With Piceance roundup over, 75% of Colorado’s mustangs have been removed in a year

More than 1,850 of the states' wild horses have been removed in three roundups

Wild horses tumble over a barbed wire fence as they are rounded up with a helicopter in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 28, 2022.
WilsonAxpe Photography/American Wild Horse Campaign

There are 761 fewer wild horses in the Piceance East-Douglas herd after helicopter operations ended on Monday, Aug. 1 in what is now the largest mustang round up in Colorado history.

In three gathers in the last year, the Bureau of Land Management has removed about 1,850 horses from Northwest Colorado — more than 75% of mustangs estimated to roam in the state at the start of last year.

Since July 16, 867 horses have been chased into traps by helicopters through the sagebrush covered high alpine desert in Rio Blanco County.

“This gather is a huge success,” said Eric Coulter, a spokesperson for the BLM based in Grand Junction.

On Monday afternoon, 41 stallions captured in the roundup were released back into the herd management area. Another 56 mares are still in temporary corrals, waiting for a second treatment of fertility control before being released to the basin.

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The other 761 horses have been shipped to a holding facility in Utah — including 18 caught in a bait trap operation that started in June. Six horses were euthanized during the roundup, but BLM officials say a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian determined each of these were needed because of preexisting conditions.

“The fact that we were able to gather 867 horses without any critical injuries or deaths from operations is a huge success,” Coulter said.

Wild horses are chased by a helicopter during a Bureau of Land Management gather in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area in Rio Blanco County on July 19, 2022.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

But many wild horse advocates have been clamoring for an end to this roundup since it started, arguing that running horses in the summer heat with helicopters is inhumane.

Pictures captured by photographer and spokesperson for the national advocacy group the American Wild Horse Campaign Scott Wilson on July 28 show horses tumbling over a barbed wire fence during the roundup.

“This incident was not an accident,” Wilson said in a statement. “This is a risk the agency assumes when it chooses to unnecessarily chase wild horses with helicopters.”

Coulter said contractors do walk around trap sites to flag obstacles like fences prior to chasing horses in, but these horses tripped over one they had missed.

“There was an old dilapidated fence that was kind of hidden in some really tall sagebrush,” Coulter explained. “We weren’t aware of it being there until the horses went through there and tripped over it.”

A mare that just tumbled over a barbed wire fence runs away bleeding while being rounded up with a helicopter in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 28, 2022.
WilsonAxpe Photography/American Wild Horse Campaign

Still, the horses in question were not seriously injured, Coulter said, with the veterinarian treating a mare for “minor lacerations.”

Coulter commended the local group Piceance Mustangs, which has helped the agency to identify which horses would be released back onto the range when operations concluded.

The gather had intended to roundup 1,050 horses total, and then release 300 of them back into the herd management area after being treated with the contraceptive GonaCon.

Coulter said the agency had trouble securing enough GonaCon to carry out that initial plan, which is part of the reason the roundup was stopped before initial targets had been met.

“We did have some issues with being able to obtain enough of the GonaCon vaccine,” Coulter said. “But we also felt like we had a good selection of horses for the herd to be able to release back.”

A mustang checks out its surroundings while grazing just outside the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area on July 11, 2022.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The BLM estimated there were 1,350 horses in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area prior to the start of this roundup. Coulter said the agency plans to do a detailed population estimate this fall or winter to understand how many horses are left.

Bill Mills, the field manager for the BLM’s White River Field Office in Meeker, said his goal is to never have a helicopter round up horses in Piceance again. This echoes comments made by BLM officials after roundups last year in the West Piceance and Sand Wash Basin herd areas.

The BLM’s holding facility in Cañon City has nearly 2,600 horses in its corrals. Overcrowding and an outbreak that killed 145 horses earlier this year prevented horses from this round up from staying in state.

Some may eventually return for adoption events, though none are currently scheduled in Colorado for the rest of the year.

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