They start as tiny specks of color in the distance. Lighter colored ones are easier to see from afar, their shades of white, gray and tan contrasting the array of brown and green landscape that makes up the Sand Wash Basin in northwestern Colorado.
Just over a week ago, a group of wild horses was grazing in the southern part of the basin near Moffat County Road 48. While drought has limited the amount of forage in the basin this summer, the horses almost constantly have their heads down, eating the grass that is there.
They are not skittish like deer. Instead, they calmly move along the landscape, quietly following each other in single-file lines. A foal bobs along with the group, occasionally running up ahead before prancing back to its mom. The band soon crossed over the road and continued on to the east, moving toward the middle part of the 158,000-acre basin bounded by modest peaks on all sides.
Unlike most hoofed animals, wild horses live year-round in small groups called bands, with allied mares and their foals making up the core. Distinct bands have been observed in the Sand Wash Basin for decades, with many of those roaming the southern part known as some of the most popular.
➡️ PHOTOS: Emotions run high during Sand Wash Basin wild horse roundup
On Wednesday, the Bureau of Land Management rounded up that band of horses as part of what they call an “emergency” process to help the horses and the land. By Wednesday’s end, 608 of the nearly 900 horses in the basin had been rounded up, the most in any gather in Colorado’s history.
A majority of Moffat County has been entrenched in exceptional drought for most of the year, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. While there has been more water in the basin as the Western Slope saw its strongest monsoonal push in years, much of it did not make it that far north and BLM says the rain seen in the basin is not enough to support the horses through the winter.
Several high-ranking politicians, including Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, have tried to stop the roundup to no avail. Thousands have called their representatives or sent letters to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, but the BLM has persisted. Soon the number of horses there will be the lowest it has been in decades.
The roundups ended earlier than expected on Thursday, prompting Polis to issue a statement, saying “While I wish this roundup hadn’t even started, I’m encouraged by the opportunity to chart a more humane course for our state’s beloved wild horses. The outpouring we heard shows how much people care for the wellbeing of these iconic Colorado animals, and our administration can play a key role in engaging people who can work together to ensure the health and wellbeing of Colorado’s wild horses for generations to come.”
While there are sharp divides between the BLM and horse advocates about the roundup, one thing in agreement is not wanting another large-scale helicopter gather in Sand Wash Basin.
The question that remains, however, is how the horses will be managed going forward and if the discussion around how these horses are managed will evolve.
“Early in my career the conversation was the same, and I think that the conversation is always going to be the same,” said Steven Hall, communications director for BLM Colorado, referencing a gather in the early 2000s.
“It’s a question of whether or not you believe wild horses should be the dominant use of the land to the exclusion of others or should the horses be managed in balance with other uses of the land,” Hall continued. “I think it’ll be the same (conversation) 20 years from now.”
‘Where the West is still wild’
The BLM estimates nearly 900 horses live in and around the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area to the northwest of the unincorporated town of Maybell in Moffat County.
Along U.S. Highway 40 through Maybell, a sign proclaims it is “Where the West is still wild.”
Descendants of Spanish horses from the Iberian Peninsula, many consider those in the basin to be some of the most famous in the West. The horses have been given names like Midnight Blue, Tango, Hurricane and Brave by advocates that have invested their time and money to extensively document the heard.
Locals, tourists and frequent visitors alike drive through the basin on a road built specifically to view the horses. They spend thousands on photography equipment and gear to view them up close.
The basin is a significant tourist attraction in the northwestern-most Colorado county that is less than a decade away from seeing the coal-fire energy industry it was built around disappear.
The horses are one of three features of Moffat County that Tom Kleinschnitz, director of the Moffat County Tourism Association, mentions in his elevator pitch for local tourism. While there will be fewer horses, he hopes people will still come to see them.
“I think it is a valuable backcountry experience in Moffat County that will be harder to find horses in the future,” Kleinschnitz said. “There will be horses out there. … I think in the long run it will still attract people to our county.”
Thick clouds of dust followed a procession of about 15 cars that made their way down Moffat County Road 67 into the Sand Wash Basin early Wednesday morning.
