in the Wild Horse Inmate Program feed, care for and train horses for adoption while gaining meaningful and marketable experience they can use when they reenter the workforce,” the BLM states of the program.
Untrained horses are available from the Canon City facility starting at $25. Some of them will go to events like the Meeker Mustang Makeover, taking place Aug. 28 in Meeker, which gives contestants a chance to compete in events that rank how well they’ve been able to train a wild horse.
The facility also offers trained horses to people who may not have the experience, time or facilities to train a mustang on their own.
“Generally, inmates at Canon City finish training about seven to 10 horses each month,” according to the BLM.
The Colorado Department of Corrections facility in Canon City holds horse adoptions once per month.
—This story was edited to include information from the Wednesday, August 4, gather; to indicate that horses had traveled 4 miles to the trap site (not run 4 miles); and to clarify that while the the Ute people and the Fremont people left wall art in the area, only the Ute art featured horses