Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:13 p.m. to include comment from the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club and 8 p.m. to include comment from Scott Wilson.
The Bureau of Land Management will start an emergency wild horse roundup in the Sand Wash Basin area west of Craig on Wednesday that will seek to remove roughly 80% of the horses from the overpopulated management area.
If the BLM is able to gather more than 700 horses, as planned, it would be by far the largest of its kind in Colorado history.
The population is estimated at 893 horses within the 158,000-acre Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area and surrounding land beyond the planned horse range, far exceeding the population of between 163 and 362 horses that the area can accommodate.
The overpopulation problem gets worse when the area is producing far less for the horses to eat and drink, with drought forcing BLM officials and horse advocates to bring water to the wild horses earlier this year. If left at its current size, officials worry there will be little to no food for horses this winter, causing them to starve.
“With overpopulation of horses, extreme drought, the forage out there has really been devastated,” said Chris Maestas, public information officer for the BLM’s Little Snake Field Office in Craig. “Even though it is starting to green up a bit, that doesn’t mean that there is enough out there to sustain them.”
The hope is that reducing the population now will help the overall herd make it through the winter stronger, with more of the individual horses at larger weights.
“The BLM is committed to maintaining a healthy wild horse herd on health public lands,” said Bruce Sillitoe, manager of the BLM Little Snake Office. “This emergency gather will prevent further deteriorating body condition of the wild horses into the winter due to limited forage resources.”
The Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club has called for the emergency gather to be canceled, saying that the deterioration of the land in the area is due to livestock grazing and not from wild horses.
“We encourage the BLM to promptly use their authority, after environmental analysis and public input, to reduce or eliminate livestock from the (herd management area),” said club wildlife chair Delia Malone in a statement Monday. “No wild horses should be removed from Sand Wash Basin until livestock have been removed and the range has recovered sufficiently to enable a scientific determination of the wild horse appropriate management level.”
Horses in the Sand Wash Basin have become renowned, with many of them having names given to them by horse watchers. With that in mind, Maestas said they are working with the Sand Wash Advocacy Team to identify popular horses and release them.
The plan is to gather about 783 horses in all, with all but 50 slated for adoption at BLM’s Cañon City facility. Of those, about 25 mares will be given birth control before they are returned to the management area.
“A lot of these horses are very treasured horses,” Maestas said.
Maestas said there have been a number of gathers over the years, each in an attempt to keep the size of the herd within the management window for the basin. When the population gets toward the upper end of the desired population, it is generally time to do another gather, he said.
But additional priorities for the BLM, including other horse roundups in the West, made the Sand Wash Basin’s gather a lower priority.
“It’s the kind of thing, with limited budgets, who is in the worst spot?” Maestas said. “It just took some time for us to say, ‘Hey, we’re here, and we need to do something now.’”
The BLM just wrapped up an emergency horse gather in the West Douglas Herd Management Area that removed 457 horses, the most ever removed during a gather in Colorado.
That gather was conducted by using a drive trapping method, where a helicopter pushes horses into temporary corrals. The same method will be used in the Sand Wash Basin. According to a statement from the BLM, the method “has been proven effective and humane.”
Horse advocates like Scott Wilson contend this, saying that using helicopters is inhumane, can scatter family groups and leads to horse injuries.
“A helicopter round-up will traumatize many hundreds of wild horses and young foals, scatter family bands and lead to unrecoverable injuries,” Wilson said in an email.
BLM says they euthanized 10 horses during the West Douglas gather. One horse broke its leg during the gather, and BLM said nine others had a preexisting condition.
Traps to be used include temporary wings that funnel horses toward the corral. When horses reach the wings, often another domestic horse is released to help guide the wild horses into the trap. Once inside, the corral is closed, and the horses are gathered and taken to temporary holding areas where they are sorted out by gender and age.
In 2016, the BLM gathered 166 horses from the Sand Wash Basin but returned 123 of them. Prior to that gather, their population was estimated at about 607 horses.
That specific gather used the bait trapping method — which attracts horses to corrals with food like hay pellets — but it’s better for trapping smaller numbers of horses rather than the record number BLM looks to round up in September.
Horses will likely be available to be adopted around the first of the year.
“When we look at it from a bigger perspective, the safety of all these folks and the horses are a priority,” Maestas said. “What is successful to me? … Nobody gets injured, none of the horses get injured, and we have a successful roundup.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.