BLM officials, horse advocates, journalists and other members of the public met in Maybell before making the 28-mile trip to watch Wednesday’s gather operations from an observation site chosen by the BLM about three-quarters of a mile from the actual trap site.
About two dozen people set up on a hill south of where helicopters were driving horses through temporary wings of the trap, with the first group of about 20 horses being driven in before many of them made it to the top of the hill.
The sound of helicopters thumping raised and fell as they buzzed around the basin looking for bands of horses to drive towards the trap, which is centrally located in the basin near the intersection of Moffat County roads 52 and 126.
Tensions on both sides
One day earlier, tensions rose among those on the hill to where one activist was asked to leave. Activists set up in different groups, with some of them feeling others are too friendly to the BLM. Some label the left side of the hill the “cursing corner.” BLM law enforcement officers stand on scene, including BLM Special Agent Mark Jucha from Idaho.
“I know we have a lot of different interests here and different organizations, and that is great. We are just going to make sure everybody gets along,” Jucha said to the group. “If anybody can’t get along, we are going to politely ask you to remove yourself from the hill.”
Some at the site say they serve as an advocate and voice for the horses; others say they are there to support the BLM’s efforts and be a check on others, who they say exaggerate the details of what is happening.
Advocates’ views range from some who feel that removing any horse is devastating, to those who feel a roundup of some sort is necessary, even if they disagree on the number being removed or method of capture. That first group looks at the latter with disdain, saying the attention they brought to the horses also attracted the BLM.
Though the BLM has been looking to round up horses in the basin for years, trying — albeit unsuccessfully — in each of the past three years to get funding approved for a gather, according to Hall. Herds in more drastic situations elsewhere took priority as there was limited space in government corrals and the population continued to grow.
Advocates agree across the board that removing more than 80% of the herd is too many horses. They worry the herd’s genetics, which promote a variety of unique colors and patterns, could be lost. Specifically, most tourists are attracted to the bands that stay in the basin’s southern unit.
“With this group, that means they probably just zeroed out the complete south,” said Meg Frederick, a horse advocate who was at the roundup with the group Return to Freedom, as several more horses entered a BLM trap. “They are gone. Every single one of our favorites.”
As the sound of a helicopter grew louder, those observing the gather Wednesday craned their heads to see which direction it was coming from. Above a cloud of dust to the southeast of the observation hill, a helicopter banked left and right as horses ran ahead.
Advocates immediately called over to BLM officials on the hill to question the speed of the running horses.
“They can run, but you don’t want to run them to excess,” said Hall, who added that BLM is monitoring the contractor to see if they are pushing horses too hard. “You’re probably not going to find a lot of agreement on whether or not that is too fast, too slow or just right.”
Steve Leonard, BLM Colorado’s Wild Horse and Burro specialist, said a veterinarian employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture assesses the horses after they enter corrals and determine if they’re being run too hard.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Leonard said there hadn’t been an instance of horses being run too far or too fast.
During the next two runs from the southwest — the only direction allowing observers to see the horses being pushed for an extended period — the helicopter backed off more, garnering remarks from multiple advocates about the difference in piloting.
Utah-based Cattoor Livestock Roundup Co. is contracted to gather the Sand Wash horses, part of a dozen contracts the company has with the federal government this year totaling nearly $2 million, according to data from USASpending.gov.
Leonard said Cattoor is one of five companies approved to roundup horses for the BLM using helicopters. Since 2008, the company has secured 206 contracts worth almost $30 million, according to spending data.
Chris Maestas, public information officer with the BLM Little Snake Field Office in Craig, said the cost of the Sand Wash gather will be under $300,000, not counting the cost of hay and water for gathered horses.
Contractors used two helicopters to gather horses Wednesday, sometimes teaming up to push a single band of horses. At moments the helicopter was just feet off the ground, dipping behind the basin’s rolling hills, as it pushed the horses toward two long stretches of jute, a burlap-like material used as wings in the trap.
Most of the trap site was not visible from the observation area apart from a short stretch just before horses enter the corral. As horses approach the corrals, a domesticated horse some advocates call a Judas horse — an intentional biblical reference to the disciple that betrayed Jesus — guides them in.
Maestas said he thought there was a pretty good view of the trap location, and other advocates said it was better than an observation area set up last week.
Ben Smith, wild horse and burro specialist for the Northwest BLM district, said the horses ran about 7 miles Wednesday. Observers were not able to see where horses were initially spotted before being driven in.
“(The pilots) have GPS in their aircraft so they can tell exactly how far they are,” Smith said.
A lack of trust
There isn’t much trust between many of the horse advocates and BLM officials. Many question the motives of the gather, the seriousness of the drought and how humane it truly is to use helicopters in the gather.
Frederick, who has been living in the basin since early August and spends a majority of the year living among horses, confronted Smith after gather operations ended Wednesday saying he lied to her the night before when he said they were only targeting a small number of horses beyond the management area.
“Yes, I do,” Smith said, when asked by Frederick if he remembers telling her about Wednesday’s plan the day before. “I try to be honest with you at all times. I give you the best information I’ve got.”
Maestas told reporters that operations would likely be done earlier in the day Wednesday before moving the trap to a new location, but that plan later changed and roundups continued until midafternoon, rounding up 107 more horses. While many advocates believe it was an outright lie, others say it is possible the plan changed after the end of Tuesday’s gather.
Smith said there was a foal euthanized by the BLM on Wednesday, the second horse to die during the roundup. Smith said the 6-month-old horse showed up near the trap site Wednesday afternoon.
“It had some kind of issue with all four legs; it couldn’t properly move or function those,” Smith said, adding that the vet said the horse had likely been that way for a while and that the injury was not gather related.
Smith indicated a veterinarian’s report on the animal would eventually be released.
Advocates said the explanation did not make sense, as they questioned how the horse got to the trap site if it couldn’t properly walk. They also wondered how they would not have noticed a foal in that condition for several weeks when they are so closely documenting the herd.
“Really? This foal just happened to show up here today?” said Stella Trueblood, a volunteer with the Sand Wash Advocate Team. “They don’t believe that we know all the horses. … We have an army of people that report and we know.”
There also exists infighting among the advocates. One contingent believes some of the horses need to be gathered and that drought conditions are threatening the health of the horses and the land, while others do not, instead believing that the BLM is prioritizing other interests above the horses.
“This being a high mountain desert, it’s a pretty fragile area and (other advocates) don’t understand it,” said Aletha Dove, an advocate with Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin who grew up in Steamboat Springs.
Dove said the group has spent $150,000 improving the basin and bringing water to the horses, which for a time required them to run a generator around the clock that only yielded six gallons a minute.
“It would be incredible to be able to feed them for six months off the grasses that we have right now,” Dove said. “I mean, it would literally be a miracle from God to do that, and I think we got our miracle when we got the rain to get them this far.”
Many advocates still point to the horses, which do not appear overly skinny or showing signs of drought impacts.
Smith said horses coming in so far have earned a four or five body score on a scale of one to nine, which is considered a healthy horse. None of the horses gathered are starving right now, he said.
Leonard, the state’s horse specialist, said they are, however, seeing lower body conditions than they would like even if the horses are considered healthy right now.
“This is September. There’s going to be snow and to go in (to winter) with that body condition loss is an immense concern,” Leonard said. “Congress has given us the direction that you are going to manage horses, not just for today, but for 100 years from now. … The more we impact this range, the less horses it will support in the future.”
Trueblood is one of the volunteers who has been working with the BLM to identify certain horses gathered to keep on the range. She said the Sand Wash Advocate Team pleaded with the BLM to not use a helicopter to round up horses. The group has opted to continue working with the BLM, even though it has been tough.
“We have a good working relationship with BLM, but after this, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Trueblood said. “I’m not sure that I can work with them again after this. There are probably members of our group that will, and that’s fine.”
Even with just seconds to see them and from a distance, advocates looking through an 800-millimeter super telephoto camera lens could recognize specific bands and call out the names of horses as they galloped by.
“There’s Michelangelo,” Frederick said as a band of horses was driven into the corral. “Michelangelo was the only grandson of Picasso that was still out there.”
Picasso, a tri-color stallion that most advocates believe to have died, has been called “America’s most famous wild horse” by some, including a Denver TV station. With the capture of Michelangelo, Frederick said she believes that bloodline is gone.
The Sand Wash Advocacy Team supports the herd by using the immunocontraception vaccine PZP to limit its growth, receiving limited — but not satisfying — support from the BLM for these efforts. The group is working with federal officials and contractors to identify 50 horses — 25 stallions and 25 mares — to be released back into the basin after the gather. They’re trying to choose horses that will maintain the genetic diversity and unique colors in the herd.
“We as a group had to stick our necks out for the horses and decide which ones should stay,” said Trueblood, who sorted horses before they were shipped to the BLM’s corrals in Canon City on Wednesday morning.
Most of the horses kept need to be 11 years old or older and none younger than 8 years, Trueblood said. They also cannot keep any mares that have a foal, and mares will be given the PZP birth control before returning.
The advocacy group has also chosen to protect some horses simply because they think it is the compassionate thing to do.
“That mare has been with that stallion for 15 years, and yeah, she is old,” Trueblood said, referring to a pair of horses she was able to keep on the range. “She will never have another foal, but we’re keeping her.”
Wild horses continue to be rounded up across the West, as the federal agency managing them increase efforts to reduce populations to numbers they feel are more manageable.
In March, the BLM estimated there were more than 86,000 horses in 177 different herd management areas across 10 different Western states. There are another 50,000 horses in off-range corrals and pastures across the country that BLM has been unable to find homes for.
According to BLM data as of Aug. 30, about 5,000 horses have been rounded up this year, with other planned gathers hoping to net as many as 12,000 more.
In a 2020 report to congress, the BLM said it intends to increase gathers to round up as many as 20,000 horses a year until management levels are achieved, an effort that could take as many as 18 years. Last year, BLM spent more than $90 million managing horses, about $50 million of which went toward housing previously gathered horses.
There are multiple emergency gathers currently underway or scheduled to start soon using helicopters to round up as many as 3,000 mustangs.
When the BLM reaches its goal of removing 733 horses from the Sand Wash Basin, there will be 163 wild horses remaining, just 18% of the horses that were there two weeks ago.
This brings the population down to the minimum area management level, which is set at between 163 and 362 horses. Some pushed for more horses to be left on the range, but Leonard said resetting the population to the top of the level is not what the levels are for.
“If you gather to a high point of an (area management level), then the next year you would have to gather as well because you would have increased your horses,” Hall said. “That is the cycle we would like to get out of.”
The BLM’s goal would be to manage horses using contraceptives and periodic small bait-and-trap gathers, where horses are lured to food or water and then rounded up, a method that advocates generally prefer.
“Absolutely, my goal is to not have another large gather here,” Leonard said.
The biggest challenge was removing the excess horses, Leonard said. With that done, and a relationship with locals willing to help dart horses, he said he believes they will be able to manage Sand Wash similar to the Spring Creek herd near Grand Junction and the Little Book Cliffs herd in Southwest Colorado.
For Dove, who works with Wild Horse Warriors, the hope is Polis will continue his advocacy for the horses and try to get the state involved. She hopes the Wild Horse Warriors could get grant funding to do a small baited gather when necessary and manage the horses in a way that avoided the extremes.
“We could take off maybe 50 or 60 horses and keep the numbers down and then we wouldn’t have (a herd) this large, the land wouldn’t be overwhelmed,” Dove said.
Advocates like Ginger Fedak, director of the Wild Horse and Burro Project for In Defense of Animals, said birth control is the best way to manage horses going forward, which she said is where the BLM should spend more. Leonard said they are working on a program that would get groups more funding for darting efforts.
When the Sand Wash Advocate Team returns next year to the basin to give horses contraception again, they will have just a fraction of the mares to target. The horses will also likely be harder to find.
Maestas said, in the early 1970s there were just 77 horses in the basin and the horses there now are decedents of them. The BLM has brought the herd to the lower end of the management window before, he said, and the move is essential to managing the herd over the long term.
After Wednesday’s gather, there were no horses to be seen leaving Sand Wash Basin.
In a post Thursday morning, Trueblood wrote an update on Sand Wash Advocate Team’s Facebook page about the prior day’s operations. She wrote she drove along C.R. 48 in the southern part of the basin where the horses were plentiful last week.
“No horses,” Trueblood wrote. “The basin is devoid of life and will not be a place you want to visit.”